April showers in Brown County (umbrellas included)

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

The arrival of spring might be described as lenient, merciful and mild. These terms are also the definition of the word clement, Theodore Steele’s middle name.

I’ve never lived in a city, but I expect that city dwellers also have budding expectations as the end of winter becomes more than just wishful thinking. We all await signs of spring — snowdrops, short sleeves — even rain! A bluebird’s trill one day, a drift of daffodils the next. Spring is cumulative.

Actually spring is more of a dance — two steps forward, one step back. After being teased by temps in the low 70s, it’s back to barely above freezing — but great weather for clearing out the flower beds in Selma Steele’s historic gardens. For you, T.C. Steele’s studio and the country home he shared with his wife Selma offer a glimpse into the past and the arrival of a new season, while sheltered from inclement weather.

T.C. Steele staff member Mary Ann Woerner captured this cheery April scene, despite the drizzle.

Although the site has much to offer on sunny days, (a hike along our wooded trails, a meditative moment at the cemetery, or a stroll through the historic gardens) it’s just as inspiring when the forecast turns gray. Sure, you could remain comfortable and cozy at home, but why not experience a bit of life in the early 1900s — and feel even more comfy in comparison?

Just as 40 degree temperatures feel cool in April but warm in January, comfort is relative. The Steele’s lifestyle (a term yet to be invented in their day) was opulent compared to that of their new Brown County neighbors, but mainstream in Indianapolis, where they usually wintered until 1916.

Eventually, Nature’s attractions overcame convenience, and T.C. and Selma decided to stay in Brown County year-round. Our schedule now coincides with theirs — we’re open year-round — whatever the weather. Don’t let the rain stop you from visiting. We’re high and dry on Bracken Hill.*

Experience spring in both 1907 and 2011. Let your expectations rise along with the waters of Salt Creek. Next time it rains, take a trek to Brown County and enjoy art, history and nature on 211 acres. Leave your umbrellas at home — we have plenty to spare.

*If spring floods leave the road underwater, call 812.988.2785 for detour directions.

Bringing Civil War History to Life in the 21st Century

Spring is slowly budding around the city and basketball fever is in the air. Many who choose to enjoy downtown Indianapolis during this time of year are pleasantly surprised to come upon a program that takes place annually at the Indiana State Museum on the last Saturday in March.

For the fifth year, the museum is hosting the 1st Irish Infantry of the 35th Indiana Volunteers, a local Civil War re-enactors group.  This is always one of my favorite programs to work as visitors to the museum have a chance to interact with re-enactors who portray both soldiers and civilians from the Civil War-era. Inside the museum, visitors learn about all sorts of aspects of daily life for soldiers as well as how Irish immigrants answered the call of duty along with native-born Americans. Ladies walk around the museum in their mid-19th century clothing and discuss how the war affected daily life on the home front. Everyone seems to enjoy the outdoor portion the best as the re-enactors use the museum’s front lawn to demonstrate drills and then allow visitors to participate in a mock skirmish.

Don’t miss this chance to interact with history! The 5th Annual Civil War Spring Drill is Saturday, March 27 from noon to 3:30 p.m. And while you are here, don’t miss a chance to visit the two Abraham Lincoln exhibitions currently showing at the museum.

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Adding Seasoning

“Seasons come and go. Eternal change — but always with their gifts of beauty.”

tc_steele_studio_signSo reads this sign by the studio door quoting T.C. Steele. Recently, I’ve asked myself why I pre-fer spring and fall to summer and winter. Not being a Minnesotan like my sister, the downside of winter seems pretty obvious, but what’s wrong with summer? It’s warm, it’s great for gardening (the only time for tomatoes) and summer means my living space is doubled. (I would rather have my screened-in porch than an extra bedroom.)

The calendar says that summer begins on June 21, but I think it arrived overnight. The woods are suddenly lush and green (but with fewer shades of green). Just last week I didn’t have to leave the porch to watch the birds and squirrels. Now the leaves are so dense I have to guess at what’s rustling around out there.

I think it’s the change of spring and fall that I like so much. Summer and winter are like meat and potatoes — very filling. They fill up the year, but they need spring and fall, however brief, to provide the seasoning. We welcome spring as an end to winter, and enjoy fall bittersweetly — knowing what lies ahead.

Both Selma and T.C. Steele surely appreciated all of the seasons. The artist painted many winter scenes en plein aire — not from the comfort of his studio. They added porches as fast as they enclosed them, to stay close to the natural world around them and more in tune with the changing seasons (and to stay cool in those pre-AC days).

After a few years summering in Brown County, the Steeles made The House of the Singing Winds their year-round home. I wonder if it was so they wouldn’t miss that day in May when spring suddenly turned into summer, long before it was official.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

We do daffodils!

tc_steele_daffodils_01I came to the T.C. Steele State Historic Site early last spring, after working for many years at Brown County State Park. At first, everything seemed different — the scale, the pace, the historic aspect. Then I answered my first phone call from someone wondering when the daffodils would peak.

Starting around September, Brown County State Park receives numerous calls like this from people asking about ‘peak’ fall color, so I was slightly amused by the daffodil question. Then they began to bloom. Fall color vistas and our ‘sweeping drifts of daffodils’ may differ in scale, but I learned that they rate the same on the WFS (Wow Factor Scale).

After her move to Brown County in 1907, inspired by the abundance of wildflowers around her, Selma Steele made plans to ‘naturalize’ flowers over the hillsides surrounding her new home. She wrote in her memoir, The House of the Singing Winds,

A day came when I set out, as a first experiment, a handful of Scotch daffodils. Now … this bulb garden covers many of the hillsides. There are many varieties, blooming virtually by the thousands and thousands*, contributing an unearthly and elusive beauty to the landscape, all enveloped in the soft atmosphere of springtime.

tc_steele_daffodils_03Well I won’t even try to top that description. Why not visit and see the results of Selma Steele’s plan? You could call ahead to find out the perfect day to see the most spectacular show of spring color, but why bother? Selma planted such a variety and abundance of flowers that even if the daffodils aren’t ‘peaking’, something else surely is.

*Perhaps Carl Sagan read The House of the Singing Winds.



Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

The synchronicity of spring

The 100+-year-old apricot tree at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

The 100+-year-old apricot tree at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

March 20, 2009 — the first day of spring. The lone apricot tree was just beginning to bloom, I didn’t have my camera with me, a frost was predicted, and I would be away for the next few days. I was sure that my ‘photo-op’ would be lost by the time I returned. But Tuesday morning I was greeted by the tree in full bloom, along with an overcast sky, which my photographer-sister assures me is actually preferable to Willie Nelson’s blue skies. So I got my pictures.

The poor tree is showing its age — it’s not telling, but it must be nearly 100 years old. Early this spring when the tree was still dormant, a visitor who ‘just happened’ to be a hobby orchardist took a few scions from the tree. He’ll try to propagate replicas of our historic fruit tree by grafting these cuttings onto appropriate rootstock. The perfect timing of his visit was the first instance of synchronicity.

The next came a few hours after I’d taken my pictures. While looking through copies of Selma’s scrapbooks, I came upon a letter she’d written to her friend and summertime neighbor, Mae Weinstein. She wrote on March 20, 1945, “I found the forsythia in full bloom. Our apricot tree burst into flower overnight. I do hope there will be no freeze to interrupt the flowering period. It is so early for my tree to be out. Generally the Shadbush comes first. It is still without a sign of blossom.”

So 64 years later, as I felt compelled to write about our apricot tree, we had nearly-identical seasonal conditions on the first day of spring (including no Shadbush in flower). I wonder what I’ll discover about the flowering quince, which is now just starting to open up? I’ve already noticed that its color is a near-match to the fresh coat of paint on the “House of the Singing Winds.”

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.