Brown County, Indiana, hides its treasures at first. Nashville, the county's seat and largest town, is tiny, with fewer than 1,000 people. Yet visitors who look closely will find many places worth visiting: shops, inns, restaurants--and artists' studios.
Throughout the county, in fact, green spaces, sweeping vistas, tiny towns, artists' studios and gardens offer explorers of all sorts exactly what they need to refresh and nurture the spirit. This atmosphere is what drew artist T.C. Steele here a century ago--and what still draws artists and visitors to Brown County today.
Here are 14 ways you can enjoy Brown County's relaxed and serene vibe.
Brown County belongs to its forests rather than the other way around. Indianapolis' sprawling suburbs halt well before a two-lane road ventures into this sanctuary of hills, meadows and woods that have their own powers to soothe and inspire.
Daisies wave along roads, and petunias cascade from pots and planters in the towns. Michael's Flowers in Nashville (left) is a maze of blooms and displays, as is the nearby Flower and Herb Barn, both owned by Mike Nickels. "Flowers touch something inside all of us...even though we may not even realize it's there," Mike says.
Flower and Herb Barn 
Trails quickly reach places where people don't seem to belong. In Brown County State Park (left), a doe and two spindly-legged fawns freeze when they see hikers--then leap daintily into the trees. Nearby, a carpet of newly sprouting ferns seems too pretty and delicate to walk on.
Late-spring showers pour down, as refreshing as a cold drink on a warm afternoon. Rain taps the tin roof of the Story Inn, a converted general store that's really all that's left of the town of Story (population: 5). Patrons linger over lunch. The rain will pass, so all anyone can do is wait, a gift when there's no schedule to keep.
Story Inn 
In the morning, mist cloaks the hills and glows in soft light (left). By midday, the contours sharpen, and ridges march for an improbable distance. This panorama unfolds from just about every ridge. Linger over it at Hesitation Point in Brown County State Park with a picnic spread on a perfectly positioned table.
Roads into Brown County thread through cliffs and tunnels of trees and a kaleidoscope of greens--the brooding, cool, almost brown-gray of the deep woods and the light-dappled lime of a sudden clearing. After more than 40 years painting in Brown County, artist Lillian Dunnigan says it's still a challenge to get the color just right: "So many shades...all different, depending on the light and time of year."
Brown County traces its artistic roots to painter T.C. Steele. In 1907, he purchased the land that now makes up the T.C. Steele State Historic Site and built a home that became known as the House of the Singing Winds. Artists from around the country came to visit Steele and to paint. Many stayed, forming the Brown County Art Colony.
Now, potters, painters, fabric artists and others work in studios in Nashville and in the surrounding countryside. Each artist's work is compelling in its own way. Elizabeth O'Rear (left) paints in an airy home studio, located beside a pond and surrounded by 10 acres.
Elizabeth O'Rear 
Artists here put aside their projects to visit with those who happen by and to teach them--not just other professionals, but anyone inspired to learn.
Dixie Ferrer (left) believes everyone has a creative spark. That's why she and a group of other artists teach painting, mosaics and other art forms in their studios. "Life is like a three-legged stool; the legs are creativity, spirituality and health," Dixie says. "The first thing we give up is creativity. We need all three for balance."
In Brown County, gardening is art, and art is gardening. One flows into the other in patches that flourish beside galleries and artists' studios.
Cheri Platter's paintings of flowers on her pottery (left) improved when she started growing them. She says, "There's something satisfying about working in clay; it's the same in the garden, when you have your hands in the dirt."
Small gardens bloom next to many shops and homes. Public gardens can be explored at Brown County State Park's Nature Center, the Brown County Public Library and the T.C. Steele Historic Site.
Selma Steele, T.C. Steele's wife, had a passion for flowers. She had been a painter before she moved to Brown County, but after she arrived, gardening became her focus. The Steeles transformed their hilltop acreage into elaborate gardens and orchards. The gardens, now partially restored, erupt into riots of blooms around their home.
Cabins hide in the hills, while small towns have charming inns and B&Bs. Among our choices:
Abe Martin Lodge Brown County State Park surrounds an updated Civilian Conservation Corps lodge (left) and newer neighboring cabins.
Artists Colony Inn Local artists' works decorate this inn in Nashville.
Cornerstone Inn The newer, Victorian-style hotel has individually decorated rooms and delicious hot breakfasts.
Moondance Vacation Homes A dozen vacation homes scatter across Brown
Abe Martin Lodge 
Artists Colony Inn 
Cornerstone Inn 
At Nashville's Artists Colony Inn, the potpie crust is shaped like a painter's palette (left). At the Nashville House down the street, fried chicken comes with mashed potatoes and from-scratch fried biscuits and apple butter. It's the sort of food that, if you had a grandmother on a farm, she might serve for a Sunday dinner.
To nurture your inner artist, stop by the Figtree Gallery and Coffee Shop. Order the signature Kicking Gorilla and hang out with artists and other regulars.
Artists Colony Inn 
Nashville House 
They're all over, and they're not just for decoration. These are porches meant for spending time: the porches overlooking the woods at Brown County State Park (left), the porch lined with rockers perfect for watching Nashville's comings and goings at the Cornerstone Inn and the screened enclosure at the entrance to Chris Gustin's Homestead Weaving Studio.
Chris' loom clacks gently as she moves the shuttle and the pedals in a smooth ballet. A breeze rattles the screen, and a fountain bubbles into a pond outside the window. Chris says, "I love sitting here so much, that I don't even think of it as work."
Actually, there seems to be no other way--no direct, efficient approaches. Routes with names like Grandma Barnes Road meander to places like the Bean Blossom Covered Bridge, good for at least five minutes of contemplating whether it's safe to drive across.
Even State-46 and State-135 sidle up to where they're going and dawdle through the hills. But it's the kind of traveling that puts you in the moment, and there's a sort of calming repetition to the turning, climbing uphill and coasting down.
You can wander around T.C. Steele's House of the Singing Winds to spots where he liked to set up his paints and canvases and spend the day. Alone, looking out over the hills, you see the landscape he painted and understand why he loved Brown County.
Steele wrote, "...These sanctuaries of spirit are necessary for sanity and growth and I use the word 'sanctuary' advisedly; for they are places not only for recreation and enjoyment but inspiration."
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2007.)