When I was a student at Indiana University, my friends and I would follow the winding country roads in the rolling hills of rural Brown County, stopping to poke around in antique stores and order coffee and persimmon pie at the small town cafes. As we traveled along the edges of the Hoosier National Forest, further and further away from I.U., the roads became narrower, rising up and down, curving here and there until the ride had an almost roller coaster feel to it.
It was on one such trip that we stumbled across Story, a hamlet on the verge of being a ghost town, its only occupant the woman running an old general store. Outside was a hand pump for water (with a conveniently placed tin cup which everyone seemed to use without a cleaning in between) and gas pumps with the intriguing feature of being topped by glass crowns. Inside, amongst dusty items we bought pickled baloney—the house specialty- which we washed down with Nehi pop.
Measured by these standards, Story had been a much grander place a century before. Founded in 1851 by Dr. George Story, it was the largest settlement in the area, and between 1880 and 1929, the village had two general stores, a non denominational church, a school house, grain mill, sawmill, blacksmith forge, post office and slaughterhouse. But by the time we arrived, the old grist mill had been abandoned, and the houses either empty or simply gone. Even the road west, once connecting Story to Bloomington, dead-ended at an old iron bridge connected to the site of an old town that was flooded to create Lake Monroe, cutting off easy access to Bloomington and further isolating Story. It seemed, at the time to literally and figuratively be the end of the road for Story.
Most ghost towns remain that way, vanishing bit by bit as the years eat away at brick, wood and memories. People die, or move on, and only ghosts remain. I often assumed that was to be the fate of Story, but one day, on a whim, I made the turn that took me back there.
It was the same curvy road, tracking the small winding creek dipping high and low and narrow with little or no room for error. But when I made the last curve, Story was…well…a different story.
Sure, the general store, built in 1916, retained its tin roof and mottled, rusted metal front, the gas pumps still sat out in front and an old Coca Cola machine stood on the porch, but now flowers cascaded out of window boxes and people came to dine in the farm-to-fork destination restaurant that now occupied the first floor. The basement had morphed into the “Story Still”, so named because moonshine was made in the basement during Prohibition (and probably before and after as well). The town’s houses and mill, restored to their 19th century glory, are now dedicated for overnight guests.
“Brown County lost half its population between 1930 and 40,” owner Rick Hofstetter, a lawyer and avid preservationist, tells me as we walk through the Story gardens where produce for the kitchen is grown. “Because this was so far off the beaten path, it never was torn down for a sub-division. Story is perhaps the best preserved 19th Century rural village in Indiana.”
Wanting to be “faithful to the history of the place,” Hofstetter made sure all work done on the general store and homes where Story residents lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and now are the inn’s guest houses, used lumber indigenous to Brown County and produced in a local sawmill. They tried, as much as possible, to follow the techniques similar to those of craftsmen from a century ago.
“As long as I have stewardship of this building and this village, its character will not change,” says Hofstetter.
This commitment to the past may be one reason why ghosts are said to remain. While at Story, it isn’t unusual to run into a ghost tracker loaded down with equipment. A woman dressed in blue is said to haunt the second floor and she’s honored with a guest room named after her. She doesn’t seem to do much more than show up every once in a while—most often after guests have imbibed a different type of “spirits” in the tavern. And the grand Victorian home on top of the hill, built in 1851 to be occupied by Doc Story and his family, is said to be inhabited by a ghost or two as well.
But besides electric lights and indoor plumbing (both features relatively new to Story), there’s one other change for the better: no pickled baloney on the menu.
For more information call 812-988-2273 or visit storyinn.com.