In 1851, an Ohio physician named George P. Story came to the hilly wilderness of Brown County, which had incorporated less than two decades earlier. His original 173 acres weren’t a town then, not even by the standards of the mid-1800s. Within two decades, his small medical practice had attracted an inn, a grist mill, a small school, and a few other family farms.
Residents and neighbors began affectionately referring to the settlement as “Storyville”. While it never erupted with prosperity, the area survived, an accomplishment in the late 1800s. In 1882, another doctor bought out Dr. Story’s medical practice and built a general store/post office, transforming the rugged settlement into an official Hoosier town.
Story’s grist mill and general store attracted business from other villages in what would become the Van Buren Township, and Dr. Story invested in other essential businesses of frontier life: blacksmith shop, slaughterhouse, non-denominational church, and saw mill. Story, Indiana, had become a quintessential example of Indiana frontier life.
In 1900, Alra and Mary Wheeler purchased Story’s general store and saw mill and focused on not just surviving in the Brown County hills, but thriving. They expanded the general store, increasing its on-hand stock and investing in a half-dozen “huckster wagons”. Essentially a general store on wheels, these wagons would roam the rural roads, traveling to villages, homes and farms to sell directly, a cutting-edge service strategy at the time.
Contemporary journalists described Wheeler in flattering terms: “…his stock was one of the largest in the county.” That odd compliment was a significant indicator of an owner’s business high status in the early 1900s. It meant that Wheeler could afford to purchase and store large quantities of inventory.
After Alra’s passing in 1924, the general store and saw mill—by then the undisputed heart of the town—peaked in reputation and traffic, but this peak didn’t last long.
Any Hoosier that has crisscrossed Indiana knows our state’s topography varies dramatically. Thousands of years ago, prehistoric Lake Chicago, a glacier that once covered the Midwest (and would eventually melt to become our Great Lakes), scraped Indiana’s northern half flat and left its southern half a landscape of gentle hills and valleys.
For Story, Indiana, these hills would be at first a blessing, then a curse.
At first, the hills made long-distance travel treacherous and inconvenient. Frontier folk provided business to the most convenient outlets at hand—such as those at Story. This allowed the town’s lumber and retail industry to prosper.
By the 1920s and 30s, however, the “low-hanging fruit” of Brown County’s primary resource, hardwood lumber, had been picked clean.
Although thousands of acres of rich lumber remained, the hilly terrain made it too difficult to transport the felled lumber, even to nearby Story. Other agricultural prospects were slim: the hills too rocky, the soil too sandy. In a single decade (1930-1940), half of the county’s population moved on to better prospects, and this ended Story’s prosperity.
The emigrating population sold their land holdings to the state of Indiana, which added them to Brown County State Park, the largest state park in Indiana, and one of the largest in the United States. This emigration forever altered Brown County’s culture from one of progressing prosperity to rustic wilderness.
Over the next few decades, Story’s businesses shuttered one-by-one, leaving only the Story Inn, a charming and popular bed and breakfast. Tourism is a hard income, even at the best of times, and the inn’s traffic couldn’t sustain an entire town. In 1999, the town of Story declared bankruptcy and was sold at auction, demoted by Indiana to an unincorporated community in the Van Buren Township.
Thankfully, the story of Story didn’t end there.
Story’s new owners decided to invest in the town rather than dismantle it. They expanded the town’s attractions, turning it into an experience rather than a location, and offered facilities for event hosting, centered on Story Inn. The former homes of its prominent residents became guest cottages.
In May, visitors flood in for the Indiana Wine Fair, and in the melting snow of early March, they return to enjoy the National Maple Syrup Festival. The ever-growing niche of rustic destination weddings also found a home at Story Inn, with full-service packages offered year around.