Bethany Presbyterian Church
466 E. Creek Road, US-231
Spencer, IN 47460 – USA
Latitude: 39.39101°N, Longitude: 86.76086°W
An Artist is Born
Theodore Clement (T.C.) Steele, a celebrated Indiana artist, was born on September 11, 1847, on a farm about five miles west of Gosport, Indiana.
He was the eldest child of Samuel Hamilton Steele and Harriet Newell (Evans) Steele. T.C. Steele lived on his family’s farm until he was four years old, alongside his younger brother, Charles Armstrong Steele. During this time, he was surrounded by nearby family members who also lived on farms in Owen County.
“The little log house in an orchard where it seems to me it was always morning and the sun always shining, the spring and my grandfather’s brick house a mile away are about all the memories I have of this early home.”T.C. Steele1
T.C. Steele would grow up to become a renowned Indiana artist, best known as an impressionist landscape painter. Early in his career, he painted portraits of politicians, businessmen, and people of influence to earn a living. In 1913, he was elected to the National Academy of Design in New York City, confirming his standing as Indiana’s most famous artist at that time.
Sweet Owen County
T.C. Steele’s family has a deep heritage in Owen County, and many of his relatives are laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery in Spencer, Indiana. Among his close family members were his grandfather, James Armstrong Steele, his great-grandfather, Ninian McMahon Steele, and his great-grandmother, Jane Brandon (Armstrong) Steele.
Although much of the Steele-owned property and farms have long changed hands and now rest in the hands of private property owners, one little church, Bethany Presbyterian, remains standing and accessible today. And visitors can still appreciate the beauty of the area, fondly referred to as “Sweet Owen County,” when driving through its hills and valleys.
The Family Church
In 1820, Bethany Presbyterian Church was co-founded by T.C. Steele’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother, Ninian and Jane Steele, among other community members. At first, services were held in Ninian and Jane’s log cabin. Within a year, the congregation raised enough funds to build a meeting house of hand-hewn Poplar logs about a mile away.
In 1825, the meeting house was dismantled and rebuilt closer to Ninian and Jane’s property. Positioned at the periphery of Beech woods, it had two entrances on the southern side: one facing west for women and another facing east for men. A stone marker is erected today on this site, and can be viewed by the public from the West side of 1700 Phillips Road (GPS: 39.36953° N, 86.73727°W). This marker is on private property and does not allow visitors. Please do not trespass.
In 1872, Bethany Presbyterian moved to its current location 12 miles west of Gosport and 3 miles north of Spencer, very near the farmhouse where T.C. Steele was most likely born. The white gable-front building was built at a cost of $1500. It rests on a foundation of local field stones, and its floor joists are hand-hewn Poplar logs. Twentieth-century improvements include eight stained glass windows bought in 1916 for $96.95 and a vestibule added to the front of the church in 1945. In 2022, Owen County resident Carol Parker restored and reopened this historic building.
When visiting Bethany Church, you will want to sit on any of the eighteen original pews made of Poplar wood and assembled with the now extinct type of square nails (used in the 1700s and 1800s) that were cut and finished by a blacksmith. The original pine floors will squeak and creak as you walk to your pew. Be sure to study the six stained glass windows, (three on each side of the church) installed in 1916. Each window is inscribed with names of loved ones, including Jane Steele Westfall, the daughter of Ninian and Jane Steele. Look for the framed copies of the original formation documents in the church entryway.
Left: Bethany Presbyterian Church in 1941, Right: Stained glass window honoring Nancy Steele Westfall, T.C. Steele’s cousin
In 1850, T.C. Steele’s parents sold their farm in Owen County for $600 and moved to Waveland, Indiana. The precise reason for the move is unknown, but it is known that the Steele’s had relatives in the surrounding area. Some suggest the move was due to education opportunities at the Waveland Academy, one of the most prestigious academic schools in the Midwest.
Return to Owen County
T.C. Steele returned to Owen County twice after his family’s move to Waveland. The first time was in 1895 when the Steele family, along with students, visited Spencer for the summer and rented Ludlow Hall, the former estate of family friend Calvin Fletcher, Jr.
“The eighteen-room mansion with its handsomely landscaped grounds made a delightful summer home, and it was a lively one, with Daisy, Shirley, and the students there.”Theodore L. Steele1
Fletcher built his mansion near Spencer in the early 1870s. Built in the style of the Second Empire of France, the house included a Mansard roof, dormer windows, external window shades, and a stucco façade affixed to thick brick walls. A stoop on the back side of the house looked out on the lawn, pasture, and pond. The house was named after the family ancestral home built in Vermont by Jesse Fletcher. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was sold and converted to the editorial offices of an agricultural journal. No artifacts or remnants of Ludlow Hall remain today.
T.C. Steele’s next known return to Owen County was on August 9, 1907, the day he married his second wife, Selma Neubacher. In her memoirs, Selma describes heading to Bloomington from Indianapolis by train that day. During a stop at Gosport, Steele suggested that until the Bloomington train arrived, he would like to show her a part of Gosport he visited as a boy with his father. She further shares that he took his sketch pad with him and remarked once completed with the sketch, he would come back someday to paint it.
Related Steele Works
1895, Oil on canvas
T.C. Steele painted this canvas during his stay at Ludlow Hall. It is one of the few known works by Steele from Owen County and should not be mistaken for Vernon Beeches, which he painted three years earlier. While both paintings have a similar composition of trees, they are situated in different locations, captured at different times, and with distinct color palettes. Beech Trees features a cool and consistent palette of green, blue, and white, which contrasts with the warm and yellow tones of Vernon Beeches.7
At Entrance of Park
1915, Oil on canvas
In 1916, T.C. Steele was visited by an Owen County library board member, T.G. Pierson. In this meeting, Pierson persuaded Steele to display 20 of his paintings for a small exhibition to take place in the library. Upon conclusion of the exhibit, the library was able to purchase one of the paintings in the exhibit. This painting, At Entrance of Park hangs in the library today.
60 S. Main Street
Spencer, Indiana 47460 – USA
On display in the entrance to the Owen County, Indiana Courthouse is an enlarged painted copy of one of T.C. Steele’s most popular paintings, Selma in the Garden. The mural is 4 feet by 8 feet, painted on plywood, with house paints. This work was painted by 15 young people, who took a Saturday art class at the Owen County Art Guild in 2013. Fourteen art students signed the painting on the back. The young artists ranged in age from 4 – 18 years old.8
You can see Steele’s original in person at T.C. Steele Historic Trail stop number 6, the House of the Singing Winds.
10 S. Montgomery Street
Spencer, Indiana 47460 – USA
In 1916, T.C. Steele was visited by a library board member, T.G. Pierson (library was then called Spencer Library). In this meeting, Pierson persuaded Steele to display 20 of his paintings for a small exhibition to take place in the library. Upon conclusion of the exhibit, the library was able to purchase one of the paintings in the exhibit. This painting, “Entrance to a Park” hangs in the library today. The genealogy section maintains an outstanding collection of research files on Steele family in Owen County. Steele collection files also include general articles about T.C. Steele.
Former Carnegie Library built in 1911
110 East Market Street
Spencer, Indiana 47460 – USA
The Owen County Heritage & Culture Center, a Craftsman style Carnegie Library Building, was constructed in 1911 at the heart of Spencer Town Square. Opening its doors in January 1912, it served as a beloved community library for more than 85 years. Today, it operates as a non-profit organization, established by dedicated community leaders, with a mission to showcase the rich history of Owen County.
Within the museum, you’ll discover a remarkable collection of artifacts originating from Spencer native Ernest Moore “Dick” Visquesney, a renowned sculptor of national acclaim. His masterpiece, the iconic sculpture “Spirit of the American Doughboy,” can be admired on the northwest corner of the courthouse lawn. Visquesney’s final resting place is at Riverside Cemetery. Notably, he also played a pivotal role in the creation and design of the Tivoli Theater, which originally opened its doors on New Year’s Eve in 1928. This magnificent theater, built in the Mission Revival Style, underwent extensive restoration in 2021, returning it to its original splendor. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit this architectural gem, conveniently located just off the Town Square at 24 Washington Street.
gosport historic district
Gosport is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a district comprising approximately five square blocks in the center of the town. Roughly bounded by Church Street, Walnut Street, Fifth Street, and Third Street.
The noted book “House of the Singing Winds” reports Samuel Hamilton Steele (T.C. Steele’s father) was a farmer and saddle maker, and his saddle shop was on the north side of the square in Gosport, four or five miles east of the farm on which he lived.
The buildings on Main Street from this time are gone, but a walk down Main Street can provide a feel of what this town was like when Samuel Steele worked there in his saddle shop.
McCormick’s creek state park
250 McCormick’s Creek Park Road
Spencer, Indiana 47460 – USA
McCormick’s Creek is the oldest state park in the state of Indiana. This 1833-acre park, dedicated on July 4, 1916, is located in Owen County with a short driving distance of 4 miles to downtown Spencer, Indiana.
It is not clear if T.C. Steele (1847-1926) visited this park near his birthplace in Owen county. We do know he was alive when the park was established in 1916, and was living at his home and studio “House of the Singing Winds” in Belmont, Indiana which is 29 miles from McCormick’s Creek State Park.
This park has a spectacular limestone canyon, flowing creek and scenic waterfalls looping to Wolf Cave. Hiking through Wolf Creek Nature Preserve and exploring the historic Statehouse Quarry near White River which furnished limestone used for the Indianapolis statehouse. A lodge, full service restaurant and cabins and located on the property, and swimming in the summer.
Steele Family Burial Sites
498 W. Jefferson Street
Spencer, Indiana 47480 – USA
Riverside Cemetery welcomes the public with open gates, and is easily accessible. Among the numerous resting places within, you’ll discover a significant presence of the Steele family, with 12 members laid to rest here.
One notable tribute stands out among the gravestones—a remarkable Civil War cannon. Etched upon it is the name of Ninian Steele, serving as a lasting commemoration.
The nearby Soldiers Memorial Pavilion was constructed from geode rocks in 1939. Designed by Ernest Moore “Dick” Visquesney, a renowned sculptor from Spencer, it stands as a testament to his skill and artistry. Notably, the monument bears a prominent “Star” symbol, a nod to Visquesney’s service during the Spanish American War. While exploring the cemetery, be sure to visit the sculpture at Visquesney’s family burial plot called The Unveiling.
T.C. Steele’s great-grandfather, Ninian McMahon Steele, is buried in Bethany/Surber Cemetery. This cemetary is on private property and does not allow visitors. Please do not trespass.
Hester Ann Steele, T.C. Steele’s younger sister, is laid to rest at Steele/Fain Cemetery. This small cemetery is located on private property and not accessible to the public. Please do not trespass.
- Stamp your digital passport at Bethany Presbyterian Church.
- View Entrance to a Park at the Owen County Library.
- Find the Selma in the Garden tribute mural in the Spencer County Courthouse.
- Look for Steele family headstones, a geode pavilion, and a canon-shaped Civil War memorial honoring T.C. Steele’s grandfather at Riverside Cemetery. Find Ernest Moore “Dick” Visquesney, Sculpture “The Unveiling” at the Visquesney family plot in Riverside Cemetery.
- Visit the Tivoli Theater in Spencer (commissioned by Visquesney) .
- Explore Gosport Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Visit McCormick’s Creek State Park and stay at the Canyon Inn when exploring the Trail.
1 The House of the Singing Winds, Selma N. Steele, Theodore L. Steele, Wilbur D. Peat, Indiana Historical Society, 1966
2 Spencer Evening World
3 “Owen Leader”, Spencer, Indiana, Wednesday, Feb 16, 1918, ‘Library Board to Have Exhibit Of Work by T.C. Steele – Will Select One For library At That Time”
4 Rachel Berenson Perry, Brushstrokes: Traces of T.C. Steeles Indiana Footprints, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Fall 2011, Volume 23, Number 4.
5 History of Presbyterian Church pamphlet
6 Gosport History Museum, historic Gosport photo
7 The Passage, Marty Krause, pg. 146,147
8 Art Mentors, Owen County Art Guild for this project: Annie Bright and B.J. Bennet