By Harry McCawley
It’s hard to take down a 166-year old mileage marker.
At least, it was pretty difficult and took a long time to remove an iconic life-sized figure carved in sandstone from its Brown County home.
It hasn’t been for a lack of effort. It’s been stolen by teen-aged thrill seekers and put on display for their friends in the living room of their Indianapolis home. They also affixed their signatures to the base.
It’s been used for target practice.
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Its head has been lopped off, possibly as an energy-savings gesture because the base was left intact, saving vandals the muscle power to cart the whole statue away.
And now the base is gone, leaving only a pile of stone shards in front of the house where it performed its directional duties through several generations of travelers in Brown County.
All that said and done, the Stone Head marker that has given directions along with miles to travel to such destinations as Columbus, Indianapolis, Fairfax and Sparksferies (sic) lives on.
On recent Saturday mornings during the Farmers Market in the Cummins Inc. parking lot, it’s been on display at a booth promoting its availability for purchase at the upcoming Downsize Me Sale July 29 at Mill Race Center.
This particular version of Stone Head is a copy of the original and, for would-be purchasers with tender backs, is made of a mixture of fiberglass and wood composite materials, which are much lighter than the original’s sandstone.
Lighter it might be, but for area motorists familiar with the original version the 2017 one is a mirror image of what renowned 19th century stonecutter Henry Cross created in 1851.
Even the nearby towns and their distances from the Belleville Pike site have been retained. Too bad a couple of the locations chiseled into the material weren’t. Fairfax is currently under the waters of Lake Monroe, and it’s been decades since anyone used a ferry to cross the Muscatatuck River on the Sparks Ferry 28 miles south of the marker.
The replica is being promoted for sale by Columbus artist Bill Melvin on behalf of a friend from his college days, Marion County artist Phil Knotts. In addition to his art, Phil has a large collection of head figures — a collection so large that he has entered the downsize phase of life.
“I became acquainted with his version of Stone Head when I was visiting him at his home,” Bill recalled last week. “I instantly recognized it because it was so similar to the original.”
He frequently passed by that original on trips through Brown County when he lived in Columbus. He had called Columbus home until 1983, when he moved to another city, but returned here for good in 2007.
By that time Stone Head had lived quite a life but still had much of the charm that had helped make Brown County a tourist attraction.
Its history is arguably more interesting than its art form.
For one thing, it was created because its sculptor didn’t want to be assigned to crews building roads through Brown County.
Henry Cross made his living in farming and creating headstones for graves. The latter served him well because at that time property owners could avoid paying taxes by agreeing to work on road crews for a specified period of time. In lieu of the manual labor, Cross offered to create a permanent mileage marker on Belleville Pike.
While it might lack in artistic beauty, Stone Head apparently became a talked-about feature that drew the attention not only of his Brown County neighbors but visitors on horse and buggy from neighboring counties.
It retained that uniqueness through the rest of the 19th and well into the 20th century, but there were signs that not everyone appreciated it. A neighborhood child decided to put a dent in one of his eyes, and it became a popular activity to use the marker as the target for local marksmen.
It was in the 1970s, however, that things really started to go downhill. In 1974 it was stolen.
The theft drew the attention of law enforcement throughout the state, including officers from the Indiana State Police and Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department.
Although the theft took place in Brown County, a tip as to its possible location came into the Indiana State Police and Bartholomew County Sheriff Jimmie McKinney. State Trooper Jon Oldham and Bartholomew County Deputy Mike Coy were sent to check out a home in Indianapolis.
No one answered after they had arrived and knocked on the door, but the front window drapes had been pulled back and the officers had a panoramic view of the living room. In the middle of the room was Stone Head. Instead of serving as a directional sign, it had been converted into a hat rack.
Since they did not have a search warrant, the officers waited at the scene until one of the teen-aged occupants arrived. They expressed interest in the statue, and the teen invited them inside for a closer look. After confirming that the hat rack was indeed Stone Head, the officers identified themselves and took possession of the statue.
Eventually it was returned to Brown County, but its troubles continued. Last November a vandal used a sledgehammer to knock off the statue’s head, leaving only the base intact.
It remained that way until earlier this year, when Bill Melvin drove by the location and couldn’t see the damaged base.
“There was only a small pile of stones around where it had been located,” he said.
Fortunately, Phil Knotts had an ample inventory of Stone Head photos to work from in creating his 21st century version of Henry Cross’ sculpture.
Since it’s made of lighter materials and is more susceptible to the elements, its next home will most likely be an interior one.
Let’s just hope that it has a more useful purpose than serving as a hat rack.