By Jessica Williams
A weathered barn, its rafters decorated with dried lavender, once stood beyond Spring Mill Road where 146th Street winds toward Ditch Road. Inside, floral wreaths, herbs, paper, candy, molasses cookies and sugar cookies adorned with single center raisins were for sale. Local kids rode their 10-speeds down Six Points Road to 146th Street for those giant cookies, a bottled Coke, or some Candy Buttons and then hopped on the tire swing in the front yard.
The barn was the Herb Barn, the work of Alan and Barbara Brookie White. It attracted busloads of people for fresh herbs, garden tours and basket lunches for more than 35 years after opening in 1969. This one-time destination near the Carmel and Westfield border aimed to provide an escape from the ordinary, and a piece of it can be found in Westfield’s Liberty Park.
“I think I was born with a love of flowers from an early age,” said Alan, a 1955 Westfield High School graduate, as he sat on his couch in Yountsville, a small town near Crawfordsville.
Alan, whose résumé includes working for Joe Letterman, David Letterman’s father, in his floral shop at 34th Street in Indianapolis, spent his senior year working for local florists. During that time, he met Barbara, another Westfield graduate. They married four years later, rented a small apartment in downtown Carmel and began collecting antiques for it.
Barbara, an artist who would attend the John Herron Art Institute, was born and raised in Carmel, living near 116th Street until her parents bought 90 acres of farmland off 146th Street when she was a high school freshman. It was during Alan and Barbara’s delayed honeymoon, bicycling and “scrimping” their way through Europe “but having a wonderful summer,” they received word that Barbara’s father had died. After her father’s death, Barbara and Alan moved into the farmhouse on a portion of those 90 acres, which at the time consisted of the farmhouse, a small barn and a large barn that would become the Herb Barn.
In 1962, they moved in. Alan was in his second year of dental school.
“I was expected to take care of the cows, which I knew nothing about,” he said. “I was going to dental school and feeding cows.”
But after practicing dentistry a few years, he found his dental career unsatisfying. So, with a 10-month-old son and another in kindergarten, Barbara and Alan started buying and refinishing furniture to sell. They’d pile the whole family in their van, dog included, and drive east to destinations like Sturbridge, Mass., for antiques. They’d fill the back of the van with furniture and antiques, come home, look around their house and ask what they were going to sell to pay for it all.
“We decided we’d have an antique sale to sell some of the stuff we collected,” Alan said. “There was a little barn on the property close to the road. The doors opened to 146th Street.”
They opened the doors to that little barn and put out a sign.
“It was a huge success. We did that a couple times,” Alan said.
At antique shows, they’d set up their finds and decorate the antiques with herbs from their garden.
“We’d haul all this furniture there and back, but what we found is we’d sold all the stick of herbs we brought,” he said. “Even if people came to look at antiques, they bought herbs.”
Around that time, they decided to tackle the second barn—the large barn—for the Herb Barn, named for the herb garden they’d planted in front of it. Neighbors pitched in to help clean out the 1880s barn. Where wagons had pulled into the barn for hoisting hay into the loft, a past owner had concreted over hand-laid bricks. Barbara and Alan peeled away the concrete, took out every brick, and re-glazed them.
“I was up in the morning and felt like my feet never touched the floor,” Barbara said.
With a small bank loan, they opened their official shop, selling herbs, dried flowers, antiques, potpourri and candy any kid would love. One thing led to others and Barbara started designing gift tags, cards and paper to sell. And never quite satisfied how the Chicago printers printed her designs, she bought her own printing press and learned printing and embossing.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Alan said. “We hired someone to help us, but we realized he didn’t know much more than we did.”
With time and patience, however, and a lot of trial and error, Barbara and Alan started a successful side business, Pennyroyal Papers, and began training others in the art of printmaking.
And dentistry? After practicing for about 10 years, Alan retired from the profession.
“I never went back and turned out, I never wanted to. I was finding a lot of other things more interesting,” said Alan, who, then in his mid-30s, also enrolled in Butler University’s music program to become a classical pianist and teaches piano at Meridian Music in Carmel. “I didn’t have my heart in my dentistry.”
When the time came to sell their land because of the road-widening and redevelopment of 146th Street, Alan and Barbara closed the Herb Barn in phases and essentially gave away their printing equipment. They left the property in 2009, and not long after, the farmhouse and grounds were razed for development.
“Our place was completely demolished,” Alan said. “It’s hard to drive by there. I hate to see it gone.”
But when one story ends, a new one begins. After closing the Herb Barn, they stumbled upon their current venture, running a bed and breakfast in Yountsville, near Crawfordsville. The inn, named the Yountsville Mill Bed and Breakfast, formerly housed garment workers for Daniel Yount’s 1849 woolen mill, which still stands behind the inn on the banks of Sugar Creek. The mill operated for five decades and, during the Civil War, sold wool to the government. Cursive signatures of mill workers still adorn the mill’s interior walls.
The inn is decorated with portraits painted by Barbara, antiques and nods to the Herb Barn, like a red glass basket full of dried baby’s breath. Like Alan, Barbara is not one to get stuck on a single life path. As she points out portraits she’s painted of her sons, crinoid fossils found along the banks of Sugar Creek and the daylilies that border the inn’s driveway, 12,000 seeds of which she crossed herself and brought from the Herb Barn, she said she feels sorry for people who feel they have to do the same thing every day.
“It’s important to try new things to enjoy life,” she said. “Go down this path, that path.”
But memories can hold fast. Beams and bricks from the small barn, the one hosting the first antique sales before Alan and Barbara opened the Herb Barn, were repurposed as part of a 2011 Eagle Scout project and used to build another retreat from the routine, a gazebo at the southeast corner of 161st Street and South Union Street in Liberty Park.
And the Herb Barn? Piece by piece, it was carefully deconstructed, coded and marked and moved to Yountsville with Alan and Barbara in 2009. Its beams, bricks, and posts rest under tarps on a grassy plot behind the inn and await their next adventure, whatever that may be.
“We’d love to put it up one day,” Barbara said.