Two Trips and Three Fingers

(Nyesville, Indiana) – Nyesville, Indiana was once an active coal mining area.  Located in west-central Indiana not far from the Illinois border, the area today is more noted for the annual Covered Bridge Festival that includes stops in nearby Rockville.

I wouldn’t call it a tourist destination.  I made trips on consecutive weekends to a town that no longer exists, but although there is no real town of Nyesville anymore, it maintains one clear claim to fame – the childhood home of Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame pitcher Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three Finger” Brown.

If you are not familiar with Mordecai Brown, he pitched in the Major Leagues from 1903 to 1916.  He was noted for having an exceptional curve ball, deceptive fastball and a change up that benefitted from the unusual spin he was able to put on the ball as a result of a childhood farm accident that left him without portions of two of his fingers.  This accident also occurred in Nyesville.  The odd spin made the curve so effective that Ty Cobb reportedly said it was “the most devasting pitch I ever faced.”   Brown was ultimately elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1949, despite his less than auspicious beginning.

A monument in his honor (see feature photo) sits on Nyesville Road in Parke County, just up the street from Beiler’s of Nyesville, an Amish run greenhouse and bakery that produced the only commerce I witnessed in the area.  My first stop on a Saturday a couple weeks ago was simply to see the monument, take a few photos and see what was left of Nyesville.

I took my photos, but I was told at Beiler’s that Nyesville was a ghost town that no longer existed.  Satisfied with the answer, I had paid my respects, and moved on to my next destination, another monument honoring Brown that was recently installed at the corner of 7th Street and Cherry in Terre Haute, Indiana.  On the edge of the Indiana State University campus, the location formerly included a gas station Brown ran after his baseball career ended.

This really should have been the end of it.  However, reading about Brown’s Nyesville site online a few days later, I noted there was a “visitor’s journal” in a mailbox at the site.  Failing to sign it (I ignored the mailbox not realizing its purpose on the original visit); I headed back the next weekend to check out the journal and do a little further research on Nyesville.  To my good fortune, my visit this day happened to coincide with a “Nyesville Reunion,” a collection of former residents that were returning to the former town to reminisce and talk about earlier times.

At Brown’s monument was none other that 93-year-old Merrill Sneath, a former resident of the area.  A little frail and hearing impaired, he kindly told me about the one-room schoolhouse that previously sat on this location (and the existing house that was rebuilt in its likeness), and encouraged me to visit the “large oak” down the street.  A stately looking tree, it housed an additional monument that touted the former location of a local coal company, originally established in the middle 1800’s.

Back to the notebook, it wasn’t anything remarkable, bearing signatures of visitors from New York to Los Gatos, California on a legal pad inside a binder.  Occasionally,  someone apparently tears the pages off the pad and places them inside vinyl page protectors.  The visitors are predominantly Cubs fans (why else would you travel to a town that no longer exists), but there is the random Cardinal fan that fed their desire to litter the notebook (as if the Cardinals’ five World Series championships since the last Cubs appearance in 1945 isn’t kicking enough dirt in the face of loyal Cub fans).

Although they are the team I follow closest and cheer for today, I admit I’m not a lifelong Cub fan.  Growing up in Iowa I would see them on television occasionally, but my early days were spent cheering for Boog Powell and the Baltimore Orioles, World Series contenders in my fan formative years from 1969-71, including the World Championship in 1970.

Now living in central Illinois, I’ve adopted the Cubs and come to appreciate their ongoing disappointment, witnessing first hand the agony lifelong Cub fans endure on an annual basis.  I thought a drive to see Brown’s birthplace might add some positive karma to another struggling Cubs season, and give me something to write about.

Sadly, a Hall of Fame Cubs pitcher can’t even get respect in his home town, a town that no longer exists.  The sign by Beiler’s, presumably made by some official government entity in the area, notes the monument is “1/2 half mile ahead on left.”  On the sign, Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three Finger” Brown’s first name is spelled wrong.


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