by Julia Pearson
If You Don't Outdie Me: The Legacy of Brown County, written by Dillon Bustin and published by the Indiana University Press , came out with a launch party at the Monroe County Public Library in 1983. There was a sellout of the 5000 books printed. And though there has never been a reprint of this timeless volume, it is carefully preserved by families that bought theirs during that initial printing. Others of us have searched out our own copies of the book in antique shops and through outlets on the internet such as EBay, Amazon, and Alibris.
Bustin's love of the people that stared out of Frank Hohenberger's photographs and columns of "Down in the Hills o' Brown County" started long before he immersed himself, as a returning University student in Bloomington, into the Lilly Library's archival boxes of Hohenberger's notes, diaries, negatives, and photos. He recalls family excursions to Nashville as a child, when the family would leave their Indianapolis home to have Sunday dinner at the Nashville House. The Hohenberger photos in the lobby of the Nashville restaurant would mesmerize the young Dillon. He remembers being 8 or 9 years old when he was allowed to stand on the counter by the proprietor so that he could study the photos for longer periods of time. The family would be seated and ready to order their food, but Dillon would ask them to order for him—nothing was more enticing than time spent happily in the visual spell of the photographs.
Like many students of the 1970s, Dillon Bustin's undergraduate career was intersected by a time of "experiential self-education" as he joined the homesteading movement, getting a taste of living off the land. When he returned to his studies at Indiana University, photos of Hohenberger displayed on the walls of the student union reopened his boyhood love of Hohenberger's images. The first time he was at the Lilly Library, he spent eight hours absorbed in Hohenberger's records, putting together photographs with actual diary entries.
Bustin's extensive research led to an exhibition featuring the art photograph prints of Frank Hohenberger along with some paintings of Brown County: Tools of the Trade: Fine Artists and Folk Craftsmen in Brown County, 1920–1930. It was organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1981 under a program named STEP—Statewide Touring Exhibition Program. For two years the exhibition travelled throughout Indiana, bringing images of Hohenberger's magic lens on Brown County to other Hoosiers. The enlargements and labels of the exhibition were acquired by the Psi Iota Xi Sorority of Nashville so that they could be permanently displayed in Brown County. They are presently in the Brown County Public Library.
If You Don't Outdie Me is the recommended reading to anyone wanting an introduction to Brown County's story and depth of its culture. It contains not only the art photographs of Hohenberger, but also snapshots of unposed comings and goings of the daily life of the community. Bustin sidesteps sentimentality as he provides descriptions of the unique individuals known as "country folk."
Hohenberger himself is revealed through biographical facts, as Bustin looks through the lens backwards as only artists themselves can do. In the epilogue, Bustin notes that everyone in the book is now at their eternal rest alongside family and neighbors in country graveyards—all except the photo chronicler himself, Frank Hohenberger, who "was placed alone in a mausoleum at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis" after spending 45 years among Brown County folk.
A significant result of the publication of If You Don't Outdie Me to its author was a reconnection to the family ties of Bustin's birth mother, who had died when he was 5 years old. His father had remarried and Bustin was no longer in touch with the maternal side of his family. In a series of fortuitous events, an uncle (brother of his birth mother) saw the review of the book in an Indianapolis newspaper and contacted Bustin, asking if he would like to meet his grandmother. This long lost grandmother had herself been an orphan. Researching her origins, by remarkable coincidence Bustin discovered what his mother's mother had not known—that she herself had been born in Brown County near the little town of Story. In a striking awareness, Bustin realized that people he had interviewed, and farms and graves that he had visited in Brown County were those of his great-great grandparents and other blood relatives.
Before moving to Massachusetts to pursue a career in arts administration, Bustin summed up his Hoosier back-to-the-land experiences in Dillon Bustin's Almanac (June Appal Recordings, 1983), which was produced by Bob Lucas and Grey Larsen. Presently, Bustin is employed by Madison Park Development Corporation in Boston as Artistic Director of Hibernian Hall.
Bustin concludes the preface to his now iconic If You Don't Outdie Me: "I offer this selection from Frank Hohenberger's work with the hope that his images, once able to speak for themselves, may be more fully revealed and appreciated." It seems a warm and fitting invitation to Brown County's residents, those with deep roots or new roots, to get to know the faces and hearts of those who lived in the hills before them.