by Joanne Nesbit
In August, thousands of visitors flock to Brown County’s hills in search of refuge from the city’s heat.
They come to camp among the trees and stroll along the creek banks, to enjoy the panoramic views from the hilltops and perhaps to luxuriate in the coolness of homemade ice cream slowly sliding down the back of a throat.
These thousands have been coming for almost a century, on foot, by horseback, by hack and train, and by automobile. But in August 1920 one trio ventured into Brown County in a conveyance that at first glance was nearly indistinguishable.
Artists Paul Randall, Carl (Shorty) Graf, and Earl Bott combined their savings for a painting expedition. Stools, buckets, easels, tents, fishing gear, suitcases, and groceries were loaded into, piled on, and tied to an already well-used automobile before the trio tried to find room for themselves. Bott was relegated to the back seat and was barely visible, but had the vital responsibility of holding down the baggage and keeping it from sliding from side to side. Shorty was the pilot and Randall the navigator.
There were no freeways. Few stretches of road were paved in 1920 and the hills had not been leveled off nor the curves straightened out. The car stalled at every sizeable hill, requiring that one of the trio quickly find a rock to wedge behind one of the tires so the vehicle wouldn’t roll backwards. Sometimes with a little rest and much coaxing the car would start again and creep its way up the hill. Sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the rock didn’t “hold” the car and the trio sped backwards down the hill where, once reaching the bottom, the engine was cooled by opening the hood and pouring fresh water into the radiator. After a generous period of rest, Graf would use the hand crank to start the engine for another attempt at reaching this summit of yet another Brown County hill.
Tired and dusty, the trio finally reached Nashville, partook of the cooling waters at the town pump, and then headed east to a pre-determined spot along Salt Creek where they pitched their tent. Dinner that first night was a black bass Graf pulled from Salt Creek.
The trio had chosen one of the worst times for an artist to work in Brown County. It was too late in the season for a variety of color from flowering trees and shrubs and too early for the vibrant colors of autumn. But they made the most of their surroundings, relieving the “green monotony” by painting sunsets and sunrises and reflections in Salt Creek.
One day their working schedule was interrupted by a visit from a local farmer who found some fascination in watching these artists work, so came back to visit on a somewhat regular basis. Noticing that the trio made few trips into Nashville for groceries and didn’t take time from their painting to eat lunch, the farmer surmised that they might really be hungry. So, on his next visit, he brought a fine black rooster figuring the artists would finally have a decent meal.
While grateful for the fowl, instead of preparing him immediately for the pot, the trio tied a length of twine to the rooster, securing the line to a tent pole. It didn’t take long for the feathered fellow to become sort of a pet and the artists became less anxious to indulge in chicken stew.
However, the rooster didn’t relish strutting around on the end of a rope and being alone during the day while the artists were off applying paint to canvas. So the pet pretty much helped himself to the breakfast cereal left in camp and pecked open sacks of rice and other supplies, making a general mess of the mess. The fowl had sealed his own doom.
The concept of turning lemons into lemonade, as the artists had to do in August of 1920, wasn’t new to Paul Randall. While serving as a sailor in China, he became fascinated with tattooing and, with only that skill, went to Chicago where he found employment as a commercial artist. This son of an actor visited Brown County often after that first 1920 excursion and, while commercial art was his vocation, fellow artist Clifton Wheeler said landscape painting was Randall’s avocation.
Paul Randall died in May of 1932 while cutting grass around his Nashville cabin where he was preparing to spend the summer.