Mark Blackwell Interview
“Character Still Counts”

by Bill Weaver
photo by George Bredewater

The Liars Bench ain’t what it used to be, but there are still people around who were born to “set” there. One of these is Mark Blackwell, a storyteller of the old school, who can carry on both sides of a remembered conversation, including accents, pregnant pauses, shocked denial, resignation, and ultimately, acceptance.

Blackwell’s family arrived in southern Indiana in 1811 near Leesville, Jackson County, then a fort on the frontier. “Leesville is where I was born,” he says. “Then my dad did the hillbilly thing that a lot of people did in the fifties and moved north to get a job in a car factory. Just like Bill Monroe. I spent almost 15 years up north before I got back down here. Never looked back. That flatland just gives me the heebie-jeebies!”

Mark moved to Bloomington to attend Indiana University but found himself visiting Brown County regularly. “Back in the late 1960s it dawned on me that Brown County was a refuge for eccentric people and as I got deeper into the history of it, I recognized a lot of those people in Hohenberger photos because they looked like my family. It always has been a refuge for people who had opinions and certain ways they wanted to do things. Well, that suited me.

“And I like the people here. I haven’t met a bad person yet.”

In 1999 Blackwell, and his wife Jean, starting building their house out on Scarce O’ Fat Ridge overlooking Yellowwood State Forest. “I had a wonderful experience doing that,” Mark remembers. “Everybody that I dealt with, from the building inspector to the county clerk, was always friendly, wanted to know who I was, and what I thought. One of the crowning moments was when I called the building inspector up for the final inspection and he came out and looked the place over and he said, ‘Well, thank God! You built something that fits. A lot of people just bring Indianapolis down here with them. You built something that looks right.’

“I was a woodworker for a long time,” he explains. “When I was building my house I brought all those skills back in. I got to do my own floor, my own staircase. All the trim I designed and made myself. I built what you call a stick frame out of two by sixes, traditional cabin look with a story and a half. We’ve got a bedroom upstairs and a loft, kitchen, dining room area that’s open, a hearth and a wood stove. It took me almost two years to get the house to the point were we could move in.

“I love it because I built it. Every now and then when I’m in the right mood, I look at the place and I think, ‘wow, this is a good thing. My sweat, my energy, the good will of my friends, all went into making a habitat.’

“People pay lots of money to stay in a tourist cabin in Brown County,” Mark observes. “I get to live here. I can sleep in the back yard under the stars, watch the trees sway. I can hike, come home and take a hot shower and get the ticks off—the best camping I’ve ever done in my life is living in Brown County.”

Besides being a place of beauty Scarce O’ Fat Ridge has a history that Blackwell appreciates.

“There are a lot of old house sites up there. I’m still trying to find out who those people were. I’d like to know the ghosts I live with up there. Some of those sites are really pretty and you can see that people put in some care. These were farmsteads where people raised children for several generations. It’s sad that they couldn’t make it there. I’ve got a reprint of a 1925 or ’26 tourist guide for Brown County that talks about Scarce O’ Fat Ridge and how poor and poverty stricken it is and how it had been denuded of its timber. The tourist guide does everything but warn people away—‘Don’t even go there!’

“There’s no flat ground. You would have to have been an agricultural genius to make it. The water’s scarce. When I built my house I knew that and put in a 5,000 gallon cistern to catch rainwater, and a purification system, because that’s all the water there is.

“Probably one of these days when I get a little older and retire, or have more time or whatever, I’d like to start cleaning up some of the cemeteries around Brown County. People like Chris and Felix (Brummett) need a little fence or something. I don’t think anybody hardly ever visits there. There’s another old cemetery off of Dubois Ridge. It has civil war veterans buried in it. It’s particularly beautiful in the spring because there’s a carpet of crocuses. Somebody had taken care of it at one time.”

This past created a local tradition that Blackwell can live with.

“One thing that Brown County’s got—apart from a lot of other places—is an incredible sense of pride. People are proud to be from Brown County. You don’t find that a whole lot. The sense that you can be yourself and people will give you room to do that as long as you give them the room to be who they are. That seems to permeate the history of the county. People like Chris Brummett or Alex Mullis. ‘No I wasn’t hunting, my dog was hunting,’” he laughs. “Great quotes like that. Moonshiners who were brought into court to be tried by a jury of their customers. You still find pockets of people like that here.

“Brown County is a place where character still counts. The more the character you are the more you count. I think that’s a good thing.”