My Brown County Home

by Mark Blackwell
drawing by Joe Lee

Home is where the heart is.” That is a saying that we’ve all heard and if taken literally it would put home somewhere just above your stomach. But when parsed out to the pluperfect folklorical we can see that “Home” is really nowhere at all. Home is something we lost, somewhere we left, and most importantly, somewhere we’re trying to get back to. Home is a “little cabin in the lane,” “across the Blueridge Mountains,” “in old Kentucky,” or “with the old folks far away.” Home is somewhere on a rural route with a lamp in the window where the sun shines bright. Home is a precious dream. And as the world gets more crowded, more complex and more dangerous, the idea of home becomes even more precious.

Poets and songwriters would not have proliferated the way they have if not for the idea of “home.” The funny part of it is that the real heyday of songs about home is the half-century from about 1850 to 1900, a time that we now look back on as exemplifying the ideal of the self-sufficient little homestead. Stephen Foster alone generated dozens of song extolling the virtues of home and the old folks back there. He probably had a real comfortable retirement just from “My Old Kentucky Home” by itself. So there you have it, a bunch of folks singin’ about and dreaming about home—on the ever expanding frontier. I reckon some folks did set down roots but the majority were on the move west looking for home over the next hill or mountain.

When we look back fifty years the world seems pretty slow and simple. It was a time of Davy Crocket hats and Hula Hoops. “Leave It To Beaver” established a new standard for the great middle class to aspire to. For folks weary of a ten-year economic depression and a world war, that new fangled invention, television, made a lot of decisions for them. It told them what products to buy, what style of dress to wear, what the ideal house should look like and what model automobile to own.

Things were slower but there was a lot of talk about the cold war, communist spies, the atomic bomb and the total annihilation of life as they knew it, not to mention a substantial deficit of civil rights for a considerable number of folks. But what gave lots of people hope was the dream of a split-level house in the suburbs with a patio and a backyard. Now, if we look back to the early years of the century we come to a time when flatlanders first discovered Brown County. Here again, we had a population that had just concluded a war in the Philippines, automobiles were starting to get noticeable, a couple of guys from Ohio were working on a flying machine, the average work-day was 10 to 12 hours, and cities were getting crowded. A substantial group of artists were on the lookout for some pristine landscape—simple, rustic, uncorrupted, with real rural folks. So, on they came to Brown County not necessarily looking for home, just some inspiration their work.

Once the artists settled down here in the hills they wrote letters, they had conversations with their friends back in the cities and they had public showings of their paintings of the Brown County hills. Then newspaper fellers showed up, wrote columns, drew cartoons, and even wrote articles for magazines, all of which peaked the curiosity of other flatlanders.

And so they came, the wealthy businessmen looking for summer cabins, families looking for a simpler place to put down roots, as well as tourists pining to have a look back at the past—a look at “home.” What they found was a genuine rural experience that was fast becoming myth. They discovered real “little log cabins in the lane” and real “old folks at home” sitting on front porches smoking corncob pipes and “doin for themselves” without the interference of the ever more complicated outside world. That same annual re-discovery has delighted outsiders for a hundred years now.

So, this brings us up to my search for home. I got pushed out of the nest back in the late 1960s and derned if there wasn’t a war goin’ on, protests and riots in the cities, economic inflation and, of course, perennial political shenanigans. Well, the upshot of all of this was to make me and several tens of thousands of other young folks start longing for a simple place to call home. In fact, there was a bona-fide back-to-the-land movement. Bunches of us fanned out across rural America to communes and homesteads, workin’ towards an ideal that was as old as the country itself.

We studied the old methods of farming and gardening, took up crafts, woodworking, weaving, blacksmithing—all the things we thought it would take to re-create that dream we had of home. Like the folks of a hundred or two hundred years ago, some of us failed, started over and failed again but kept at it until we succeeded. And Brown County has been fertile ground to plant the dream of “home.” You can find pieces of “home” in the craft shops and restaurants of Nashville and in the little farmsteads that dot the county.

In the end, home is a place out of time, it is a place of the heart and it is a place we keep working towards. “Home” is the stories we collect and the memories we create. And Brown County is a good place to to come home to.