by Bill Weaver
photo by Cindy Steele
Like many people who pass through Brown County Paul Pell was determined to come back.
From Hamilton, Ohio, Pell first discovered Brown County in 1959 when he came here with his sports car club for a weekend at the Park. “I fell in love with the place,” he says. “Nashville was fascinating. After I got out of the service in ’62 I moved to Bloomington and was back and forth a lot.”
In 1973 Pell helped found the legendary String Bean String Band. “I was the first banjo player,” Pell remembers. “I don’t really think of myself as a musician, I’m more of an old folkie. I got interested in the banjo through Pete Seeger and the Weavers.
“We played Rapp’s in Bloomington, fraternity parties—any gig we could get. The Old Hickory, where The Ordinary is now, was our first regular gig and from there we played Indianapolis and clubs around Indiana. We played some amazing places. Those were great times.”
Pell studied art in college. “I think of myself as an artist and a craftsman but there’s nothing I can show anybody to verify that,” he laughs. “I went to Ohio University, Miami University, and IU, all majoring in art, and I graduated from the Gebhardt School of Art in Cincinnati.”
His one attempt to use that degree was in 1975 when Paul joined artist Jim Tracy to open a store, Wooden Highways, in Nashville. “We designed a line of toys and manufactured them in Helmsburg. It was a real experience,” he recalls. “We lasted less than a year but it was a great artistic success. We built a kids’ wonderland with all of our toys inside the store. There were little cities with roadways that went through tunnels in the walls. It was a real high-energy thing. We had a following but most of our toys sold for three dollars. You have to sell a hell of a lot of them to make it worthwhile!” he laughs. “Working with Jim was an absolutely high-energy creative time!”
By 1982 he realized that he needed to find a good job to support his family and moved to California. The passion in his life has always been auto racing and rebuilding classic British sports cars. “I worked for a company that specialized in the restoration of early MGs. I ran the parts department. Then they opened a branch in Atlanta and I spent ten years there.”
The sports car bug first bit him in junior high school when, “I saw a car that took my breath away. It started the whole thing with me and English cars. I bought an Austin-Healy Sprite in ’59 and ran all the local events you run in preparation for racing a car—autocross and hillclimb. It wasn’t until I got out of the Service that I bought a Mini Cooper and seriously pursued racing. It was fully amateur back then. They considered it a gentleman’s sport. It was a wonderful time to race.
“I had the first Mini Cooper S that came into the United States. I bought it off the floor of the New York Auto Show in 1964. I absolutely loved that car. I was just married and had a kid and had absolutely no business getting involved in racing. I ended up within the year having that car so heavily modified that it was no longer any good for anything but a race car. I raced it from 1964 through 1966. I finished third in the national championship in ’66. By then I didn’t have a dime left to spend and finally got out of it, but I have a real passion for those cars.
He passed his love of racing to his daughter who today works in Formula One for the largest motorsports marketing firm in the world. “She grew up in the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) pits,” he says proudly. “She credits me for sparking her interest in motorsports. She’s done quite well at it.”
Paul continues a modest amount of restoration work, helping Fred Sisson with the instrumentation for his Morgans. “I miss my involvement in it,” he says frankly. “I’ll be 70 my next birthday and I’d like to think that I’m going to have enough time and resources to restore another car—either a Mini Cooper or Sprite.
“Everything is what I used to do, none of it is what I’m doing now,” he laughs ruefully. “My life is memorabilia. The truth is that when I’m not at work I’d be content to stay here.”
He lives in southern Brown County in a small, comfortable A-frame while working part-time at Hoosier Buddy’s in Nashville. “I’ve got the best job in town.” he smiles as his black cat Lucas mewls for attention. “You meet everybody at the liquor store, whether they’re Bud Light people or buying a good bottle of wine. Everybody’s got some kind of a creative side going, even the people who aren’t involved in art. That’s marvelous.
“Working with Jim Tracy and being in the String Bean String Band are things that made Brown County home to me. All of the creative, exciting things that have happened in my life happened here. That shades my feelings about this place.
“I don’t have any wishes that I had been born any other time or done anything differently.”