Another Brown County

by Mark Blackwell

Brown County has its share of mysteries; the weird rock formations on Browning Mountain, the mystery of “Bugger Holler,” rocks-in-the-trees, and what really happened in the Clarence Roberts case. And there is one more that I have been puzzling over for quite a while—the mystery of the Scarce o’ Fat yuccas.

Back in the 1920s there was a little Brown County tourist pamphlet written by Mabel E. Sturtevant and published by the Indiana League of Counties for folks brave enough to come down for a glimpse of the life that their parents and grandparents likely fled from. One of the little side trips was described for “those who do not care over what kind of roads they drive their cars Scarce o’ Fat ridge deserves special mention—a ridge on which the soil is so unproductive that the undernourished cows have to lean up against the fence to bawl and the hills are so steep that the hogs slide down rough-locked (with hind feet caught over ears).”

The guide book goes on to say, “The roadway is rough and has many bare rocks and ruts. The slopes are seamed with ravines and present a meatless, barren backbone effect. In many places there is not a vestige of vegetation on the hillsides. It is non-productive soil in the main and several deserted cabins testify to the inability of their owners to dig a living out of the soil-washed hillsides.”

I would not recommend engaging Mrs. Sturtevant as a real estate broker. But I know Scarce o’ Fat ridge and she wasn’t too far off the mark in her description—except for one thing—she left out any mention of the yuccas.

While it is hard to grow anything up on Scarce o’ Fat but rocks (and some of those find better conditions up in trees), the yucca proliferates. They are to be found at almost every old cabin site. In one case they seem to be marching right down a trail that used to be a road. How did a plant that is native to the arid, desert regions of the southwest United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa wind up on a ridge in Brown County?

Most of Scarce o’ Fat lies inside of Yellowwood State Forest boundaries but those who hike the road and offshoot trails can’t help but notice that there was once some kind of community up there. I have counted about nine homestead sites just in the first couple of miles and almost every one has yucca plants growing around it. After reading Mabel Sturtevant’s depiction of the ridge I can understand how a plant native to desert conditions might find a home here—but why? Who brought them? Why are there so many? What were they used for?

This speculation led me to the library to search on the internet for some answers. I discovered, first and foremost, that if the folks up on Scarce o’ Fat had recourse to the WWW they probably would have forgone yuccas. One of the first articles I came across was entitled “The Scourge of the Yucca Plant” it was written by a woman who not fond of the thing and seemed somewhat afraid of it. The plant was already established in a flower bed of a house she bought. She described it as having “sword-like leaves…ready to scratch anyone who comes too close.”

The article went on to relate how the woman tried to get rid of the yucca. She used tree limb loppers and a garden spade and spent the whole day trying to dislodge it. “The roots seemed to go on and on, both down and horizontally. Little yucca-ettes were coming up as far as three feet from the base.” She relates how three years later “…that the dang thing was re-growing.”

That explains how the yuccas march down the path and propagate. And the non-productive soil and poor growing conditions up on the ridge give the plants just the kind of challenge they like. But where did they come from?

My wife has a theory that maybe folks traveled to Florida back in the early 1920s and brought them back as curiosities. This argument carries a certain amount of weight in that I remember my great-grandma collecting every exotic botanical specimen she could lay her green thumb on. Her cabin was literally a jungle of plants of all varieties and geographic backgrounds. And she had been pursuing that hobby since before the 1920s. However, she didn’t grow any yuccas that I can recall. And I don’t know that anybody from Scarce o’ Fat could have afforded to go to Jackson County let alone Florida.

My theory is that kin folks moved on out west, accidentally made good, and then came back to Brown County for a visit with baby yuccas and cacti for souvenirs. My great-granny did grown several kinds of little cacti. And I did have some distant great uncles and second, third, fourth, and so on cousins out around Arizona and Colorado. But still, there’s the why of it.

According to the information I got from the internet some folks consider the yucca root a vegetable, while others see it as a medicinal plant. Still others tout the hygienic virtues of the succulent. I have a hard time thinking of it as a source for both soup and soap. If there was some sort of misguided experiment for making a cash crop out of yuccas I can’t fault the folks of Scarce o’ Fat for trying. They were desperate and needed something to make life a little more than what it was and maybe the enduring yuccas are testimony to that.