photo courtesy Charles King
Occupy…The Liars Bench
by Mark Blackwell
Have you noticed that there has been a lot of occupyin’ goin’ on lately? I’ve been hearin’ about folks occupyin’ Wall Street and Boston and Oakland out in California…even Bloomington. It looks like folks are campin’ out, protestin’ the greedy buzzards and bankers that robbed the economy just like they did eighty years ago.
The sit-down occupyin’ style of protest has a long and venerable history. The original idea was that if you had people on site twenty-four hours a day then the other side couldn’t ignore your grievances or sneak scabs in to take your job. By the 1930s the technique had been perfected to the point that when the big auto companies around Detroit were cuttin’ wages the workers just sat down and refused to leave the factories. It makes me wonder, though, if somebody got the idea from some Brown County folks.
Back in the 1920s, Frank Hohenberger (Ace photographer of Brown County) took considerable interest in a courthouse lawn fixture known as the “Liars Bench.” The bench was around 17 or 18 feet long and held 5 or 6 men comfortably. It sat in a prominent central location and could not be ignored, let alone, be missed—a perfect site for a protest. What were the fellers who shared shifts occupyin’ the Liars Bench protestin’? Well, some folks said they weren’t protestin’ nothing but hard work but I think they were protestin’ the same things that our bein’ protested about these days.
While a lot of the world in the 1920s seemed to be havin’ a roaring time waitin’ for the devastation of the 1930s, Brown County had already mastered the art of coping with economic depression. We were, for better or worse a subsistence economy and that means that in good times you could just about have enough food, clothes, and other necessities. And when bad times hit—which was a more frequent and long lasting occurrence—life was a struggle. I doubt that the men who sat sentinel on the bench were protesting the idea of work but more likely the lack of it.
Brown County was an iffy proposition from the git-go. It had no large scale exportable raw material base. It had no reliable transportation to get raw materials and goods to market. It had no energy source like a river for hydro-power or coal or oil. The only things that Brown County has in abundance are beautiful landscapes and creative people. But that doesn’t add up to jobs.
I tried to think about what else the boys of the courthouse lawn might want to publicly protest. I don’t think that they would have been against the local millionaires because that was another thing that Brown County lacked. Other places had their Vanderbilts, Morgans, Fords, and Rockefellers but Brown County just had folks. Bein’ a hundred-aire would have put you perty solidly in the top 1%. In the 1920s and 30s Brown County was the land of the have-nots and the have-lesses. We probably could have used a millionaire or two for capital investment purposes.
It is a documented fact that we had more than our quota of entrepreneurs. Brown County could boast of master shingle makers, moonshiners, quilt makers, orchardists, basket makers, and farmers. Just about everybody worked at some sort of small scale cottage enterprise. What was missing was the capital to help these enterprises be more efficient and to expand. Money is just as hard to come by for a poor county as it is for a poor family. That’s why it’s so hard to dig out of poverty.
My guess is that the “Liars Bench” boys weren’t officially protestin’ anything they could point a finger at. Things were a lot like they are now. The politicians and commentators were all sayin’ three different things at once outta both sides of their mouths and all of it addin’ up to the idea that bein’ poor is the poor person’s fault. I suspect that a lot of the conversation that took place out there on the court house lawn was about tryin’ to figure out why the things weren’t workin’ right what was broke with the system.
And that is where the protestin’ comes. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with the system. It works perfectly fine for the 1% of the people that run things. The conclusion would have to be that the system itself is wrong. If the rules of a game don’t give everybody a fair shake at getting’ their needs met and favors one group over another, then the folks that are getting’ shafted ought to quit playin’ until the referees or umpires come up with a better set of rules fair to all sides. Until then maybe we should sit back, sit down, and occupy the Liars Bench.