Brown County Character

“Character is the basis of happiness.” —George Santayana (the same guy who said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”)

~by Mark Blackwell

The American Heritage College Dictionary says that character “is a combination of qualities or features that distinguishes one person, group or thing from another.” In short, character is what makes people or things special.
So, what is it that makes Brown County special?
I reckon that you could start with the topography of the county. If it weren’t for the hills of Brown County, Indiana could save a lot of ink on its topo maps. It would show up as a big old, flat, boot-shaped corn field. The hills make it special.
Brown County still has more than its share of unpaved roads and it has creeks, many of which crossed the unpaved roads and had to be forded. In dry times some of the creeks would be used like rough roads or paths. Horses and high wheeled wagons of the 19th century and the Models Ts of the early 20th century had little trouble navigating the stream beds. In fact, right into the 1960s, adventurous hippies in vintage Volkswagens could make their way up dry creeks without too much trouble—unless one came across a tree fall blocking the way.
And Brown County has trees—lots of them—and it used to have lots and lots of trees. It has 15,776 acres of protected forest in Brown County State Park. Yellowwood State Forest encompasses 23,326 acres of timber and if that isn’t enough, 202,000 acres of trees are claimed by the Hoosier National Forest. All of these forests have unpaved hiking trails with creeks crossing them.
We have hills, and creeks, and trees, and trails that all make Brown County special but there is something else that really adds to the recipe—its people.
The people who settled here were of a different breed. I think they were a little tougher and a little more independent than the average Hoosier. They came into the territory from the south and the east where things were getting a little more crowded and civilized. Some folks settled in this rugged, hilly terrain probably because it reminded them of the Appalachians where they emigrated from. Those people had an idea of what they were up against and brought the knowledge, talent, and techniques to work a living out of this kind of terrain.
Others came to get away from more civilized parts of the country. They came to try themselves against a hard landscape. Brown County settlers weren’t looking for an easy path to riches. They were the kind of folks who earned their way in the world. Folks got up in the morning and never had to ask where their food came from or who built their dwelling. While they may not have had a lot of things, what they had was theirs and they were proud of it.
The next generations had decisions to make—stay or leave. The ones that stayed continued the ways of their parents and grandparents. They hunted and foraged, and farmed the ridge tops and hillsides. They raised animals, spun wool, wove cloth, and made do. They were a proud and independent people.
Famous artists first discovered the county back at the turn of the twentieth century, drawn here by the natural beauty of the land. For the most part, they tended to cluster in and around Nashville, and ignored the natives.
In the general mix of the artists were a couple of newspaper fellers who wound up defining Brown County.
One was a cartoonist and quipster name Kin Hubbard. Hubbard gave the world a view of the county and its citizens through the eyes of a character he named Abe Martin in syndicated cartoons that were a weekly feature of the Indianapolis News and other papers across the country.
The other was a columnist for the Indianapolis Star who left the big city for a simpler existence as a nature photographer.
Hohenberger was a newspaper man by trade and a photographer by vocation. He came to Brown County to practice nature photography but developed a sideline taking portraits of the local folks. He led a rather conflicted existence being from the big city and bringing in a bias against what he considered to be a rustic and backward ways of the locals. This he displayed in a column he wrote for the Indianapolis Star entitled, “Down in the Hills o’ Brown County.”
His column generated considerable animus among the general population so that, while he was somewhat tolerated in Brown County, Hohenberger was never really accepted. But what he did do was to memorialize a fair number of people who embody the character of the county. His portraits of Grandma Barnes and her husband “Wash” show the pride and determination of people who got a living from the earth.
He documented the “Liars Bench” and the old log jail. He took pictures of the brothers, Chris and Felix Brummett who look like they stepped right out of an Abe Martin cartoon panel. Their grandfather George and his brother Banner Brummett were the founders of Nashville. He captured images of Aunt Molly Lucas, the Bohall family of basket weaving fame and many more. It is in those very pictures that the character of the county is revealed.
Frank Hohenberger continued to document the character of the people and the land of Brown County from 1917 until his death in1962. You can see quite a few of his pictures on the lower level of the Brown County library and while you’re there, you can check out a book by Dillon Bustin, entitled, If You Don’t Outdie Me. It has pictures by Hohenberger and stories of the people who are examples of the character of Brown County.