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Harlan Hubbard: Life on the fringe
Payne Hollow still stands
By Don Ward
PAYNE HOLLOW, Ky. (January 2000) Descending the wooded path by foot, one can’t help but succumb to the solitude and the beauty of this craggy, narrow valley that leads to the Ohio River.
It was here in this Trimble County, Ky., river bottom that Harlan and Anna Hubbard spent 34 years living off the land by tending goats, gardening, canning, fishing, weaving, gathering wood and scavenging for useful items that washed ashore.
Payne Hollow also served as inspiration for Harlan Hubbard's paintings and journal writings and as the "auditorium" for the couple's frequent musical duets – he on the violin and she on a baby grand piano that once sat in the front room of their modest, self-built home.
Anna Hubbard died in 1986; Harlan in 1988. To mark the 100th year of Harlan's birth, Hanover College is planning a one-day symposium on June 17, featuring lectures, discussions, art exhibitions and an illustrated critique of Hubbard's artwork.
But regardless of any attempt to classify his talents, the Hubbard legend continues to thrive among hundreds of fans of his journal writing, art, lifestyle and philosophy. He is considered by many a modern-day Thoreau; by others as a homesteader who was pretty good with a paint brush; and still others as man who was uncomfortable in crowds but spoke easily and eloquently through his pen.
"He was proud of his work and thought it was important," said Robert Rosenthal, a philosophy professor at Hanover College who since the mid-1970s led dozens of student groups to Payne Hollow. "But he was reluctant to promote himself."
Hubbard left that task to others, including his wife, who tirelessly and lovingly lauded Harlan's work when they entertained friends, school groups and strangers, some of whom showed up on their doorstep unannounced.
By all accounts, the Hubbards graciously invited everyone in, often fed them and led tours of their quaint household, which to this day lacks electricity, plumbing or running water.
Some came to buy Harlan's paintings, mostly featuring riverboats or Midwestern landscapes with overcast skies. Others came to get in touch with whatever it was they believed the couple represented.
That Hubbard spirit of simplicity – far removed from the conveniences of modern society – remains popular among those who befriended the couple, bought Harlan's paintings or ascribe to the values that the Hubbards espoused. To this day, many of them burn wood stoves in their homes, or live deep in the woods, or tend gardens, or in some small way have introduced a lifestyle change as a tribute to the Hubbards.
"When you think about what they did and how they lived, it was pretty impressive," said Robert Canida, a Madison dentist who owns more than 20 Hubbard paintings and no television sets.
"He made a lot of blue-gray paintings that are somewhat depressing; he said it was Anna's favorite color," Canida says as he guides visitors through his art collection that hangs in both his home and dental office.
"We do have a lot of cloudy days here in the Ohio Valley, and he probably just painted what he saw. But Harlan said we should celebrate the gray days just as we would the sunny ones. I think we can take a lesson from that."
Canida and his wife, Charlotte, were frequent visitors of Payne Hollow over the years and took in the ailing artist in 1988 during the last eight weeks of his life. Hubbard died in the Canidas' front room, where he had lain for many days with a view of his beloved Ohio River and received a parade of visitors and his closest friends.
"He had stayed here before when he was in town and it was too late to return to Payne Hollow," Canida explained. "He seemed to like it because it was quiet. So when he was ready to leave the hospital, we offered to have him come here. At first, we put him in an upstairs room that overlooked the river. He liked that because it was off to itself. Later, we moved him downstairs into the front room, and that's where he died."
Payne Hollow Today
Over the years, hundreds of people who grew up in the Ohio Valley have visited Payne Hollow at one time or another. Most trekked down the mile-long path from the top of the hill as youths; others arrived by car at Plowpoint Landing, seven miles south of Hanover Beach, Ind. There, they would ring a bell, signaling for Harlan to row across the river in his johnboat, pick them up and ferry them back.
Payne Hollow hasn't changed much over the years, thanks to Hanover artist Paul Hassfurder, who worked for the Hubbards in their later years and, as a result, inherited the 61-acre property upon Harlan's death on Jan. 16, 1988.
Hassfurder moved into Payne Hollow two days later – primarily to guard the place from thieves and vandals. For the last 12 years, he has tried to maintain the Hubbard spirit by living there much in the same way the Hubbards did.
Though he claims not to be the Hubbards' caretaker, he admits he is in an awkward position, since many consider him the heir to the Hubbard legacy. For that reason, he has resisted his own temptations and offers by developers to make any drastic changes to Payne Hollow.
"I'm free to have anything I want down here, like any homeowner," Hassfurder says. "But I'm trying to keep things in balance with the essence of life here."
He has even been contacted by government officials from Washington, D.C., about putting the place in their care to be possibly operated as some sort of historical or tourism site.
"I think there's a danger in putting too much attention on this place, because if you start bringing people down here in large groups, you could destroy the very thing they've come to see," said Hassfurder, 51.
They write or draw in Hassfurder's guestbook. They walk around the grounds. They peek into Harlan's old art studio and warm themselves in front of the fireplace where Anna once cooked. They pause at the small tombstone, whose hand-scratched inscription marks the place where the couple's ashes are buried.
And they grill Hassfurder with lots of questions.
"I think I had over 300 visitors that first year. It was incredible," Hassfurder recalled. "They have me sign things – like pieces of split wood. It's neat, it's just weird."
Hassfurder says they come to see what's left of the Hubbard legacy or to simply spend a night in what they consider a shrine to an idyllic lifestyle they admire but to which they could never totally commit.
Hassfurder, too, admits he isn't roughing it nearly as extremely as his predecessors. He gathers and cuts firewood for heat and cooking, and he carries in by backpack food and other basic necessitities. But without a regular income or a partner, like Hubbard had in his wife, Anna, he finds it too difficult to live here full time.
So he travels weekly to his cousin's house in Madison and often stays longer to take on odd jobs to earn enough money to return to Payne Hollow. Last fall, he worked for two months as an extra and crew member in the movie "Madison," saving money to get him through the winter.
"When I climb the hill, get into my van and turn on the radio, I adjust to the modern world immediately," Hassfurder said. "Sometimes, I find myself lingering up there. But it's always a relief to return. I'm still surprised my things are here and this is really my home."
An artist in his own right, Hassfurder has made and sold 1,500 reprints of a painting he did of the Lanier Mansion a few years ago. He hasn't had much luck sticking to any regimented painting schedule, though he says lately he's trying to discipline himself more.
Still, he endures, immersing himself – and his mind – in the daily chores of simply living alone in the woods with not much more than a legend, two stray cats and a beautiful view of the Ohio River.
"It's like camping out, only you never go home," Hassfurder jokes as he checks the status of sweet potatoes boiling in a pot over the fireplace.
"And I know that whatever I do, I could never recreate for people what it used to be like here when Harlan was alive, and I'm not trying to," he said. "But sometimes, I feel like one of those skiers you see out there being pulled down the river behind a big pleasure boat. My pleasure boat is the Hubbard legend."
The Hubbard Mystique
Hassfurder befriended the Hubbards in 1974 when the couple were checking out books at the Hanover College library. He began visiting them and offering to do various chores.
Over the years, dozens of people developed such friendships with the Hubbards, helping out in whatever way they could. They brought in food or other items.
Canida and some of his friends used to go down to Payne Hollow as college students and offer to cut wood. For years, Harlan refused.
"Finally, when he was 78 years old, he let us come down," recalled Canida, now 50. "We brought along a chain saw, and he sent us way down river so he wouldn't hear the noise."
Hubbard wasn't much on noise of any kind. He even spoke in long, dramatic pauses, perhaps choosing his words carefully.
"If you were having a conversation with him, there was a lot of quiet time," Canida said. "With Harlan, the comfort to him was to have the blank spaces. When he did speak, he was definitive about a lot of things."
Canida said he was always amazed at the amount of work Harlan accomplished aside from his artwork. "In addition to gathering and cutting wood, they raised about 95 percent of their food themselves by gardening, tending goats collecting mushrooms and nuts. It seemed like any of them would be a full-time occupation."
Around 1980, as the couple's advanced age made it difficult for them to maintain the place alone, they asked Hassfurder to come over more frequently as a hired hand. Hassfurder accepted the offer and over the next eight years formed a special bond with Harlan and Payne Hollow itself. But he always tried to leave before dark to not wear out his welcome. "They needed their space and time alone," he said.
The regular visits, however, left Hassfurder with dozens of cherished memories.
Hassfurder recalls the day, not long after Anna died, when he and Harlan were sitting at the table by the window eating lunch. Hubbard pointed to a can on the table and said in his whispery voice, "Do you know what that is?"
"Yes," Hassfurder replied, knowing it contained Anna's ashes, which were awaiting burial until her family members could arrive the following month.
After a long pause, Hubbard said, "Anna sat at this table every day and looked out at the river. I thought it would be the proper place for it."
After another pause, Hubbard asked, "Does it bother you that it's there?"
Hassfurder shook his head. "I think it's the proper place for it, too."
Hassfurder treasures such moments, as well as the momentos he received from Hubbard. He proudly shows visitors his signed copies of Hubbard books. The inside cover of Shantyboat reads: "For Paul Hassfurder, the day we sawed wood – Feb. 6, 1978." Inside Payne Hollow it reads: "As much at home in Payne Hollow as we are – 1980."
Hubbard, The Philosopher
Many who have studied Hubbard like to say he lived his art. Or that his art was an extension of his life.
Henry County, Ky., author Wendell Berry wrotes in his 1990 book, "Harlan Hubbard Life and Work," that Hubbard was admittedly influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau. "Harlan loved Thoreau, read him closely and acknowledged his influence," Berry wrote.
But Berry notes that while Thoreau spent two years living in simplicity and solitude at Walden Pond, the Hubbards spent half their lives at Payne Hollow.
"Their more elaborate household, enlarged necessity, and 20-times longer tenure provide far better education and proof of their common principles than Thoreau was able to provide," Berry wrote.
Later, Berry writes that Hubbard "had a Blakean horror of the industrial mind and its products. He knew better than to believe that he could escape the influence of that mind or even put himself safely beyond its reach. But he meant certainly to distinguish himself and his life from it; he meant to keep himself at some distance from it. He had in his mind and body the wherewithal to do that, and to a remarkable extent he succeeded.”
Berry was a close friend of Hubbard's and among the callers at the Canida home when the artist lay dying. Reached at his home in Port Royal, Ky., the reclusive Berry declined to be interviewed for this story, saying only, I've said and written enough about Harlan Hubbard."
But retired Bellarmine College English professor, Wade Hall, enjoys telling of his early 1970s visits to Payne Hollow and wrote about them in a 1996 book, "A Visit With Harlan Hubbard." The Louisville resident says he was attracted to the place because it reminded him of his upbringing in rural Alabama.
After initial visits to Payne Hollow in the early 1970s and another in 1982, Hall arranged to tape record interviews with Hubbard in 1987, only a few months before he died. They became the basis for his 60-page book, which is presented as a first-person, dramatic monologue and includes photos that Hall took.
"I remember how frail he looked," Hall said in a recent interview. "We sat on the patio where many of his visitors sat, and he was barefooted. His voice was so low, I had to keep pushing the tape recorder closer to him. He insisted that most of his words were in his books, but I did learn some new things about him that I put in the book."
At the time, Hall edited the Kentucky Poetry Review, and he had Hubbard send him a few of his poems, which Hall published. But Hall said his book was written as a tribute, but added that Hubbard wouldn't have become the artist or writer he was unless he had been a naturalist, since they were all related.
"He had a vision of a good life for him, and he went and lived it," Hall said. "I admired him for that, but it was not for me. His was a hermitage lifestyle that was not just a showcase for his art and writing, it was who he truly was."
The Hubbard Art Collectors
Aside from his writings, Hubbard became well known regionally during his life as a Midwest artist who specialized in oil paintings of riverboats and landscapes. But Hubbard painted more than oils. He completed thousands of watercolors, many of which were done on the shantyboat trip to New Orleans. He created hundreds more sketches and wood-cut prints, impressions of carvings in wooden pieces. Hubbard also painted on tin and slate and just about any other flat surface he was given or could scavenge along the river. He framed many of his paintings himself using scrap lumber and disliked turning loose of a painting unframed.
That is, if you could get him to sell you one.
"Harlan was funny about selling his work. It was like he didn't want one person to own too many," said Canida, who bought only three paintings directly from Hubbard and received a fourth as a gift. "He wanted to spread them around so they could be seen and appreciated by a lot of people."
Yet when he did sell a painting, his prices were relatively low. Or free.
In the late 1970s, then-Trimble County librarian Louise Ginn bought two paintings from Hubbard for $75 each using money the library had received from the county judge that had come from fines paid by lawbreakers. One painting was stolen off the wall in the outer lobby; the other still hangs inside the library.
Ginn, who was raised on the farm on the hill above Payne Hollow, knew Hubbard since she was 14. Later, as librarian, she recorded a 30-minute cassette tape of a conversation she had with him that is available for loan at the library.
"He offered to sell me a big painting when I retired from the library, but my husband didn't want me to have any," Ginn said.
Hubbard gave a dozen paintings to Hanover College. Local collectors later added to the collection. But two were stolen off the wall of the Fine Arts building before college officials moved the collection into a locked room at the Brown Campus Center.
Hubbard also gave 21 pieces to the Behringer-Crawford Museum in Covington, Ky., and one to the Madison-Jefferson County Public Library. But the library raffled it off to raise money to build the Broadway Fountain. Ironically, Canida won the raffle.
"Harlan gave many of his paintings away. He never thought his work was any good," said Dr. Marcella Modisett, a retired Madison obstetrician who became close friends with the Hubbards. Her late husband, Jack Modisett, was Harlan's physician.
Today, Modisett owns five Hubbard paintings and keeps them in what she calls her "Hubbard room," which features a wood stove and view of the Ohio River. After her husband died in 1978, Modisett cared for the Hubbards when they became ill. In September 1983, she helped arrange Harlan's frantic trip to the hospital after he was bitten by a copperhead snake while stepping onto the patio.
"We jokingly called him our good snake, because when Harlan was in the hospital, that's when we learned he had cancer," Modisett said.
For several months, the Hubbards moved into a riverside cabin above Madison that was owned by the late John Cook while Harlan recovered from colon cancer surgery. Anna grew so homesick that Modisett and others would often have to take her back to Payne Hollow for short visits. Harlan, meanwhile, continued to paint and, except for a few private journal entries, never let his condition alter his positive outlook on life.
Modisett keeps several Hubbard books on her coffee table and prizes her paintings, especially the one depicting two people in a small row boat on water at twilight. The painting is among those featured in Berry's book.
"To me, that's Anna and Harlan rowing back to Payne Hollow in their johnboat at dusk," Modisett says. "I just love that."
Hubbard's last days
Near the end, when Hubbard was staying at the Canida home, several people took turns watching him. Helen Spry, a close friend and nurse from Hanover, bathed and care for Harlan during the day while the Canidas worked and their two children, Ben and Christy, were at school. She and Modisett spent many Christmases at Payne Hollow and often drove them around town to do errands in their later years.
"There was something about them that made everyone want to know them better," said Spry, 87, who owns four Hubbard paintings. "Anna was one of the most gracious persons I've ever met. She had a sense of humor. I never saw Harlan have a good belly laugh, but he'd chuckle every now and then."
Spry called Anna the PBT – power behind the throne. Even Harlan himself credited his wife for much of his success, at one point calling his life without her "a waste of time."
Spry said Anna was often lonely at Payne Hollow and once wrote to her in a letter,"I keep looking out and expecting you to walk through the gate anytime."
During one visit, she commented about a painting she saw in Harlan's studio with a hole in the middle of it. The painting depicted an angry river scene and a cottonwood tree, and Harlan had driven a nail through it to hang it up.
"Harlan called it a 'gloomy old thing that might not look quite so bad with a frame on it,' " Spry said.
A few days later, he and Anna drove in with it. He he had fixed the hole and put a cherry frame around it. "They were wonderful people, and I miss them," said Spry, who attended the burials of both Anna and Harlan.
Modisett and author Don Wallis, another close Hubbard friend, were at Hubbard's bedside in the Canida home late that Saturday night when he died.
"Don and I were sitting up talking while the others slept, and I noticed Harlan's breathing had suddenly changed," Modisett recalled. "It wasn't too long after that, he was gone."
Hubbard's death set in motion a 3 1/2-year legal battle that ensued between Hassfurder and Caddell over Hubbard's large stockpile of remaining artwork. Hubbard's original will, drawn up in the last year of his life, awarded his money to family members, most of the artwork to Caddell and Payne Hollow to Hassfurder.
But Hassfurder filed a lawsuit, claiming Hubbard told him of some last-minute changes while on his deathbed at the Canida home. A judge would have to decide the validity of those alleged changes, and during the years leading up to trial, the artwork sat in storage at the Madison Bank and Trust Co.
"It got ugly there for a while, and I thought it would never end. But two days before we were set to go to trial, they reached a settlement," recalled the bank's trust officer, John Muessel, who was executor of the will.
Muessel, who isn't fond of Hubbard's artwork, is perhaps the most familiar with it after the long ordeal. As part of the out-of-court settlement, Caddell was awarded the bulk of Hubbard's artwork and Hassfurder received only some artwork in addition to Payne Hollow. In the end, Caddell wound up with 26 paintings, 1,400 watercolors, several sketchbooks, seven original wood-cuts and nearly 800 6x8 tins painted on both sides. Hassfurder was allowed to select 200 watercolors. The two remain bitter toward each other over the experience.
Preserving the past
Today, Hubbard's artwork is scattered among dozens of private collectors and a few institutions where they may be publicly viewed. Aside from Canida and Hanover College, Neal Cahall has the next largest collection in Madison.
Hanover College graduate William Caddell of Frankfort, Ind., has the largest number of watercolors and wood-cut prints, which he often makes available for showings at museums and at the Frankfort Community Public Library, which he directs. He also has an Internet website to promote his Hubbard exhibit.
"I did as much as I could to promote him when he was alive, and I've tried to do the same since he died," said Caddell by telephone from his secluded, rustic home in Frankfort.
Caddell said when Hubbard was near death and trying to decide whether to give his artwork to the Behringer-Crawford Museum, he wrote to Caddell asking for advice.
"I told him that if they would put his work on permanent display, then do it," Caddell said. "But a lot of museums don't like to commit to permanent displays because they want to keep their wall space available for artists more famous than him."
Caddell offered to display the works at a new gallery in his library that would be named for the Hubbards. The idea appealed to the artist.
But by the time Hubbard finally got around to making his will, most of the oils had been sold or given away, according to Muessel. In fact, there were only about 15 left in the estate.
Madison attorney Eugene Cooper, who himself died before the estate was settled, drew up Hubbard's will as the artist lie ill at Kings' Daughters Hospital in Madison.
"To pin Harlan down to decide what would happen to his estate was a real challenge for Eugene," Muessel said. "In my estimation, Harlan knew he had cancer and was going to die, and that he had to do something. And what he did was a pretty good decision."
Muessel said although it may seem odd that much of Hubbard's lifetime of artwork ended up in northern Indiana, he believes Caddell was a man who, as Hubbard allegedly conceded, "would do the right thing."
He also credits Caddell for having the right education, background and position as a library director to promote Hubbard's writings and artwork, even if it meant selling some pieces along the way.
Muessel called Canida the man with the purist motives in the final drama, since "he was just trying to do the best for Harlan in his dying days. He had a family and a business to run, and he opened up his house for nearly eight weeks while dealing with this managerie of people."
Hassfurder, on the other hand, thought of himself "as the son Harlan never had," Mussel said. "He was a paid employee, and his association with Harlan was pretty utilitarian. I think they cared about Paul or they wouldn't have left him Payne Hollow. But now Paul feels like he has this legacy to preserve."
Hassfurder, himself, said he sometimes wishes Hubbard had not left him anything, only shared memories.
Caddell said he would be trying to help Hassfurder keep Payne Hollow today, "but it's hard to forgive him for what he tried to do."
So what will become of the legacy of Harlan and Anna Hubbard? Will Hassfurder finally have to sell out? Will the federal officials from Washington eventually take control and open the Harlan Hubbard Historic Site and Visitors Center? Will developers move in, pave the trail that leads down the hill and sell residential lots in the new Payne Hollow Estates?
"I think the state would be remiss to let it fall to pieces," Caddell said, "because he was one of the greatest people to come from Kentucky."
Muessel said, "I think you have to ask yourself, 'What would Hubbard want?' He would either want it to continue like it is, or be left alone to go back to nature, the way it was.
"But it shouldn't become a tourist trap."