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Preserving Payne Hollow
After 17 years, Hassfurder still vigilant
Hubbards’ loyal friend has kept his promises
PAYNE HOLLOW, Ky. (November 2005) – In his 1974 book titled, “Payne Hollow: Life on the Fringe,” Harlan Hubbard tells how he came to settle down in this narrow, rocky valley beside the Ohio River in Trimble County. He was trying to decide how to end his book as he speculated about what might be said of him and his home years after he was gone.
“Perhaps I shall not write a definitive ending, either of the book or of our occupancy of Payne Hollow,” Hubbard wrote. “It may be written by a bulldozer swooping down to wipe out this remnant of wilderness in the name of progress, or we might simply drift away with the ever passing river, leaving Payne Hollow to work out its future destiny without us.
“Some memory of our stay here will possibly remain and we may become a legend of Payne Hollow, distorted by time and repetition. In a distant future, someone may relate, if anyone will listen to him, how his grandfather, as a small boy, used to go down into Payne Hollow when it was still a wilderness. There on the riverbank, in a house which they had made out of rocks and trees, lived a couple all by themselves. They planted a garden, kept goats, ate weeds and groundhogs and fish from the river, which in those days was full of fish. They never had to go to a store. The man worked with ax and hoe, without machines. He painted pictures of the old steamboats and made drawings of the life they lived.”
Three decades after that book was published, people are still recalling memories of their visits to
Payne Hollow – how they traveled either by boat or by foot, hiking down a mile-long path that takes them from their bustling lives into a simpler, serene world below. Even today, 17 years after Harlan Hubbard’s death, Payne Hollow offers visitors a magical experience with the sort of life they may envy but admit they could never have for themselves.
As the memories fade for those who once traveled here or simply enjoyed reading Harlan’s books and viewing his artwork, younger generations are growing up never having known anything about the homesteading couple or their legend.
“I had never heard of the Hubbards or Payne Hollow before taking this class, and I don’t think anybody else in the class had either,” said Kim Teeter, 18, of Georgetown, Ky., who was among a group of seven Northern Kentucky University honors students who journeyed to visit Payne Hollow by foot Oct. 4 as part of their “Utopias” class trip.
“I like it here,” said student Loren Fishman, 20, of Columbus, Ohio. “Seeing it for real makes life here seem more attainable than when reading about it. It seems so romantic.”
NKU philosophy professor David Bishop led the group and says such places are important because they illustrate just how far society has developed from those simpler times when man could live more in touch with nature and himself.
Bishop himself lives in a somewhat remote area of Boone County, Ky., in a rustic home made from a barn that once stood in Switzerland County, Ind.
“But we are in no way close to living like the Hubbards. I’m too much of a sports fan and could not do without watching sports on television,” he admits. Bishop occasionally makes presentations on Utopian lifestyles, including the one the Hubbards experienced at Payne Hollow.
Jesslin Frohlich, 24, a 2003 Hanover College graduate and Bishop’s stepdaughter, accompanied the group to Payne Hollow. “You can read about this place and think you understand it, but you really can’t appreciate what it would be like to live here until you actually come here and see it. I couldn’t do it, but I appreciate that someone did.”
The Hubbards created this idyllic place in 1952 and lived there for nearly 40 years, subsisting off the land, foraging for scrap materials and putting them to good use. They labored with their bare hands and primitive tools to keep heat in their fireplace and put food on their table. They did it all gracefully, however, combing the beauty of their natural surroundings with classical music and literature, and their devotion to each other.
Anna Hubbard died in 1986, and Harlan died two years later, at age 88. The couple had no children or close living relatives, except for nieces and nephews. So in his will, Harlan left his 60-acre property in Payne Hollow – including the rustic home and studio – to Paul Hassfurder, who had worked for the Hubbards for 71/2 years and had become close to Harlan in his latter years of life, especially after Anna died.
Today, Hassfurder, 56, divides his time between Payne Hollow and his home just across the Ohio River in Madison, Ind. And after 17 years of ownership, Hassfurder has retained the integrity of Payne Hollow, much like it appeared when the Hubbards lived there.
But as the years go by, many Hubbard loyalists wonder what will ever become of Payne Hollow? Or what should become of it?
Obligation becomes a personal mission
Ever since Harlan Hubbard’s death, Paul Hassfurder has wrestled with the dilemma of owning a piece of history. Harlan chose to leave Payne Hollow to Hassfurder because they both agreed he was the type of person who could continue living there in a similar fashion as the Hubbards. Hassfurder himself admits he can never fully live like the Hubbards, but he has managed to continue making Payne Hollow a home – in his own way. The problem for him is, everyone else still regards it as the home of Anna and Harlan Hubbard.
“I’m trying to carry it forward in my own way. But it’s my home, and even though the Hubbard touch is everywhere, it’s not a shrine or a museum.”
Robert Rosenthal, a philosophy professor at Hanover College, has been taking groups of students down to Payne Hollow for 30 years. He knew the Hubbards well and he has become close friends with Hassfurder over the years. He sympathizes with Hassfurder’s situation but also realizes the historical significance of Payne Hollow and the need to preserve it.
“The future of Payne Hollow is all up in the air right now,” Rosenthal said during an October interview at the college. “The crucial factor is, what does the owner want to do? That’s ultimately Paul’s decision to make, and I know he’s wrestled with this for some time. He feels an obligation to Harlan to preserve it, while also making it his home. I don’t envy the difficult position he’s in.”
Rosenthal, 67, for years has been a sort of intermediary between Payne Hollow and the outside world. He is the main contact for the loose collection of people known as The Friends of the Hubbards, which formed two years after Harlan’s death in 1988, and has even published a few newsletters over the years for the group.
Rosenthal was the primary organizer of the Harlan Hubbard Centennial Celebration, held in January 2000 at Hanover College to mark what would have been Harlan’s 100th birthday. The day-long event featured several speakers, including noted Kentucky author Wendell Berry, who wrote one of the definitive books on Harlan Hubbard. In all, The Friends of the Hubbards have sponsored three events but have been inactive since the 2000 Centennial Celebration.
Rosenthal said as he nears retirement, he has often thought about pursuing a personal goal of helping Hassfurder preserve Payne Hollow from deterioration or possible loss to future development.
He has had preliminary discussions with Hassfurder and officials of the newly established Rivers Institute at Hanover College about possibly creating a non-profit organization that could raise private donations for use in maintaining the property. Money could also be used to pay Hassfurder enough to live there full time without him having to leave to take various jobs in town, as he does now.
Rosenthal said such a nonprofit entity, if created, would allow for fund raising, open the door to possible educational and cultural programming by Rivers Institute or Hanover College, and let Hassfurder retain ownership and live there. He added that several “Friends of the Hubbards” already have indicated they would be willing to donate money or materials to such an organization for the sake of preservation.
“We’re not talking about turning Payne Hollow into a tourism site because that would destroy the very nature of the place. We could have programs here at the college and maybe take small groups over to Payne Hollow on an occasional basis,” Rosenthal explained. “It’s something I’ve thought a lot about but have not done anything to pursue it. But I think this is something that is likely to fall to me, if it is to ever happen, and I’m not afraid to take it on. But it would require Paul’s willingness to explore it further.”
Rosenthal praised Hassfurder’s efforts to make Payne Hollow a livable place. “Paul has done a marvelous job, given his limited economic resources. And he does a nice job of interpreting the story of Payne Hollow to visitors effectively, I think, and he wants to continue doing that.
“But he’s a single person; he needs external income. And he’s a social person. It would be difficult for anyone to live alone there. The place needs work; it needs basic maintenance. No one wants it to become a sort of hunting lodge or fall into disrepair. The question is, how do you go about preserving it with respect to Paul’s wishes and property rights?”
Rivers Institute officials said they had not gotten far enough in discussions with either Rosenthal or Hassfurder to comment on the issue. Their new executive director, Dennis Wichelns, only took over at the institute last June after having moved to the area from California.
When asked about the idea of forming a nonprofit entity to support preservation efforts at Payne Hollow, Hassfurder said he had not discussed it to any great length with anyone and was “not willing to sign anything” unless he fully understood its ramifications to his rights as the owner. “It’s my home; it’s where I live, even though evidence of the Hubbards’ lives may be everywhere.”
Hassfurder said he has agreed to talk to Rivers Institute “at some point,” but that no meeting had yet been scheduled.
“I don’t really think much about the future of Payne Hollow, I think about living there now,” Hassfurder said. “It’s not something I’ve made any plans for way out in the future.”
Living up to expectations
Although he still receives many calls and letters from people wanting to visit Payne Hollow, Hassfurder said he does not actively seek out visitors. “I’m not wanting to promote it as a place that is open year-round as a constant tour home.”
Yet, they still come – some seeking a glimpse into the past or to relive their early experiences of visiting the Hubbards when they were alive. Others are just curious to see what is left of the Hubbards’ existence there. And to try and imagine if they could live like that and be happy.
“It’s sort of like your grandmother died and left you her house. You move your stuff in and start living there, but all her stuff is still there,” Hassfurder said. And in his case, “grandma’s” friends keep showing up at the door.
In the same Hubbard fashion, Hassfurder invites them in, shows them around and tells them stories about life in Payne Hollow.
“Fall is a busy time of the year for me because that’s when most people want to come down to the house,” he said. “It takes a lot of work for me to get ready. There are lots of chores to be done.”
In summer, many visitors arrive by boat. While most visits are pre-arranged with Hassfurder, many still come unannounced. They walk around the property and along the river and come into the house to view the loosely bound scrapbooks of photos and then sign their names in Hassfurders spiral-bound notebooks, much like the visitors did when the Hubbards resided there.
Some walk just below the house to pay their respects to the Hubbards themselves whose ashes are buried on the hillside, marked by a crude gravestone.
“I’ve always felt it was a very magical place,” said Bob Canida, a Madison, Ind., dentist who owns perhaps the largest private collection of Hubbard oil paintings, at least 25. “When you walk in through that portico in the art studio and enter that other world, to me it’s like magic dust has been sprinkled on me. It was a world created by Anna and Harlan – a simpler type of living that was a magical place to be. I was transformed every time I went down there.”
Canida and his wife, Charlotte and two children, Christy and Ben, spent many days at Payne Hollow, visiting the Hubbards and helping with the chores. When Harlan’s cancer finally ran its course in 1988, he spent his final days lying in bed in the Canida’s front living room, which has a beautiful view of the Ohio River.
Canida believes Hassfurder has done a good job in his stewardship of the Hubbard legend over the years, while also trying to make it his home. “Paul’s really tried to maintain the integrity of that place,” Canida said. “But it’s a simple dwelling and I don’t know how much longer it will last, just timber on dirt. No matter what type of upkeep you try to do, it’s got a finite lifespan.”
Hassfurder tries to explain his emotional attachment to the place but struggles to find the right words. He cites a passage in Don Wallis’ book, “Oyo: An Ohio River Anthology,” where Harlan describes in a journal entry how rare it is to meet someone who can appreciate and understand why he has chosen to live this way.
Harlan wrote: “Of all the people who visit us, from the towns and the farms, not one has a true understanding of why and how we live here. Will that person ever come who will understand us, honor us for what we really are, and respect our way of life?”
Hassfurder cites this reference in Wallis’ book as a description of himself. “I believe I am that man.”
“I’d like to have somebody get it who would enjoy it and live here and keep it up,” Hubbard said. “It would take a special kind of person like me, but I’m not sure I’ve met him yet.
“A few years ago at Hanover College, we met a young artist and carpenter and farmer – someone much like me – Paul Hassfurder. He may be the right person, though I’ve made no commitment. He has been kind to Anna and me and helped a lot with the chores around the place. He may be the man for this place. I’m not interested in making any money on it. If Paul is the right person, I’ll give it to him.”
Even to this day, Hassfurder cherishes the special bond he forged with Harlan Hubbard over those seven years of working together, up until prostate cancer took his life on Jan. 16, 1988.
Hubbard debated his options of what to do with Payne Hollow as he neared death. He told Hall during their 1987 interview that at one time he had considered giving the property to a conservancy, similar to the one Kentucky author Jesse Stuart arranged before his death to develop a house museum.
“But I don’t think that could be done here because you can’t have a museum out in these woods,” Hubbard said. “It would be hard to get to and too expensive to keep up.”
Over the years since his death, Payne Hollow has become a relic of the Hubbards’ past, both physically and figuratively.
It is still remembered fondly by those who experienced it while the couple was living, and it is still visited by those who would like to preserve that legacy or rediscover that “magical place” – even if it means simply journeying there and sitting for a while on the porch of the Hubbards’ house under the shady trees along a remote stretch of the Ohio River.