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Thriving on the Fringe of Society

Carrie Blackmore Smith at Cincinnati Magazine

Photo by Catherine Kay Greenup / Unsplash

The trailhead at the end of a rural drive near Milton, Kentucky, doesn’t look like much. But this spot, about 50 miles southwest of Cincinnati, is where Anna and Harlan Hubbard would have hiked in and out of the woods while living at their beloved Payne Hollow homestead.

Hundreds of people made the trek down the mile-long trail by foot or came up from boats on the Ohio River, the only two ways into Payne Hollow. Friends and strangers alike came to see the world created by the unconventional couple who, as Harlan put it, lived on the “fringe of society.”

“I don’t know exactly how to describe it,” says Bob Canida, who was a young man when he first visited the Hubbards in 1972. “You left feeling there was something inherently good and different here.” The hike became a time of meditation, where Canida could clear his head of the outside world and spend time with two people living unlike anyone he’d ever known.

The Hubbards met in Cincinnati. Anna Wonder Eikenhout hailed from Grand Rapids, Michigan, born into a Dutch family. She graduated with honors from Ohio State University and taught German and French before taking a job at the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library.

Harlan Hubbard was born in 1900 in Bellevue. His father died when Harlan was 7 years old, and he and his mother moved to New York City to live with his two older brothers, who were working there. He grew up in the Bronx and studied art for a bit at the National Academy of Design before moving back to Kentucky with his mother.

Harlan resumed his studies at the Art Academy of Cincinnati but didn’t complete a degree, giving up on traditional art instruction and instead just making his way on his own, says Kentucky historian Jessica Whitehead, who’s currently working on a complete biography of Hubbard. “Their story, along with Harlan’s art and writing, have enjoyed sustained regional devotion,” says Whitehead, who thinks “there are whole new generations of people primed for their particular strain of the American experience.”

The Hubbards met at the downtown library, where Harlan was a regular patron. Both were musicians, and after several years they started dating and got married in 1943. Straight away, the couple chose an uncommon path, spending their first two years together living in a shack on the banks of the Ohio River down the hill from their home in Ft. Thomas. They built a shantyboat that they’d eventually live on for about six years as they floated down the Ohio to the Mississippi River and all the way to New Orleans.

“Thus they came to the beginning of the great adventure that they made possible for one another,” Wendell Berry writes in his 1990 biography, Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work. Harlan’s attraction to the river went back as far as he could remember, Berry writes, while Anna’s began only after she met him. “Her enthusiasm for it gave a legitimacy to his that it had not had before. She gave a necessary permission.”

Years later, Payne Hollow was their shantyboat life come ashore, as Berry puts it. Without electricity or modern conveniences, they built an existence in tune with nature and enriched by art and the satisfaction of hard work.

“Creativity, self-reliance, beauty, industry, and quietness are the kinds of values that resonate with those who love the Hubbards,” says Whitehead, who serves as board secretary of a new nonprofit organization, Payne Hollow on the Ohio, that recently purchased the property with plans to make it accessible to the public. “It would be impossible for all of us to chuck everything and build our own Payne Hollow. But these kinds of principles can apply to whomever we are and wherever we are in the world.”

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