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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

Homespun humor

A century ago, cracker-barrel philosopher Abe Martin may have been the most famous sage in America.

Kin Hubbard sketches one of his cartoons to run in the paper. /Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society

Hunched over on a barbed wire fence, Abe Martin beckons you to join him in fictional Bloom Center, a small town in Brown County. Dressed in oversized shoes, checkered pants and a matching bowtie (depending on the day), he rambles off something about nobody being as agreeable as an uninvited guest. His worn cap slouches over his eyes and whiskers dance across his chin. He loves moving pictures and plays and eats sardines during the intermissions. "Politics," he feels "is just one five-cent cigar after another."

Created by Frank McKinney "Kin" Hubbard, Abe was born in Hardin County, Ohio. His early education came from a general store, and he played a yellow clarinet in a band on Johnson's Island in Lake Erie. Abe "votes the Democratic ticket for nothing" and claims that the union was preserved so baseball players could practice in the South.

His remarks about the weather, money and issues of the day delighted readers daily in 300 newspapers across the country. He talked about prohibition -- "We hain't got prohibition. It only costs more."; the jazz age -- "This is a loose, fast age, an' at the rate we're goin' jazz'll soon run its course, an' then watch th' demand fer decent unscuffed girls."; and the economy -- "What th' country needs is a good, tough two-dollar bill that'll last as long as it takes t' save one."

The cartoon character, who turns 110 this year, has been compared to Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart. Iconic Will Rogers called Hubbard "America's greatest humorist." Abe's country-philosopher observations still ring true today such as "Some girls seem t' buy a skirt on th' theory that they'll never set down," bringing to mind the likes of Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan.

Abe first appeared in The Indianapolis News on December 17, 1904. The idea for Abe first came to Hubbard when he traveled to Brown County during John W. Kern's political campaign that fall as a political cartoonist for the paper. Hubbard decided to expand on the illustrations he had drawn during the campaign, most of these being caricatures of Brown County citizens that hadn't already appeared in the paper. From then on, Abe appeared daily in the paper with two sayings below each new sketch.

"Abe and Kin had this down-home Hoosier stuff about them," says Jim Madison, professor emeritus of history at Indiana University. "Indiana was an urban industrial state at the time that Kin was writing, so Abe became a rose-colored view of the old Indiana."

Brown County in the early 1900s was known as "the poorest, most backward and isolated county in Indiana," according to History and Families Brown County, Indiana 1836-1990. The 1900 census shows fewer than 10,000 people living in the county, a drop from 1890 due to severe soil erosion and infertile farms. The deeply rutted roads made travel nearly impossible, and the economy depended on cutting down second growth trees for railroad ties.

The arrival of Adolph Shulz and his Nashville art colony helped Brown County catch up to the times. In 1908, 25 artists lived in Nashville. The establishment of the Illinois Central Railroad gave the local canning industry a means to ship their products to other parts of the country.

Into this evolving community came Abe. His touch of the past and common sense observations appealed to a growing audience. Phrases like, "The only way to entertain some folks is to listen to them," and "Th' feller that belittles his wife in company is only tryin' t' pull her down t' his own size," made Abe a household name.

"Hubbard was in a political cartoon heyday because newspapers were the only way to get news at that time," says Andy Downs, political science professor at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne and director of the Mike Downs Center on Indiana Politics. "Now, this type of information can come from anywhere and in different formats."

This new exposure brought a new look for Abe. He sat up straight, pressed his clothes and shaved. He shifted his philosophizing from farm life and small town affairs to political and social issues and current events.

In 1911, Hubbard expanded the world of Bloom Center with "Short Furrows," weekly columns of Abe's musings that appeared in the paper with some help from his neighbors. Abe talked about various types of birds, their personality traits and how they really were like humans. Miss Mame Moon, owner of the Star Livery Stable who was said to resemble her horses, encouraged women to ask their significant others to marry them versus the other way around. Constable Newt Plum, a police officer with a booming voice, informed all of Bloom Center of the crime level at all times.

The cast of Bloom Center came from a Kentucky jury list, and the neighborhood grew as Hubbard created characters to say what Abe couldn't. Their commentary appeared in the fictional Bloom Center Weekly Sliphorn. Other installments of Abe that readers could get their hands on were the annual Christmas books that began in 1906 and "almanacks," which were parodies of Poor Richard's Almanac and the Old Farmer's Almanack.

Hubbard is to Abe Martin what Walt Disney is to Mickey Mouse. One can't exist without the other, which means Abe owes everything to Kin.

Hubbard was born in 1868 in Bellefontaine, Ohio, the youngest of six children. His family owned the local newspaper, but oddly enough, Hubbard never got involved in the business. He showed artistic skills from an early age with his work as a silhouettist, cutting paper into the likeness of people or animals. Later, he explained that he could "cut out from blank paper any kind of an animal with a correctness and deftness that was almost creepy." He loved the circus, the annual county fair and the theater and drew exaggerated figures of each production after each visit.

He quit school at 13 to work odd jobs in Bellefontaine and eventually enrolled in the Jefferson School of Art in Detroit. He stayed only a few days and returned home to produce a vaudeville show. In 1891, he landed a staff artist job at The Indianapolis News but left after a disagreement with an editor. He bounced around some Ohio newspapers, worked at The Sun in Indianapolis and went back to The News in 1901. In 1910, Hoosier humorist George Ade praised Hubbard's work in American Magazine, and syndication offers began rolling in. Finally, Hubbard signed with the George Matthews Adams syndicate.

Outside of Abe, Kin found love and inspiration in his personal life. He married Josephine Jackson in October 1905 at the age of 37, which was later in life for the time. They had their first child, Thomas, in 1907 and their second, Jane, in 1909. Kin and Josephine experienced tragedy in their personal life as well. Kin Junior, who was born in 1918, died in 1919 after their car went off the road due to a mechanical failure and landed in a creek near Indianapolis. Two years later, another son died in childbirth. Kin's parents and siblings also contributed to Abe's opinions, spending many nights sitting in the living room by the fire debating current issues and discussing what was going on in the newsroom.

Kin's personal life inspired some of Abe's sayings, including progressive thoughts on getting married later in life, a woman's right to choose her husband as well as comments on crime from Abe and Constable Newt Plum after the Hubbard household got broken into. Abe became just as much a part of the family as his wife and children were.

Although Hubbard was writing and drawing 100 years ago, his work as a political cartoonist isn't all that different from today's artists. Gary Varvel, political cartoonist at The Indianapolis Star calls Hubbard's work "clever, witty and timely." Varvel worked in the same newsroom that Hubbard did before the merging of The Indianapolis News and The Indianapolis Star, making Varvel and Hubbard part of the small handful of cartoonists who have worked there in the past century.

Varvel explains that the difference between a political cartoonist and a comic strip artist is that comic strips are supposed to make the reader laugh whereas political cartoons aren't, but usually do.

"Political cartoons help make the news understandable for some people," Varvel says. "The cartoons make it fun because most of this stuff is boring, and we can use humor as a tool to make it interesting."

Today Abe is still the talk of Brown County. Slats Klug, a musician who often plays around town, found in Abe a source of inspiration for the song "The Snake That Liked His Brew" on his CD, Liars' Bench, a collection of songs about Brown County.

"The more things change, the more people long for the past," Klug says. "Abe's prevalence today is a direct example of that."

The town of Nashville and the lodge bearing his name in Brown County State Park continue to keep his spirit alive. The town hopes to bring a play about Abe Martin back to the stage after a 10-year hiatus and host Abe Martin festivals. There are also cutouts of Abe characters sprinkled throughout Nashville. Handouts at the Abe Martin Lodge and the convention bureau tell tourists about Abe. The lodge is filled with Abe memorabilia and also offers programs about him.

Kin stayed with The News until the end of his career. A heart attack ended his life in 1930, but he and Abe left a legacy of over 16,000 sayings, 1,000 "Short Furrows" and 8,000 drawings.

Abe MM from 812 Magazine on Vimeo.

"No one has had as much influence in the state as Kin Hubbard and Abe Martin have," says Bob Kirlin, Nashville City Council president. "If people don't think he's important, I would tell them to look again."

As Abe would say, "Flattery won't hurt you if you don't swallow it."

Abe in the 21st Century

Does century-old logic stand the test of time? Do politicians today even know who Abe Martin is? The answer is a resounding yes. 812 interviewed Indiana politicians about Abe's legacy.

Bob Kirlin, Nashville City Council President

Well, I don't necessarily have a favorite (as he smiles and begins to recite half a dozen of them). "Th' safest way t' double your money is t' fold it once an' put it in your pocket." His sayings are funny, but also have common sense.

Mark Kruzan, Mayor of Bloomington

"We'd all like t' vote fer th' best man, but he's never a candidate." In the last election poll, citizens had the choice to pick Obama, Romney or none of the above, and none of the above won. For me, this saying holds truer today than ever before with Congress and presidential approval ratings in the single digits. Our confidence in government as an institution has reduced, and we attempt to deal with it through humor. Abe's messages are so universal and prove true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lee H. Hamilton, Congressman

"Now and then an innocent man is sent to the legislature. When a fellow says, 'It ain't the money but the principle of the thing,' it's the money. The only way to entertain some folks is to listen to them. It ain't no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be." Kin Hubbard and Abe Martin are an enormously important part of Hoosier heritage, and they've had an enormous impact on American political life. They are both greatly revered, and I often use his sayings in my speeches. They're the best one-liners.

Abe Martin Lodge

Still can't get enough of Abe? Head over to the lodge and family cabins named after him and his neighbors in Brown County State Park.

The idea for both the lodge and state park came from Hubbard himself, who pushed for one to be dedicated in Brown County. The property where Brown County State Park now sits started off as a game park but became a state park in 1929. Abe Martin Lodge opened in 1932, and the 20 family cabins on Skunk Ridge, named after Abe's neighbors, were added later on. It's the only state park inn or lodge to be named after a cartoon character outside of Disney World.

Legend has it Hubbard was walking with Colonel Richard Lieber, the first state park director, who became known as the father of Indiana state parks, on what is now Kin Hubbard Ridge. He pointed to the area where Abe Martin Lodge currently sits and told Hubbard, "Someday, I'd like to see Abe Martin Lodge built here." Lieber was German and while staying at a cabin outside of Nashville, came up with the idea of bringing the European hostel to Indiana, according to Jim Eagleman, naturalist at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

"It's a pretty unique tribute to Hubbard," he says. "Abe's lived here, and he's still here. He's part of the Brown County experience."

Lodge Information

Family Cabins $176.99/night

The lodge advises booking six months to a year in advance for holiday and summer weekends.

Lodge Room, featuring a patio and two queen beds, $121.99/night

For more information on specific dates and various room/cabin options, go to http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/inns/abe/lodging.html

"Short Furrows" Excerpt

"For years most folks have been under th' impression that our feathered friends choose ther mates fer life, an' that inconstancy is unknown amongst birds. Nothin' could be more remote from th' truth. I've known crows t' have three or four wives in a season, an' kingfishers are notorious Mormons, an' poor providers. Th' jaybird is good t' his folks, but he's a natural thief an' murderer, an' works fast. Most birds only stick t'gether till their children are big enough t' hop off, so birds are purty human after all"