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"He Quit His Job; Took a Train—"

By Webb Waldron

from American Magazine, Volume 116, Number 4, October 1933, pgs. 46-48; 104-106.

Some of my pleasantest experiences have been pure gifts of luck.

One morning recently I dropped into the city room of an Indianapolis newspaper to see a friend.

"Say," he said, "if you’re hunting for people who have done original and interesting things, you might look up Frank Hohenberger some time." Then he hesitated. "But no, I guess not. You’re out for important guys."

"Important?" I said. "What do you mean, important? Who is this fellow Horkenberker?"

"He’s a photographer. Not ‘Hokenberker.’ ‘Hohenberger.’ Well, listen."

And he began to tell me a few things about Hohenberger and his pictures and his country and the people in it. With every word he spoke, the political top hat I had been trailing receded farther into insignificance.

Suddenly I jumped up. "Gee," I exclaimed, "that’s marvelous! I’m going down there this minute to see Hohenberger. Where did you say he lives?"

"Town called Nashville," said my friend. "Down in Brown County."

I hot-footed out of the office, snatched up the road map from the seat of my car, studied it a minute, then drove to the nearest gas pump, and asked the way to Route 37. For twenty miles or so I sped southwestward on pavement, then swung off to the left onto dirt roads.

Another twenty miles or more, and I began to see queer things. I passed a log cabin with an old lady sitting on the steps smoking a clay pipe. Then I spied a picturesque-looking character standing barefoot in a brook doing something with a tin pan. I drew up to inquire whether I was on the right road.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"Pannin’ gold," the man said. "What would I be doin’?"

I blinked. Where was I? I thought I was in Indiana, but I began to wonder.

"Many folks panning gold around here?" I asked.

"Oh, shore," he said; "thaar’s a click uv gold in Brown County."

A little later I struck a town called Bean Blossom, and then I was ready for anything.

When I reached Nashville, Ind., a little village nestling in a beautiful nook of the hills, I drove slowly down the main street looking for the sign, "Hohenberger, Photographer." I didn’t see it anywhere, so I drove up to the post office.

"Right down there, on this side of the street," the postmaster directed.

I walked back down the street. Still I didn’t see it.

I asked the girl in the corner drug store.

"There, right there." She pointed to a shabby white building fronting a small green at the end of the street.

I strode toward it. No sign over the door. It looked deserted. I pounded. No answer. I pounded again. An annoyed and scowling man jerked the door open. His hands dripped with chemical solution.

"Are you Mr. Hohenberger?" I asked.

"Yes, what do you want?"

"I want to talk to you."

"What about?"

"About you."

"Well, I can’t talk to you right now. I’m busy. Come back at one o’clock."

That scowl represented the irritation of a good workman interrupted on the job. When I went back at one o’clock, it had vanished. Now I really saw the man. A slender fellow, medium height, in rough, workman’s clothes, bronzed by the sun and wind, alert dark eyes and slightly graying hair, a sensitive, rather humorous face.

"In photography," he said, apologizing for his previous gruffness, "you’ve got to do everything yourself—pressing the bulb, developing, printing. And you’ve got to put your whole mind on it at every stage."

He led me into a big, cool room, rag rug on the floor, old spinning wheel in the corner, in the center a sheet-iron stove with a long pipe running into the chimney, a table piled with books and magazines, filing cases against the wall. At one side a dark-room, near it a neat bed-place walled off, in the rear a one-man kitchen.

Hohenberger is a perfect illustration of the truth that if a man builds a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to his door.

Eighteen years ago he was a make-up man on an Indianapolis newspaper. He had been working in print-shops since he was a kid. He was born in Defiance, a small town in northwester Ohio. When he was five years old, his father and mother died. He was sent to live with an uncle, a printer. Almost as soon as he was able to tell one letter from another he was put to setting type. When he was fourteen he was earning $1.50 a week, 10 hours a day.

Later on, he pushed off for himself, worked all through the Middle West in print-shops, hired and fired, the rough-and-tumble life of an itinerant printer.

Finally he landed the job on the Indianapolis newspaper, and worked up till he was getting $45 a week. Then suddenly a change of ownership threw him on the street. Hohenberger decided that this thing had happened once too often.

"I wanted to get hold of something that would have some stability," he said to me. "Something where I could be my own boss and individuality would count."

He had been dabbling in photography for years, knew something about it, and now, after looking about, he got a job as manager of a camera shop at $16 a week. He worked there a year or more, "learning all the time," he told me. Then one day someone brought in some snapshots to be developed that made Hohenberger exclaim, "Where did you get these?" They showed a log cabin, an old water mill, some people who looked to him like Southern mountain folk. "Down in Brown County," the customer answered.

Hohenberger looked up Brown County. It was in the southern part of Indiana. The county seat was Nashville.

"I was interested in characters and types," he said, "and I had a hunch that there was something down here that I could do well. I had about twenty-five dollars saved up. I quit my job, took a train to the nearest station, and came across the hills to Nashville with Daddy Woods, the mail man. I liked the place. I rented this place here for a shop and living quarters for seven dollars a month."

It was a place with only abut 300 population, with two groceries, a livery stable, a drug store, and a boarding house; a village far off the railroad, with no industries, entirely dependent on the trade of the hill folk.

Hohenberger had bought a good lens second-hand for $8 in Indianapolis. He fitted it into a camera, slung it over his shoulder, gripped a tripod in his hand, and set out in search of those characters he had seen in the snapshots.

"Who’s that furriner?" a native asked.

"He’s makin’ a map uv the forterficashuns ‘round here for the Kaiser," confided the hardware dealer.

When Hohenberger got out into the hills the people hid from him, in fear that his camera was an infernal machine or, if they knew what it was, because they didn’t want their "pitchers took." If you got your "pitcher took" it meant that you left something behind you when you died, and your soul couldn’t sleep peaceful. But gradually Hohenberger made friends with the hill-people and persuaded them them that there was no harm in letting him point a camera at them and press the bulb.

"The thing that fascinated me," said Hohenberger, "was the way character stood out in the faces of these people. The job that interested me was to get that character onto a photographic plate."

He had paid a month’s rent in advance, but his photographic materials and meals at Allie Ferguson’s boarding house used up most of the balance of his $25. After a week or two he got permission to put some of his pictures of Brown County folks and scenes in a store window for sale. Passing tourists bought a few. That helped. Then he sent in a batch to the rotogravure editor of an Indianapolis newspaper. The editor bought them. Hohenberger immediately spent most of the money for chemicals and paper and such. But he was started.

Under the locust trees on the main street of the village, in front of the courthouse and the old log jail, stood a bench immemorially called the Liars’ Bench. Here certain local characters lounged through the long afternoons—Mosey Scott, school-teacher and fox hunter; Woody Jackson, cobbler and county clerk; Bud Henderson, the village squire; Andy Sampson, an easy-going farmer; Carey Help, barber, real estate dabbler, and justice of the peace; Cal Duard, gold panner, coroner, and weather prophet—whittling and swapping tales. The one who told the biggest, it was said went to the head of the bench.

One day Hohenberger snapped the bench from behind, sent the picture to the paper. There was something homely and human and humorous in the picture and its caption that made people write in, asking "Who took that picture? Where can I get a copy?" Hohenberger sold more than 500 copies of Liars’ Bench at from $2 to $5 a print. He still gets orders for it—from California and Massachusetts and England and the Philippines.

"As a picture it wasn’t much," he says. "It was just a stunt."

After a time he began to send in anecdotes with his pictures, and one day he wrote the editor of the Indianapolis paper asking if he would be interested in a weekly piece about Brown County folks.

"Why not?" the editor answered. "Try it out."

So Hohenberger began a column called "Down in the Hills o’ Brown County." He told about Josh Bond, coroner and undertaker, who ran a real estate office, a restaurant, a hardware store, and a grist mill, and whose sign read: "We Grind Mondays & Saturdays. Also Care For the Dead," and who was heard to remark, "Two more funerals and Mabel’s going to college."

He told about the man who had a bear-wallow on his place and was so pestered by visitors that he put up a sign: "Bears Not Wallowing Today. Bears Will Wallow Tomorrow." About the couple who came down out of the hills and asked the county clerk if he would "commit a marriage." About the collections always being taken up around the public square to raise money for everything from helping a man get a divorce to fixing the cemetery fence, and how Jud Hopkins always protested the latter idea: "They cain’t get out, kin they?" And about Jody Tull, who invited his friends in to hear a speech about the Civil War on his brand-new radio. But the durn-blasted thing wouldn’t work, so Jody rushed downtown to see the man who sold it to him. On the way he passed Stew Buchert’s place and heard the speech comin’ out full force. So he turned around and went sadly back home. "No wonder I couldn’t get it," he announced. "Stew Buchert beat me to it."

Next to human beings, the most fascinating subjects to Hohenberger are trees, he told me. Harvard University has bought some of Hohenberger’s photographs of trees, and the other day a professor in Cambridge University, England, acknowledging the receipt of a photograph of a sycamore that Hohenberger had sent him on order said, "It is the most magnificent picture of a tree I have ever seen!"

A wealthy banker in the Middle West commissioned Hohenberger to take a series of pictures on his estate in North Carolina—a job which brought him $1,300. And Kate Gleason, the famous woman machine-tool builder of Rochester, N.Y., who died last year, sent him to take some pictures for her on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, and that job also brought him a good, solid sum.

You might suspect that this mousetrap man Hohenberger, with these sizable fees and his sale of prints and his jokes and all, still paying only $7 a month rent after seventeen years, would have a big stake in the bank. But he hasn’t.

Some years, he says, he has made maybe as much as $5,000, but he has spent most of it on equipment and experimenting.

"I’m always experimenting," he said to me, "always learning something new. I really don’t know much about photography yet. Not in the scientific way."

Yet Hohenberger has won security with the 12,000 negatives which he has made in these seventeen years, and which he has filed on the shelves of his shop.

Those negatives are as steady a source of income as money put out at interest. People everywhere are always writing in for a print of the picture they saw somewhere—that old mill, the old swimmin’ hole, those hickory trees, that funny old woman boiling soap. Those pictures that take you back to childhood days. Newspapers are always wiring for photos of lanes, log houses, rail fences, wild flowers, boys turning grindstones.

That afternoon I went out picture-taking with Hohenberger. He took the camera with the eight-dollar lens that he started in with seventeen years ago.

When we got back to the village, Hohenberger found a piece of paper thrust under the door of his shop. He pulled it out, read it, and passed it to me with a grin. It was a telegram that had been phoned over from Bloomington, the city twenty miles west. What a telegram!

Now is the cherry in blossom love of my heart with the apple to follow over the village at nightfall now merrily veers and darts the swallow at nightfall now in the dark marsh grass awakes the chorus that sings old sorrow the evening star is dim for the dew and the apple and lilac will bloom tomorrow stop rush photo.

It was signed by the editor of a newspaper in the West.

"Sure, said Hohenberger. "I often get poems over the wire like that with a rush order for a photo to illustrate them."

While I was recovering from my surprise at a telegram so flowery, so personal, and so passionate, Hohenberger had gone into the shop and started looking through his files in a businesslike way. "No, that won’t do, nor that," he said, pulling out negative after negative and rejecting it. As he searched, I caught glimpses of this view and that—hills and hill-people and hill-beauty—all those things so richly American that he has gathered in seventeen yeas of work and study.

"Here it is; just the thing!" Hohenberger exclaimed. He held up to the light a negative showing a giant lilac bush in full bloom, and behind it a hill snowy with apple-bloom.

To the people of those hills, this mouse-trap man, Hohenberger, will always be an "outer." But actually he has become an "inner," for he understands them. The world beats a path to his door, not merely because he chose to be different from other printers, but because he chose something that has a real relation to him. And that is the secret of a successful life, isn’t it?

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