Frank M. Hohenberger · 1976
By Michael P. Smith
It’s a simple picture: six men resting on a park bench in a lazy small town. Its caption is just as simple: “Liar’s Bench.” But the simplicity combined with the rural humor of the caption made it one of the most popular photographs of all time. Its photographer, Frank M. Hohenberger, never understood its wide appeal — and appeal that brought photo orders into his Brown County, Indiana, shop from as far away as the Philippines.
Born on January 4, 1876, in Defiance County, Ohio, Frank Michael Hohenberger only wanted a “stable” life, he said in his diary. As a child, he was raised by his grandparents on their farm near Defiance. At the age of 13, he was apprenticed to a printer. He spent most of the next three decades as a printer in various shops throughout the Midwest. Eventually, he wound up as a printer for the Indianapolis Star.
His life still wasn’t stable. A change in management at the Star cast him out of a job in 1916, so he took employment at Leiber’s camera store in the Capital City. One day a Mr. King of Indianapolis brought some exposed photographic plates to the camera store to be made into pictures. Hohenberger was immediately drawn to the beautiful simplicity and pioneer lifestyle he saw on the photographic plates.
“Where is this place?” he remembered asking the customer. The customer reported that the scene was from a small village 40 miles south of Indianapolis. The village was Nashville, a town of about 300 people, the county seat of Brown County. In later years, Hohenberger would describe the county seat as “nestled in the valley of peace.”
Shortly after Mr. King had visited the camera shop, in 1917, at the age of 41, Hohenberger boarded the Illinois Central train to Helmsburg and walked the remaining 20 miles to Nashville in search of that stability he had been searching for in his younger years.
At once, he set up shop and began to record the beautiful countryside and pioneer architecture. But it wasn’t until 1924 that the “natives” began to accept and trust him. Many Brown Countians were highly religious and had reservations about foreigners making graven images. Others simply thought that their souls wouldn’t rest in the hereafter if pictures of them remained after their deaths. And still others were distrustful of outsiders. So Hohenberger resigned himself to landscapes: he would often copy poetry into his diary and then match it with a photograph of some of Mother Nature’s wonders.
“Hohenberger’s first sales,” Lorna Lutes Sylvester reports in the Indiana Magazine of History, “were to tourists who saw the pictures displayed in a shop window in Nashville. Success really began, however, when several of his photographs were published in the rotogravure section of an Indianapolis newspaper.” Soon Hohenberger was selling prints throughout the world and commanding as much as $25 a print. In 1933, he reported in his diary that he made as much as $5,000. That was the height of the Depression.
His fame took him all over the state — Madison, Brookville, Columbus, Turkey Run, the Limberlost, the Dunes, Sylvester reports. He took pictures in Kentucky, the Carolinas and Mexico. But whatever money he made, he turned it back in to his equipment and the photographic science and into winning friends in Brown County.
Whatever reluctance the Brown Countians had at first was erased after several years. By 1924, Hohenberger was arranging to take portraits of Brown County natives. He usually did this through a mutual acquaintance. Often he would arrive at a family cabin to photograph the “hill folk” working at their pioneer crafts only to find the family all spruced up for the “picture man.” In such situations, he said in his diary, it might take all day for the family members to relax so he could photograph them in more natural poses.
In addition to his photography, Hohenberger began to write about the “natives” in a weekly column, “Down in the Hills o’ Brown County,” in the Indianapolis Star. Except for a period between January 16, 1932, and June 20, 1936, Hohenberger’s column appeared from 1923 to 1954.
As far as researchers can determine, Hohenberger spent most of his life alone. His diary mentions his impending marriage to a young woman named Kathryn, and her name comes up again in his records of several trips. But no records of a marriage are available. When Webb Waldron visited Hohenberger in Nashville in 1933 for an article for American Magazine, he said the photographer lived alone.
His diary also notes two other minor crisis in his life. He would often argue privately in the pages of his diary that he indeed was an artist. Many of the members of the renowned Brown County artist colony disagreed. Despite the philosophical disagreement, many of his best friends were from within the colony. It was a lifelong argument which he eventually won.
He also emerged victorious when county truant officer Louis Snyder accused him of telling lies in his newspaper column about the folks of Brown County. A showdown was averted when Hohenberger was able to prove Snyder had never read the columns in question.
Those crises avoided, Hohenberger was accepted in the rapidly changing county. He died in November, 1963.
He left behind his 570-page diary, his files of clippings of his column and 15,000 negatives and pictures. The Lilly Library at Indiana University how holds the collection.
Frank M. Hohenberger’s most significant journalistic contribution is the bulk of his work. From 1917 until 1963, he exposed 15,000 negatives and, thus, the evolution of Brown County, Indiana, from an isolated backwoods area to a major tourist attraction.
Early in his career at Nashville, Hohenberger was busy documenting the lifestyle of the “natives,” their customs and their habitat. Soon afterward, he was recording the activities and habits in a weekly newspaper column, “Down in the Hills o’ Brown County.” Except for a four-year period in the early 1930s, the Indianapolis Star published the column from 1923 to 1954.
In 1923, about the time the “natives” began to allow Hohenberger to photograph them, he was selling pictures of the Brown County landscape worldwide. In 1923, for example, Hohenberger photographed a spread of Brown County log cabins for Good Housekeeping. Webb Waldron, a writer for American magazine, reported being in Hohenberger’s shop one day when the photographer received a telegram from a California newspaper. The telegram was simply a poem, with the editor’s name and address. Hohenberger read the wire and then went to his files and pulled out a plate. The newspaper soon had a picture to accompany its poem.
When Hohenberger stopped writing his column in 1954, he compiled some of his best anecdotes about Brown Countians with an informal history about the county into a book called Down in the Hills o’ Brown County.
By introducing the outside world to the quaint whiles and ways of Brown County, Frank M. Hohenberger contributed significantly to making Brown County, Indiana, a tourist attraction.
In the 1930s and 1940s, when improved automobiles and roads brought tourists from all over the state and nation, Brown County began to lose its rustic charm even if it did retain its beauty. Being a chief promoter of the county’s tourism was never a distinction Hohenberger felt comfortable owning, especially since he had spent many afternoons in the 1920s arguing with farmers and loggers about the preservation of trees native to the county.