Kentucky by Heart: Northern Kentucky native Harlan Hubbard lived … – User-generated content

Northern Kentucky native Harlan Hubbard and his wife, Anna, lived with enthusiasm on the fringes of society; those who know their story might affirm they lived authentically in the mainstream of genuine life.
Harlan often is referred to as the “Henry David Thoreau of Kentucky.” If spending five years on a shanty boat navigating the Ohio River doesn’t demonstrate their uniqueness, maybe another description will. The couple scratched out a living in a remote, wooded valley near the river, in Trimble County, yet strongly deserved the title of “renaissance” souls, greatly talented in the arts.
Harlan and Anna July 1956 (Photo from BCM Cunningham Collection)
Harlan was born in Bellevue on January 4, 1900. He grew up to become a writer, an accomplished musician, and an artist who painted landscapes of his native area, along with images of boats on the waterway of the Ohio River. Anna’s birth took place in Michigan on September 7, 1902. She was a college teacher there until moving to Cincinnati to take a position as a fine arts librarian at the public library, where she met Harlan. And in what did she excel? She was a pianist and cellist and read well in three foreign languages.
The two were married in 1943. For a while, they lived modestly in Campbell County behind his mother’s house in Ft. Thomas, then moved to Brent, inside the boundaries of Ft. Thomas. That’s when (and where) the Hubbard couple initiated their desire to be different. They lived on a bank in a tent on the Ohio River. Harlan built a shanty boat and they lived on it two years before indulging their wanderlust by traveling on it down the Ohio to Louisiana, a five-year journey.
Next stop brought a new homeplace, Payne Hollow, in Trimble County. They became familiar with the site on their five-year shanty boat ride. Bill Thomas, in an article referenced in the sources below, wrote that the two “built their own rustic home and boat and grew their own food, canning fruits and vegetables for the winter months. In the evenings the Hubbards wrote in their journals, read to each other by candlelight, or played music together.”
“Old Time on The Upper Mississippi River” by Harlan Hubbard
Ironically, Harlan gained serious inspiration for his painting while a young person living in New York, where he finished high school. His mother and he had moved there to be closer to Harlan’s two older brothers after the father, Frank, died. On a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harlan was impressed by noted postimpressionist artists, and in turn, decided to also become an artist. Harlan returned with his mother to Northern Kentucky in 1921 and lived for a while with her in a house Harlan built in Ft. Thomas.
During the time before his 1943 marriage to Anna, Harlan painted Campbell County landscapes from a studio he built in Brent. He later built another studio behind his mother’s house. His mother died a few months after the marriage. As mentioned, the couple began living in a tent, then on a shanty boat at Brent and preparing for their five-year journey.
After the trip to Louisiana, the Hubbard couple sold the shanty boat, bought a car and took a ten-month tour of the western United States. Harlan wrote the autobiography, Shantyboat, while on the ride. In time, they bought seven acres at the Payne Hollow site and lived without running water or electricity but lived lives that respected the earth and produced much artwork.
Bill Thomas wrote that though Harlan was an introvert and difficult to get to know, he “was a deep thinker who revealed himself in his writing and paintings. He was a gifted writer with a philosopher’s mind.” Though it took a while for his art to be appreciated, today his work is exhibited at the Behringer-Crawford Museum in Covington and at Hanover College.
Interested in what iconic writer Wendell Berry thought of Harlan, I read his fascinating biography on Harlan called Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work. Much of Berry’s research on Harlan (and Anna) came from Harlan’s journals. Of Harlan’s unworldly nature, Berry put it in perspective, noting that “Harlan did not indulge himself, but neither did he deny himself. He did not renounce the pleasures of the world. He set himself against the ‘modern world,’ and did all he could to exclude himself from it, but he did so only in order to live in the world itself, the natural and immemorial world, as fully and joyfully as possible.”
Berry also noted another irony, writing: “Another paradox of his and Anna’s life was that their love of solitude, and all that they had done to preserve it, made them ‘interesting’ to people; hundreds of people came to see them and all were made welcome.”
I received some astute insights on the Hubbards from Jason French, Curator of Collections at the Behringer-Crawford Museum, in Covington. He commented on the dynamics of his sibling relationships: “Harlan was the baby of three boys,” French noted. “He and his brothers were pretty close since their father died when Harlan was only 7. They helped raise him through his teenage years. His oldest brother, Frank, had been trained as an artist but ended up being an editor and an illustrator in New York City for one of the papers there. His middle brother Lucian started out as a reporter and writer in newspapers but ended up being a writer and producer in films, first in New York but later in Hollywood. Lucian was a producer on the first Academy Award-winning film, Wings.
French continued. “Harlan and his brothers, when they were young, went on camping trips and canoeing adventures and some of what they did together probably planted the seeds of Harlan’s love for the outdoors. Though they both were established in more traditional fields, they seemed to have helped Harlan along the way with his publishing and other projects throughout their lives.”
According to French, there are YouTube channels today dealing with living self-sufficiently and off the grid in modern society. “There are personalities that talk about the “golden age” of camping and famous American writers such as Daniel Boone or Horace Kephart or Ellsworth Yeager, none of them, though seemed to be aware of Harlan Hubbard, who was living off the grid in a fashion that they were to aspire to.
I think that was a shame. If he were alive today, I could see him having a YouTube channel. He was not a fan of technology, but I could see somebody wanting to share his wisdom and his experiences with the world… and that’s not that different than him writing a book so that his life could be brought to an interested audience.”
A quick search on Amazon will reveal books credited to Harlan Hubbard or about him and Anna, and as already noted, there are collections in Covington and Hanover College. For much more than shared in this article, I suggest one embrace the available sources for some seriously compelling information about the Hubbards.
Sources: Two articles by Bill Thomas in The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (University Press of Kentucky, 2009); Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work (Pantheon Books, 1992), by Wendell Berry;; Nov. Nov. 21, 2022 Courier-Journal article by Bob Hill; Behringer-Crawford Museum; Hanover College archives
Enjoyed your piece. Bill Thomas bought Hubbard’s Fort Thomas home knowing its history. He and his cousin founded the Fort Thomas Forest Conservancy, of which I am the president, in the studio that Harlan built. By the way, that building is on the National Register of Historic places now. It is open to the public on the third Saturdays of the month beginning in March. Perhaps you would like to visit? Please email us at and I will arrange it.
Thanks, Chuck. My wife and I live in Versailles, and that offer might make a nice day trip. I grew up in Grants Lick and Claryville, but my dad worked for Clover Leaf Dairy, in Ft. Thomas. So appreciate you reaching out.

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