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Bellevue at 150: Harlan Hubbard, City's Favorite Son

The City of Bellevue turns 150 years old in 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its sesquicentennial celebrations have been postponed for a year. In the meantime, local writer and attorney James Daly is writing some pieces about the city and they will be published at The River City News. This is one in a series.

Harlan Hubbard, the notable visual artist, writer, philosopher, and outdoor adventurer, is perhaps Bellevue’s most famous native.

Born January 4, 1900, to Frank Gilbert Hubbard and Rose Anne Swingle Hubbard, and reared in a house on Grandview Avenue, Mr. Hubbard at 15 moved with his mother to New York City to join two of his older brothers. He attended Chiles High School in the Bronx and then the National Academy of Design, where his interest in painting was nurtured.

“I grasped the meaning of Cezanne, Gaugin, and Van Gogh, and was never the same afterward,” Mr. Hubbard wrote much later.

Mr. Hubbard and his mother returned to Kentucky in 1919 and eventually settled in a house he built on Highland Avenue in Fort Thomas.

He evolved as a painter, a musician, a disciple of H.D. Thoreau. He also became a solitary wanderer of rivers and hills, an incessant questioner of his hopes and aims, a disbeliever in virtually the entire value system of his time and place, a maverick, lonely, and full of love, according to his friend and biographer, Wendell Berry.

Mr. Hubbard became a serious painter, working in watercolor and oil. He took frequently as his subject the Campbell County countryside. An early oil, “Summer,” (1934), situated in the ochre-and-cobalt palette of Van Gogh’s landscapes, renders a farmer’s capacity to beautify a natural setting. His paintings hang at the Behringer-Crawford Museum in Covington, at Hanover College in Madison, Indiana, and adorn private collections.

In his late thirties, Mr. Hubbard met and eventually married Anna Eikenhout, a Michigan native and a graduate of Ohio State University who had come to Cincinnati to work as a fine arts librarian.

The couple made their life together a series of adventures.

The Hubbards visited frequently a camp they had established at Brent along the Ohio River, which sat between Three Mile and Four Mile creeks. Sleeping frequently there in a tent, the Hubbards constructed a shantyboat from found materials. Eventually they cast off to drift along inland waterways all the way to New Orleans.

Mr. Hubbard kept a journal for much of his life. His book “Shantyboat,” a lyrical and deeply reflective chronicle of the couple’s waterborne exploits, was mined from the journals.

“With me, the attraction of flowing water goes back as far as I can remember,” Mr. Hubbard wrote in “Shantyboat.” “My river is the Ohio, whose channel from the first has borne the dreams of the old and known to the new and strange.”

The Hubbards tied up the first summer of their trip at Payne Hollow, a river settlement in Trimble County near Madison, Indiana. Eventually they settled there and built their own house, outbuildings, and a johnboat, grew their own food, raised milk-bearing goats, played music with each other, and lived off the grid in high style for more than forty years.

It was those experiences that were the seeds of Mr. Hubbard’s second major literary work, “Payne Hollow.” He wrote of the Ohio Valley’s “unattainable beauty,” and in 1961, called it “the main theme of my life – the contemplation of it, the resigned waiting, the quiet ecstasy.”  

Anna passed in 1986; Harlan in 1988. Their ashes are scattered at Payne Hollow. 

Their legacy survives in Mr. Hubbard’s books and paintings, and in the original and beautiful arc their lives made together.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Harlan Hubbard's first name in the headline and photo caption. 

Photo: Anna Hubbard, Harlan Hubbard, and Lassie Thompson Whaley with dogs, 1968. (via Kenton County Public Library)It has been updated.

 

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