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Stranger Than Paradise
With a garish riverboat casino floating across the way and developers champing at the bit to bulldoze their town, the good citizens of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, were a little concerned about their future. Then along came Ms. Edna Flower.
To get to Rabbit Hash from Cincinnati, fasten your seatbelt, ease onto I-75, and gird yourself for a short trip south and west, out of the buzzing hive of the city and into the sleepy-eyed countryside. First you’ve got to scream across the bridge into Kentucky, and fight your way through Covington and Erlanger. Even as you peel off toward Burlington, on Kentucky 18, you’ll whistle in wonder at how much it has grown since you were last here. Not so long ago, Boone County was a place of lonely barns in the distance and hawks riding the upstream breezes. Now it’s the fastest growing county in the state. Nearly 14,000 newcomers have settled here since the 2000 census, and a sea of subdivisions has risen up to meet them. Pastures have morphed into pre-fab homes, cul de sacs, chain restaurants, strip malls, schools, a fire station as big as a city block—all of it looking so new you expect to find the price tags flapping in the breeze. You can’t help but snicker softly at the thought of Daniel Boone coming to terms with this sprawl despite his legendary need for “elbow room.”
But pretty soon Route 18 narrows to two lanes that twist into the farms you expected to see much sooner. The journey now is through time as well as space, especially on a warm Saturday morning in late September, when fog blinds you on all sides, parting like a flock of ghosts as you drive. Soon you’ll turn right onto Rabbit Hash Hill Road, make a quick left at the Rabbit Hash General Store onto Lower River Road, and swoop down to the river bottom, where someone apparently put up a tiny town in the 1830s and then forgot about it.
Rabbit Hash allegedly earned its name back in the 1840s, when a flood sent the residents—and a lot of local rabbits—scurrying to the hills above. Despite the swollen river, the residents ate well, and they named their locale after the meal that saved them from starvation. The general store, though freshly painted, looks every bit of its 170 years. A sign perched on the roof features a smiling, bottlecap-hatted Coke mascot and a list of some of the offerings they still carry inside—“Tobacco, Sundries, Potions and Notions.”
The town today looks much as it did then. In fact, it’s hardly a town. Seven buildings cluster at a bend in the thread of blacktop. The wooden barn next to the store hosts social events, while the tiny log cabin next door houses the Rabbit Hash Historical Society museum. Across the street from the store stands a black wooden barn, still known as “the iron works,” though for many years it’s been a crafts store. A stone carver’s workshop, a wood-frame house from the 1880s that once served as the doctor’s office, and an 1840 log cabin owned by Lowell “Louie” Scott, the town’s leading citizen, round out “downtown.”
As the day warms up, the fog burns away and an odd mix of people materialize, all in town for the annual Rabbit Hash Old-Timers Day. Most obvious are the locals themselves, dressed as “old-timers” in straw hats and bib overalls, a few of them puffing on pipes or leaning on walking sticks. Shortly before noon, a crowd of about 60 gathers to unveil two bronze plaques. The first, high on a pole to the left of the road, announces that the town of Rabbit Hash (plus 33 surrounding acres) has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The other, affixed to the front door of the Rabbit Hash Historical Society museum expresses gratitude to Edna Flower, an occasional resident, now deceased, who left the town $250,000. Don Clare, president of the historical society, the town’s de facto governing body, conducts the ceremony in bib overalls, a white T-shirt, and wire-framed glasses. At 54, Clare’s hair and beard have turned snow-white, but there’s a boyish charm in the way he talks about his home.
“Rabbit Hash is utopia,” he tells the crowd. “Rabbit Hash is the Emerald City. Rabbit Hash is the center of the universe.” He reads from a page of scribbled notes in a soft Kentucky accent that doesn’t so much twang as caress his words. His praise for the town—population…well, somewhere between two and 200, depending on how you define “town”—is delivered with a sly grin. Are we joking about the value of this place or truly honoring it? The crowd answers the unspoken question by sending up a cheer of approval.
Rabbit Hashers cherish the tranquility of their town, the lack of social or political hierarchy, their obvious links to the past, the untouched innocence of the place. And by gum, they intend to keep it that way, come rapid suburban expansion (a.k.a. hell) or high water.
Best known for electing a dog as its mayor, Rabbit Hash hugs the Ohio directly across from Rising Sun, Indiana, home to the Grand Victoria Casino, where thousands of less fortunate folk feed their dreams into slot machines, yearning for the big jackpot. Hashers feel they’ve already found it. And they wear their riches like an old coat that’s gone soft in all the right places.
Ed and Linn Unterreiner, who are both in their 40s, moved here from Cincinnati 19 years ago, enraptured by the anomaly of the place. Since then they have raised four children and never regretted their decision for a moment. “You know that movie they’re making, Rabbit Hash: The Center of the Universe?” says Linn, referring to a documentary recently filmed about the town. “That pretty much sums it up. It’s a real hometown. People know each other’s business, but that’s a good thing.”
Ed, a general contractor who spends his days working in Cincinnati, agrees. “When I drove out here for the first time, I fell in love with it,” he says. “I like getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city. People are relaxed here. Rabbit Hash is unique because it hasn’t changed. It’s always been this way.”
Keeping it this way, however, is not easy. Development in Boone County would seem to be unstoppable. To protect themselves, residents have applied for every preservation grant they can find. Their efforts have led to the listing on the National Register of Historic Places as well as a recent designation by First Lady Laura Bush as a “Preserve America Community.” Such distinctions bring prestige to the town but offer no money and little in the way of protection from prowling developers. (The National Register designation only protects the town from projects involving federal resources.) So to maintain their untrammeled way of life, Rabbit Hashers have fought development at every turn. Fortunes looked bleak in 1999, for instance, when plans were underway to install a large sewage treatment plant in the area—residents figured sewage systems meant running water and water meant development—but they stood up to county government and won.
“I see development coming from all directions,” says Terrie Markesbery-Young, 39, who runs the general store with a take-charge demeanor. “It’s on my mind every day. Town is getting closer every time I go to town, and I don’t like that.” She and her husband Richard, who runs the stone carving workshop across the street, have lived in Rabbit Hash for seven years. As proprietor of the general store, she’s at the vortex of the Rabbit Hash universe. The only thing that gives her comfort, she says, is that the river runs along the north side of town, so at least development can’t come from that direction.
Don Clare disagrees. He says the Grand Victoria Casino has been a threat since before it opened its doors. Town leaders were aghast at the original plans for a pink boat with purple neon and a lighthouse. “They were making an atrocity,” he says. “It was a threat to our historical integrity.”
Because of its National Registry designation, Rabbit Hash was able to leverage a few concessions in terms of the casino’s design and the amount of light it was allowed to generate. But Clare and the other town leaders fear that Rising Sun, or the casino itself, wants to turn Rabbit Hash into a ferryboat landing—the theory being that Cincinnatians could reach the casino more quickly by driving through Kentucky and ferrying back across the river at Rabbit Hash.
“A developer called me not too long ago and said he’d knock down the buildings and blacktop the whole town for free,” Clare recalls. “I said, ‘What rock did you crawl out from under?’” He snorts, but his tone suggests the offer was as insulting as it was absurd. “Knock down the buildings!?”
Clare says the town will do what it can to preserve itself. “In other countries, their historic legacies go back eons,” he adds. “They take pride in that. In the U.S., we like to bulldoze ours.”
A means of keeping the bulldozers at bay arrived out of the blue in 2002 when the estate of Edna Flower bequeathed $250,000 to the Rabbit Hash Historical Society, a loose organization of volunteers dedicated to preserving the town’s past by orchestrating its present. The society’s base of operations is the log cabin museum, which houses a motley mess of rusted tools, old photos, and medical supplies circa 1920. The organization’s monthly expenses amount to a smidge over $6 (the museum’s electric bill), so the unexpected windfall of a quarter of a million left a few bucks to spare. Clare runs his fingers through his beard as he remembers the call from the bank informing him of the donation. “It was surprising,” he says. Pause. “It was providence.”
With that amount of money, one would think the society could buy the whole damn town. And one would be right. They did. The society was able to borrow against the principle to purchase all the buildings that long-time resident “Louie” Scott had begun buying in 1978 in an earlier effort to protect Rabbit Hash from outside developers. “We were circling the drain before Louie stepped up,” Clare explains, adding that the drain looked pretty close again when the latest unlikely savior appeared.
Edna Flower is a mystery. In 1973, she bought a modest home overlooking the river as an investment and occasional retreat. But she never really revealed herself to her fellow Rabbit Hashers—or to anybody else, for that matter.
The same story is echoed by nearly everyone in Rabbit Hash. Edna came to town, worked in her yard, perhaps stopped at the general store or the craft shop, said little, and left. No one suspected she was worth millions or that she would help save the town. “I knew who she was,” Clare offers, “but I can’t say I really knew her. She was pleasant to people, but she wouldn’t ever come to you and initiate a conversation.”
It’s not difficult to discern a bit of embarrassment among the locals when Flower’s name comes up. The irony of erecting a memorial to someone they don’t really remember—someone who lived on and off for 25 years in a town that prides itself on neighborliness—is not lost on them. Betty and Werneth Avril, Edna’s next door neighbors, are the only Rabbit Hashers who knew her. The Avrils, who now live in Dallas, bought their place in Rabbit Hash for weekend getaways while living in Mt. Adams. The family owned the Avril & Sons (now Avril & Bleh) Meat Market on Court Street, and were pleased to learn Edna had been a regular customer years before.
“Edna was peculiar,” Betty says. “She could be very distrustful, and she wasn’t a person who said very much about her life. She knew my husband from [the meat market] and liked him. Otherwise I doubt she’d have ever become a friend.”
The friendship blossomed to the point where the Avrils spoke to her on the phone nearly every night, and picked her up once a week to drive her to the bank and post office. But they never were invited into Edna’s home and learned little about her life. After helping her move into an assisted-living center a year or two before she died, they never heard from her again. “It was as if she turned a corner and had moved on with her life,” Betty says.
Piecing together Flower’s life is like chasing a ghost. According to a mix of public records and the fading memories of family members and her few friends, she was born Edna Balzhiser in 1912 and raised an only child in Oakley, where she graduated from Withrow High School in 1929. Her father was a musician who may have worked for a time in the circus and later worked for a railroad company; he was killed in a train accident, perhaps during the 1930s. Edna lived with her mother until she passed away, and then continued to live alone in the same house in Oakley. Late in life, she married a man named Elmore Flower, though even less is known of their life together.
Sources contradict each other, but it seems that she worked her entire career, nearly 40 years, for Procter & Gamble, where she was the administrative assistant to the director of the food division at the plant in Winton Hills. Contemporaries at the company have few memories of her, except that she was quiet and dignified, if a bit quirky. She wore her hair short, had an austere appearance, and didn’t join her coworkers for lunch, preferring to eat whatever she had packed in a brown bag while sitting in her car in the parking lot. Those who worked with her always called her “Miss Edna” and the office was surprised when, well into her 50s, she announced she was getting married. She retired in 1970, and family members assume her considerable estate is the result of amassing P&G stock.
“I remember her talking a lot about the stock market with my parents,” says Charles Meister, a West Liberty resident and Edna’s second cousin. Now 68, Meister was too young to recall much about her, except that she used to visit his family’s farm during the 1940s and ’50s. “She was very mysterious, pretty much a loner, I guess you’d say,” he recalls. “She’d come up here in an old beat-up car and old beat-up clothes. She had an old Plymouth station wagon with a rag stuck in the gas tank. We thought she looked like a person living on the street. But she must have been pretty well off even then.”
Edna remained an enigma until the end, which came at Victoria Retirement Community in Norwood, on April 26, 2001. She was worth millions, which she left to various charities, including $2 million to the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. The plaque on the front door of the Rabbit Hash museum reads: “In memory and appreciation of Edna B. Flower for her extraordinary generosity and support toward the preservation of the town of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky.” Interestingly, for someone who apparently treasured the town, she is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, in Milford.
Though most residents are well-educated professionals, making the town seem like a real-life version of Li’l Abner’s Dogpatch is still a community hobby. Rabbit Hash hats, T-shirts, coffee mugs, drinking glasses, and bumper stickers line the shelves of the general store, and everyone takes pride in having elected a dog named Goofy for mayor. The election, held in 1998, raised funds for the East Bend Methodist Church; votes were sold for a dollar apiece, and voters were encouraged to cast as many ballots as they wished. Goofy served his constituents well, until he was put to sleep at the age of 15 in 2001. In November, the town finally filled the vacant position by electing Junior, a black lab, as its new honorary leader.
This tradition of electing a dog for mayor caught the eye of Los Angeles documentary filmmaker Jude Gerard Prest in 2002, when he was in Rising Sun making a documentary for the Travel Channel about riverboat casinos. After one visit, he quickly gathered the resources to make a short film.
“We were thinking it would be a Daily Show type of piece, but within an hour of being there we knew it was something much bigger,” Prest explains. He spent weeks interviewing the locals and returned several times, including on Old-Timer’s Day last September. “When people see the film they think I’m going to make fun of these people and make them seem like hicks,” he says. “But then it turns, and it’s anything but that. It’s really an homage.”
On December 18, Rabbit Hash: The Center of the Universe, made its Midwest premiere at the Madison Theater in Covington. Prest says he worked hard to ensure that the film captured the essence of the town. “They’re an eclectic group of people who just get it,” he says. “They make a statement in their own way, and it’s just a simpler way of looking at things. I want the audience to leave thinking, ‘Maybe these people have it right, and we’re the idiots.’”
Rabbit Hashers certainly seem to agree. They’re having fun playing bumpkins while supporting a place that provides tranquility and a link with the past. And if preserving that way of life also means putting up a fight, they’ll do that too.
“There’s something here that’s tough to describe,” Clare says. “People like Rabbit Hash. They like to say ‘Rabbit Hash.’ When you hear the name you smile. There’s just something unique about it, and we want to preserve that uniqueness. There won’t be a Rabbit Hash McDonald’s, and there won’t be a Rabbit Hash Wal-Mart. We’re sure about that.”
Originally published in the January 2005 issue.
Photograph by Chris Smith.