Letter From Katie: Tiny Town

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Rabbit Hash sneaks up on you. One minute you’re rolling along the gentle sweep of Route 18 in Burlington, Kentucky, beside rich fields and deep green foliage; the next minute, you round a curve and slow down for a sign that reads: “Rabbit Hash, Population 1.” There are a half-dozen buildings scattered on either side of the road, along with Rabbit Hash’s dominant landmark—the large, white-washed General Store with the Coca-Cola logo on the top of the roof

Not exactly Shangri-La, but there’s something artful about the way the tobacco barns hug this bend in the Ohio River, something particularly lovely about how the dappled sun glints through the leaves of the trees and dances on the water.

I am visiting Rabbit Hash for the first time in many years, and I see it through a haze of fairy dust. Its residents are old friends who peopled my life in the 1970s and ’80s, before Rabbit Hash was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, back when it was owned lock, stock, and barrel by native son Lowell “Louie” Scott, who built wood-burning stoves and slept on a roll away bed in the back room of the General Store.

Rabbit Hash might be little more than a memory if it weren’t for Louie, who had the presence of mind to start buying it up when the population dropped to nearly zero. And if it weren’t for the political turn it took a decade and a half ago, it might not even be on the map. Those of us who knew and loved the town always felt that it was natural that Rabbit Hash should rise like cream to the top of the churn. But it took a special election to get the ball rolling.

In 1998, civic leaders called a press conference and declared the town was going to run a dog—several dogs, in fact—for mayor, and that voters were invited to stuff the ballot box with their dough. Each vote cost a dollar, and anyone who owned a dog could buy as many votes for that dog as they could afford. Furthermore, anyone could run, even humans—though it was easy to see early on that the race would go to the dogs: affluent canine owners from all over were spending like it was going out of style.

The race brought all the elements of politics into play: greed, vote-buying, influence-peddling, and newspaper photo ops. Television news got behind the event, too, and Wayne Clyburn and I were asked to do a remote radio broadcast on WNKU from Rabbit Hash.

On the day of the election the temperature was nearly 100 degrees with humidity to match, but it didn’t slow the speechifying. Dog owners wandered from group to group, snapping their suspenders, passing out pamphlets, and brazenly soliciting votes in exchange for zoning restrictions, highway construction, and other promises equally impossible to fulfill.

The race between a black German shepherd named Goofy and a black lab named Herb was especially heated. While Herb was well groomed and made a fine presentation, Goofy showed a tendency toward laziness and looked eager to resume his usual position, sprawled under the front porch of the General Store. One voter was overheard saying, “That’s one sorry hound.” Another: “I wouldn’t elect Goofy for dogcatcher.”

Goofy kept right on scratching himself in embarrassing places, and in defiance of his critics won the race, costing his owner and his supporters a substantial pile of cash. Since the proceeds went to the Rabbit Hash Historical Society—the whole affair got national attention—even the losers weren’t too sore. And this tiny Kentucky town began its ascendency to glory.

Or, at the very least, a sleepy notoriety.

Now, years later, I am here again for a friend’s art show, looking out the car window as we drive slowly into town, eager to see how the place has fared in its role as an icon of Americana. Will it be chic and upmarket, overrun with tourists and traffic? Will everyone be eating arugula? Or will it still be the kind of place where the mayor is free to lift his leg on any tree?

In 2002, Louie Scott sold the town’s land and buildings to the Historical Society (it was a deal made possible by the out-of-nowhere bequest of a retired P&G secretary, but that’s a whole other story). Now the General Store is under the management of Terrie Markesbery, a young woman who moved here with her husband a little over 10 years ago. They keep the place stocked with chewing tobacco, Orange Crush, and microwave breakfast sandwiches.

I am pleased to see that the General Store itself, the beating heart of Rabbit Hash, seems to be the same—freshly whitewashed, the broad front porch running the length of the structure, with rickety steps on each end. But the Rabbit Hash Visitor Center is new since my last visit. Well, not exactly new: one of the old log cabins has been “re-purposed” for this purpose. This is where you’ll find the Historical Society as well as the Department of Tourism, which offers a stack of flyers anchored by a stone paperweight.

The current mayor’s office is a shelter located behind the barn. Mayor Goofy was widely celebrated when he died, and his successor, the late Mayor Junior, was very nearly worshipped by constituents. Now the citizens of Rabbit Hash are fond of saying, “Boy, the new mayor is a bitch!” Lucy Lou, a border collie, is the first female dog to hold the office. Several signs indicate the proper way to interact with Her Honor. “Do not feed the Mayor!!!” they implore.  “Foods that are not on her regular diet plan disrupt her system and her figure.”

A woman who introduces herself as Lucy Lou’s secretary offers to wake her from her nap so that I can meet her, but I decide to leave her to her rest. Instead, I visit the General Store, look at Terry’s selection of Indian jewelry, and buy a box of ginger chews. I sit down on the bench outside to savor my treat and people-watch.

Rabbit Hash used to boast that there were no children in the town. Now, I see a young couple in Nike Airs pushing a fancy stroller. The benches are filling up, mostly with men in shorts, a few wearing T-shirts with “Rabbit Hash” emblazoned on the front, the lettering stretching across their girth. I don’t know if they’re tourists or locals, but in Kentucky, they call it a “dunlop” stomach when a guy’s belly has “done-lopped” over his belt. So these men have captured the spirit of the place.

The name Rabbit Hash would be famous even if the mayor was human: it’s that memorable. The website of the Historical Society explains its origins, and I’ll repeat it here for anyone who has missed out.

In 1847 a terrible flood raged through the community between Thanksgiving and Christmas. As you can imagine, it put quite a damper on celebrations; it also drove the rabbits to higher ground. Residents worried about the future of their holiday dinners, the Historical Society’s entry claims, causing one man to joke that at least there should be plenty of rabbit hash. It became the town’s nickname, and in 1879, when the town had to change its actual name from Carlton (because of confusion with Carrollton and Carrol County), Rabbit Hash was the obvious choice. Maybe there’s something in the water, or maybe it’s the name, but somehow Rabbit Hash seems to breed characters the way boggy ground breeds mosquitoes. Case in point: Doc Baker, the resident obstetrician. Back in the 1970s, Doc Baker used to ride a mule to clinics in the backcountry to treat expectant mothers. Legend has it that he arrived at one facility to find a heavily pregnant women smoking. Baker fired off a pistol in the air. His mule reared up on its hind legs and Doc Baker fired again. Once he had everyone’s attention, he shouted something to the effect that pregnant women had no business smoking cigarettes and said he’d be back when they could “stop sucking nicotine.”

Rabbit Hash was also the home of Crazy Clifford. He was, I was told, a former scientist whose outlook on life was altered by a terrible motorcycle wreck. Clifford lived in the woods near town—nobody knew quite where or how—and he appeared on full-moon nights to drink beer and get into mischief. I encountered him once, many years ago, when I was playing music there. Clifford was dancing like a wild man on a tree stump in cut-off shorts. His skin was so tan, and his hair so black, that I seemed to be watching a cut-out silhouette writhing in the night to his own inner rhythm. He never even noticed me.

I don’t remember where I met Fiddlin’ Joy Sibcy, but a lot of our time as friends was spent at Rabbit Hash, listening to bluegrass bands or drinking “sassyfras” tea with Mike Fletcher—Shantyboat Mike—on his floating Rabbit Hash home. Fiddlin’ Joy, as everyone called her, was tall and slender with thick strawberry blonde hair that fell down to the middle of her back. She wore garments she got from second-hand stores, long skirts divided in the middle like riding clothes.

Once, when she was reading want ads and looking for a job, she circled one ad for a carpenter. When I saw her a few days later, she was jubilant. “You must have gotten the job,” I said.

“No!” she said, bubbling over with excitement. “But I found the outfit!”

She held out a paper bag that contained actual carpenter’s pants—the kind with a loop for a hammer and pockets for nails. “I got it at the Goodwill for $.99 cents,” she declared proudly.

Given Fiddlin’ Joy’s penchant for accessories, it should not come as a surprise to learn that she could not actually play the fiddle. She simply carried it under her arm as a violinist might do, the bow hanging from the crook of her finger. If someone came along and requested a tune she would say, “I’ve just been in a jam session and my arm’s worn out. I’m sorry.” If they wanted to know where she’d be playing next, she’d point to a distant campfire and say, “I might be over there a little later on tonight.”

Fiddlin’ Joy might have been my friend, but her best friend was Jewel Rose, a wealthy girl whose father owned a coal mine in West Virginia. Jewel Rose and Joy kept an antique show wagon locked up in Rabbit Hash, and they liked to pretend they were ladies in an old western saloon. I guess that’s how Jewel Rose met Crazy Clifford. I’m not sure, but I do know they were madly in love for a time.

Rabbit Hash has always been a peaceful place; one Cincinnati friend once said that going there was like “a shoebox full of Valium.” Of course, that was before bikers discovered the spot during Mayor Goofy’s term. Now nearly every day motorcycle riders roar in to enjoy the serenity and ruin it at the same time. But by and large they are good guests: As Don Clare says, “They don’t leave nothin’ behind but their money.”

Don Clare is president of the Historical Society, and as such, tends to be the administrator of Rabbit Hash, dealing with its present issues as well as its past. “This is a wooden-town community,” he tells me. “All these wooden buildings right on the river are a real concern when it comes to flooding.” And so the floods that gave Rabbit Hash its name still threaten its rickety existence.

But nothing much seems to damage its image. Rabbit Hash celebrates its own history more than any town I know. Visit on Old Timers’ Day in late summer and you’d be amazed at how many people consider this place their own. They come in droves, folks you haven’t seen in forever, wearing frontier costumes and eating barbeque and drinking Coca-Colas. Maybe they lay claim here because it seems like a good place to be from.

One Sunday a few years ago, when my radio show on WNKU was still broadcast in the afternoon, I got a call at the studio from Jane Burch Cochran, the nationally-exhibited quilt artist who lives just outside town. Miss Jane, as she is called, had an urgent request. “Katie, I have lost my pocketbook,” she said in her ladylike voice. “Could you ask on the radio if I left it somewhere?”

Sure enough, as soon as I asked, the phone rang and it was somebody at the General Store calling to say they had her purse and to come on back and get it.

As my visit proves, it’s still that kind of place. In the office building/barn/art gallery, the last painting has been examined and discussed by browsers (unfortunately, there weren’t any buyers), and I help Miss Jane tidy up. It is sticky hot, and since it is Rabbit Hash there’s no air conditioning.

“I’m glad you came,” Jane says. “It will give people something to talk about tomorrow.” She had promised her art colleagues that if they came to the show there would be a couple of celebrities, one of whom was her chiropractor. I was the other one.

I laughed. “Which one of us had top billing?” I ask. “Me or the chiropractor?”

Jane gathers used plastic cups and forks into a trash bag. She’s flying to Montana the next day, to a small cabin she and her husband own there. In Montana, she says, “I don’t do anything except read and think about projects. I’m always working on something in my head.” She gives me a sharp look. “Do you think artists ever get to retire?”

I laugh and take a drink from my water bottle, pick up my purse, and start toward the stairs.

“Have a good time,” I yell to Jane, but she is already lost in thought, and she doesn’t hear me. She is probably daydreaming about her next quilting project.

Spending the day in Rabbit Hash is as close to retirement as I am likely to come, I think. But for now, it’s close enough.

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