(Click Photo to See Full Size)
One of the gentlemen scheduled to speak was stricken ill (H1N1) and replaced by my friend Jon Kay, director of Traditional Arts Indiana. Since Jon was a substitution I didn’t have a chance to see an abstract of his paper I cannot share the title. He is sending me a copy of the paper, but I want to share while it is still fresh.
I want to attempt to explore some of the themes of his presentation framed by my work in constructing (both literally and metaphorically) the Folk School. I am not a folklorist, in a formal or academic sense, so I will not be able to explore these themes as neatly and clearly as Jon did.
Jon’s talk centered on a photograph of the Nashville House’s Old Country Store. The photo above is the same scene, taken by the same photographer in 1950 and is a substitute for the photo that Jon shared. Jon’s was shot in 1953 and was not available to post from the Frank M. Hohenberger On-line Collection. (Take and hour and explore this collection. It is amazing!)
Up until World War II Nashville, Indiana was a thriving artists’ colony. Indiana’s, and the midwest’s, finest artists had studios and shops in and around Nashville. Following the war, for several reasons, artists began to move to other colonies in other parts of the country. As these artists left, Nashville began to fade as a tourist center.
In 1944 the Nashville House burned to the ground. The Nashville House was an important restaurant and inn in the heart of Nashville. The owner decided to rebuild and in so doing so “re-branded” Nashville so that it would continue to attract tourist traffic.
This new attempt to land the tourist dollar was centered upon a nostalgic and backward look at Indiana. Nashville became the Indiana of our pioneering grandparents (this was 1944) and a place where time stood still.
Jon explored photographer, Frank Hohenberger’s role in developing this image for Brown County. His photos appeared weekly in the Indianapolis Star and had a great deal of influence upon how folks saw Brown County.
Jon used the Hohenberger photo to show evidence of this shift in marketing. Take a look at the following:
- Hand lettered signs in archaic lettering styles (Which I learned were lettered by a very successful modern painter) labeling many things
- Wording of the signs are nostalgic and refer back to a time when things were done at home and by hand. (Jon’s photo showed many more signs in the back referring to things like twice smoked hams, home baked bread, etc.)
- The pot bellied stove, cracker barrel and checker board
- Handmade baskets, carved goods, brooms, etc.
- A wall of Hohenberger’s photographs depicting Nashville “old timers”
- A hand crank phone
- Antique tavern chairs
Without looking carefully it’s easy to forget that this atmosphere was invented and build just before 1950.
All of these elements work in concert to create this nostalgic environment where folks could immerse themselves in elements of the memories and past.
I walked into the Old Country Store immediately following Jon’s talk and most of the elements remain. One important element, handmade local goods, is sadly no longer evident.
Jon was clear in making no judgement regarding whether this approach to branding Nashville in the 1950s as appropriate or ethical.
One of my fears in developing the Folk School is that I may cross some invisible line and “Disneyfy” Indiana culture.
Hand lettered signs, rough hewn wood, persimmon pudding and old time music are all powerful tools to set the stage and create an environment to attract interest in what we do. While Jon made a point of not judging this practice I find myself wondering how far to go before it becomes unethical or worse, humorous.
We are beginning to design and develop a new space to house the Folk School After three years in two small upstairs rooms of a large old home we now occupy most of the basement. It’s an exciting time. We’ve our own entrance, large rooms and cement floor. Through a process of group consensus building specialized spaces and themes are beginning to emerge.
In developing ths space we are using many of the elements that appear in the photo above:
- We’ve the exact chairs that the folks are sitting in to play checkers.
- Our signs are hand lettered and cut. They are finished in traditional methods that appear old.
- We’ve accumulated portraits of local traditional artists drawn by a close friend of the school.
- Fixtures resemble traditional store and shop fixtures and are often inspired by old photographs.
We even dubbed the small retail space the Sassafrass Shop and matched the colors to the fall foliage of a sassafrass tree.
When have we gone too far and when are things just right? I look forward to talking to Jon about these issues. Please share your thoughts.