While his mother and brothers were busy running the household, young Harlan was often alone. But, it did not seem to bother him. He reflects that he has always been a "loner" and enjoyed solitary independence. Harlan discovered very early that his favorite playmate was the Kentucky wilderness.
"I've had a very unusual childhood in a way because I was so much alone and left to my own resources to amuse myself. The rest of the family, of course, were busy and I can't remember anybody took much interest in me. I can't remember than anybody ever tried to teach me anything when I was real small. But on the whole, I was very happy and I couldn't ask anything more. For one thing, it was such a nice place to live. It was in this little town of Bellevue, which was right on the very edge, and beyond there was no town at all; it was all country and you could walk out our backyard and there was empty hill, hillside.There were a few houses back there but not close to ours. And, in the house itself, there was a part that was supposed to be a garden but nobody ever got around to making a garden very often so other things were done there. That was my playground usually."
"It was partly due to my mother; she had a, was a Spartan mother if there ever was one. She didn't believe in children sitting around in the house and when I came home from school -- later on when I was going to school, even before I went to school -- I acquired the habit of being outside most of the time, winter or summer. Strange to say, I can never remember that I was ever cold or hot. Strange about children, isn't it? There must have been extremes of temperatures in those days."
" I took a great interest in the out-of-doors, just plain out-of-doors, I liked to be out. You'd go through our back gate and you'd come into an alley but it wasn't like city alleys, it was all sand. It was a wonderful place to play. And then you'd go across the alley and then there'd be a hill with all kinds of weeds and birds and butterflies. When I'd go barefoot in the spring and see the first butterfly I can still remember. That balmy air. And how I'd like to run and leap and shout, all to myself."
"Did you have any playmates?"
"Not then. Not until later."
Hubbard especially took an interest in the Ohio River, which bordered his hometown.
"But I had much in my life besides school. For one thing, I had discovered the river and I was always begging my mother to take me down to the river and she did once in awhile and very patiently sit on the hot sand with a black umbrella over her to keep the sun off while I and some of the other boys, friends, sported around in the river. And she soon had enough of that and let me go by myself which I did almost every day, it seemed like. I learned to swim and once in awhile, on weekends, Bill Strickland or Frank would come down and take out the canoe and take me with them on a canoe ride, which was a heavenly treat for me.They'd even let me paddle sometimes."
An Unusual Child
Harlan's "unusually" independent childhood is reflected in his independent thinking. Even as a child he showed logical maturity.
"I used to believe in Santa Claus very sincerely but somehow -- I was very logical and I couldn't see how that fat guy could get down one chimney after another with a big sack of toys on his back -- so I told my brother Frank I didn't believe in Santa Claus and he said, "Well, of course, there's no Santa Claus but there's the spirit of Christmas and you must believe in that." And that seemed pretty poor fare to me. I didn't know what he was talking about."
"There was one teacher in the sixth grade, Miss Carrie O'Neal, who was different from the rest. She was not much to look at; in fact, she was a fright, as a boy would say, but she had a feeling for art that none of the rest of them had and she tried to teach a little of it in her, to her class. I remember she didn't have very good judgment sometimes - she asked the class who was the greatest artist in the world and of course, everybody was silent. Nobody knew of any artist, I guess, except me; I had learned some of that from Frank. So I piped up, "Rembrandt." Oh yeah, she had said his name begins with "R." And I said, "Rembrandt." She said, "Oh, that's very good, but I didn't mean Rembrandt." I said, "How about Reynolds?" That almost shocked her because one of her students knew of two artists beginning with "R." "No, that's not it, either," she said. "It's Raphael. He was the greatest artist in the world." And then she went on about Raphael. I still think I was closer to the mark than she was. But she was very encouraging to me and gave me an interest and that's where I acquired the idea that I would really like to be an artist. I remember when the year was over and she left and we all left and she was at the door with a little word for each one of us. She told me, "You can do anything that you want to. Just make up your mind." I thought that was a pretty good start.”
Despite Harlan's young talents and intelligence, he was still shy. He reflects that his reserved nature is part of who he is.
“He was a (unintelligible) man and he'd write on my papers, "Come out of your shell!" And I can see just how that would apply because I was really in a shell, I didn't come out. And I don't think I ever did as far as that goes; I'm still in the shell. But I've developed inside that shell, I think, partly through the help of all these men and the books I've read.”
Tompkins County Farms
When living in New York, Harlan missed the connection to nature his Kentucky home provided. When offered the opportunity to escape the concrete crowdedness, Harlan happily accepted.
As a junior in high school, Harlan joined a program that offered class credit to students who worked as farm hands. He claims he did this not to get out of school, but because he had recently started reading Henry David Thoreau. The American writer's works had a lasting affect on the young Hubbard:"(Thoreau) inspired in me longing to live in nature... I never did know just what it would lead to but I had a vague idea that this was something important to me."
For two years Harlan lived on the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hoehn in upstate New York. He developed a special connection with Charles while working as his hand, even being referred to as "son." Harlan reflects that his time on the Hoehn Farm changed the trajectory of his life.
“Can you tell me when you first met him?”
“Well, he was a farmer in New York, upper New York state. He hadn't been a farmer all his life; his early career had been as a carpenter and a master carpenter he was, too. That was down in the outskirts of New York in Westchester County. One time he showed me some of the buildings that he worked on, that's in the same neighborhood where my brother lived, so we were all there together at one time. Some of them were tremendous. I don't think anybody knows about this, some of those three or four story framed buildings that were built in Westchester County at that time -- they wouldn't be built out of frame now, they'd be built out of brick or concrete -- but they were tremendous structures and he was in charge of all that. But anyway, he figured that wasn't the life he wanted to live all the time so he went up to New York state and bought a farm and settled down; he still had his two sons who were supposed to help him but during the war one of them was in the army and the other was out in California working so he was in need of help. So he subscribed to this program that the government had for supplying farm help from high school students. They offered them full credits even if they went out early and missed all the examinations. That didn't appeal to me much because I wasn't afraid of examinations, I really liked them, but I was glad to get out of school and go up in the country. With me, as I've said before, it was a time in my life when I was turning toward nature. I had just discovered Thoreau and his writings and it made a great influence on me. And then the painting that I was most interested in, landscape, figured very prominently so going out in the country was just the thing I needed at that time. I didn't know much about farming; I'd never really been on a real – on a farm. But, as I've said, I was raised in the outskirts of Bellevue, Kentucky, and used to being out in the country but.”
On January 4th, 1900 in Bellevue Kentucky Harlan Hubbard was born. He was the youngest of three sons born to Frank and Rose Hubbard. Before his untimely death, Frank worked as a house painter to provide for the family. Though Harlan had a particularly independent adolescence, he reflects that his mother was very important to him. His brothers, Frank and Lucien, both deeply impacted him. The hobbies that they shared with Harlan sparked interests that would later turn into passions. The Hubbard family's love for their rural Kentucky home had a powerful affect on the young naturalist. Even as a child, Harlan found himself drawn to the beauty of the natural world. Harlan exhibited a strong individualism that foreshadowed the unique life awaiting him.
Though he was nameless for his first few weeks of life, Harlan was still very much the beloved baby of the family. The Hubbard family would parade their newest edition around, as if they already knew how special the boy would be.
"I didn't have a name when I was first born, everybody called me Baby. We had a big dog named Duke, a big dog, like an Alaskan Husky, something. But they, I don't know who it was, my father or Frank or Lucien made a little two-wheeled cart and hitched Duke up to it, made a little harness, they'd put me in the cart. I couldn't drive, I was too little, but they'd lead the dog around and sing out, "Here comes Baby." Everybody would get up from their chairs and watch me go by."
Harlan’s appreciation for nature was instilled in him by his family at a very young age. The Hubbard family had a deep appreciation for the nature that surrounded them in Bellevue. They often camped, hiked, and explored the surrounding counties. Harlan, barely old enough to walk, was especially drawn to the Ohio River.
"I mustn't leave those early days, though, without talking about some of our camping, or especially one camping trip. Camping was a part of our family life; even my father went camping. He would take his camping outfit in the old buggy, I mean in the old wagon that he carried paint stuff around and hitch up his horse to it and drive up the river to a place called Oneonta, which might be fifteen miles from Bellevue and they'd put up a camp there. He went with a man named Pfister, one of his friends in Bellevue, and they put up a camp that lasted quite awhile, even whitewashed trees that held up the dining table awning. That's where I really first . . . then Mom would go up for a day, that's about as much as she could stand it, but she'd take me with her. I remember very well what the river was like even at that early age. I can remember looking up the river and feeling the attraction of what was up around the bend. In the evening, little packets were still running out of Cincinnati, the Tacoma and the Shiloh, the Chris Greene, old Chris Greene, they would pull into Oneonta to put off a few empty chicken crates or something and then go on up the river. But it was a great sight. I think that's where my real love for the river started."
In 1907, the patriarch of the Hubbard family passed away. Though Harlan was only seven at the time, he remembers his father fondly.
"It's strange that I, being seven years old at the time, remember so little of my
father. The impression that remains is of a gentle, quiet, rather sad man, who joked sometimes
and at times was kind to me but not much interested. This did not bother me at all; I thought that was normal, I guess, and never expected much attention from anybody. But I think he had an
inner life that no one knew much about. I do not know where – where his happiness lay or what he longed for, nothing about it. This I can only imagine from the blurred but unfading picture of him that remains in my mind, from what Frank has told me and by putting myself in his place. No doubt I imagine too much, but I think he had the sensitivity of an artist, with no outlet for his
feelings. He did not seek worldly success on his own account, but a degree of it would have been most welcome, enough to have gratified the woman he was married to and to place his family in
easy circumstances. These unrealized desires and no greater reward for his labor must have been frustrating. An old friend of his told me that my father was a socialist. A socialist in those days was not what they are today; and it would have been natural for him to lean in this direction,
perhaps toward the populist movement of the day that promised a more equitable distribution of the world's goods. This would explain the rash and unpractical ventures he sometimes undertook
to earn a better living in an easier way... My father's life had the elements of tragedy but he conducted it with a light touch, never revealing his inner tensions to the world. I admire all the more the kindness and consideration toward everyone, the broadminded tolerance, the patient
cheerfulness with which he went about the work that was expected of him, the moderation and dignity of his life."
The passing of Frank put the Hubbard family under financial strain. Harlan reflects, that the stress affected his newly widowed mother the most.
"My mother and I did a lot of things together but -- because I wasn't very old before I became rather useful to her. I could run errands and go with her when she went places and she was always going somewhere, as I mentioned. I don't feel that she took any great interest in me, either. I think at that time she was under considerable strain due to my father's condition and the fact that we had no income, nothing saved. The situation was corrected in a few years when Frank and Louie began to work, especially Lucien. He went to work as soon as he graduated from Bellevue High School and from the first he gave part of his earnings to Mom."
Along with providing for the family financially, Frank and Lucien were father figures to Harlan. They guided their younger brother with compassion.
"But my two brothers, in an off-hand way, had a great influence on me, especially since they were so different. And I was never scolded, I can't remember ever being scolded, and to be struck or beaten with a whip or anything, or stick was unbelievable. One time, my brother Lucien, after he had graduated from school and gotten a job, he went to work the day after he graduated from Bellevue High School, I think, over at the Carpenter Stationery Company for five dollars a week and he started giving Mama something out of his weekly pay right away.
And one time a little bit later than that, on my birthday it was, he came up to me with a strap, razor strap, "I'm going to give you a good beating with this strap." He looked real mad, severe. And I was horror-struck; I couldn't believe that he would ever do anything like that, it just seemed impossible. So I began to cry and then my brother saw he'd gone a little too far and he said, "Oh, I was just joking. Here's a birthday present for you." And what do you think it was? It was a turtleneck sweater, dark blue. I couldn't believe my eyes. And inside was a silver dollar. That's how they, that's how generous they were, in their way."
Both of the older Hubbard boys encouraged Harlan to take up some of their favorite hobbies. Lucian, who is affectionately called 'Louie,' instructed his younger brother in athletics and outdoors activities. While Frank is credited as being Harlan's first art teacher.
I learned to draw from Frank, of course, he's a wonderful draftsman. He’d put up things for me to draw: a bar of soap or a tin can or something when I was pretty small. Lucien was all the other kind, he was outdoors. And he was that way all his life, he's . . . I can remember playing tennis with him in New York, even out in California when he moved out there.”
The Hubbards' in New York City
In 1915, Harlan and his mother left their home in Bellevue for New York City. A few years earlier his brothers had moved there to peruse jobs in journalism.
“But all this was soon to end because Frank and Lucien, after they were settled in New York and doing pretty well, they encouraged Mom to move there. I don't know why. I think they felt that she was lonely; of course, she was lonely out there after, since her husband had died and her two older boys had gone off and left her.”
Even in a bustling city, Harlan lived a solitary life. In between attending high school in the Bronx and exploring the music scene with brother Frank, Harlan would "haunt" the more remote locations of the city. He was especially attracted to the Harlem River.
“All the time I was in New York I never had any girlfriends, they talk about. I had a very solitary life there, to tell the truth. It wasn't unpleasant at all; I spent most of my time out of school hiking around the city, just around the Bronx. That was in line with my early training, my mother's idea of getting out after school instead of sitting around in the house. And there's really very much to explore in the Bronx. I realize now that I could've done a lot more, because I kept to more or less beaten tracks. My favorite haunt was along the Harlem River, which was a small stream which divides the island of Manhattan from the Bronx, which is the mainland. It was full of tugboats and barges.”
Harlan's interest in river life was relentless - sometimes to the point of his family's annoyance.
“It was very interesting though, along the shores of the Hudson, too, not only the shores but the heights of it, on top of the bluffs overlooking the river. I made some very long hikes and Lucien one time took a couple of days off and we walked up along the Hudson on the Jersey side as far as West Point. We slept in a boathouse up there at night and came back home on a steamboat. He asked whether I'd rather go on a train or a steamboat and, of course, I chose the steamboat. I think he wanted to go on a train because it was quicker and he could get home quicker and get to work. And he rather scolded me because, after all, when I got in the boat the first thing I did was fall asleep; I guess I hadn't slept much in that boathouse. Anyway, that's the kind of trips Louie and I took.”