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Cover Story September 14, 2006


 

 

by lyle e davis

One wonders why anyone would want to become a hermit.

Yet there are hermits today; and they were here yesterday, and the yesterdays before yesterday.

I can remember as a young lad in Omaha, Nebraska, when my dad, who was at that time a driver/route salesman for Omar Bakeries, had a hermit as a customer.

Dad never met the hermit. He lived, for those familiar with Omaha, at approximately 78th and Military Drive . . at that time a very rural area without many houses. His home, if one could call it that, was not much more than a dugout of about 10 feet in width and perhaps four to five feet high. The roof was a collection of brush, branches, dirt, anything that would keep out the rain. There were, of course, no bathroom facilities.

The hermit (dad never learned his name, nor does he remember ever seeing him) would leave money in a bucket at the end of a lane. Dad would drop off one loaf of bread, at a cost of 13 cents a loaf, pick up the change and be on his way.

The driver who owned the route prior to dad taking over had told dad of the hermit/customer and how the payment and delivery details were handled.

That hermit is long since gone, as is his palatial home. Omaha has grown rapidly and no doubt the old hermitage is now replaced by a beautiful suburban home.

Hermits have been with us since medieval times. There appears to be a variety of reasons as to why they become hermits. Some are hermits because they feel rejected by society . . . others out of a deep spiritual need to be alone and to meditate regularly . . . others to ‘find themselves.’

More often than not, hermits tend to be characters.
In fact, my 90 year old dad called recently to tell me he remembered another hermit he and his family had known. A woman.

Her name was Mary Gloede. Family legend has it that Mary had inherited her parents farm but chose to live her life as a hermit. She, in fact, rented the farm to my grandparents.

An aunt, Madeline Carlson, of Blair, Nebraska, filled in some details:

“Apparently Mary had been working for a couple on a farm near Blair (a small town, near Omaha) when the man raped her. She left that job and chose to become a hermit, probably because of that emotional trauma. Nothing ever happened to the man. It was a small farm community and people didn’t discuss things like that then. Or complain about it.

She apparently inherited the farm from her parents and then chose to rent it out to mom and dad (my grandparents - editor). She herself lived in either a dirty dugout or a small house that was always very dirty. The story varies as to what she lived in . . . but it was on the property we were renting, and all agree it was always dirty.

No one ever called her just Mary. It was always “Mary Gloede” (pronounced Mary GoLady).

She was always dirty and smelly. Dressed very roughly. She would walk the five miles to and from Blair from our farm (near Herman, Nebraska, a distance of about five miles). She’d come back with a big sack slung over her shoulders with her groceries. She’d come in and eat dinner with us. Then she’d often lie down behind our heating stove, use a block of firewood as a pillow, pull her coat over her, and sleep all night. Other times she’d finish eating, announce, “Okay, I’m done. I’m going,” and leave.

Grandma used to sometimes fix up a roast and take it up to her. She’d eat it but what she didn’t eat she didn’t have refrigeration for. As a result, she suffered from food poisoning on at least one occasion. She had no running water . . . used a privy, if that.

She wasn’t much of a talker . . . a few words at most.

She lived and died an old maid. Someone found her unconscious and rushed her to the Blair Hospital, where she died. I’m not sure what they termed the cause of death.

She was well known in the farming community and everyone treated her kindly. Everyone just kinda felt sorry for her. She was not a religious person . . . she just chose to live alone, as a hermit.”

The Hermit of Montrose

From Fairhope, Alabama, comes the story of yet another hermit . . . or group of hermits. Ever since its founding in 1894 by a group of 28 utopian dreamers from Iowa, this quaint waterside town on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay has been a refuge for what Southerners politely call "characters."

There was Winifred Duncan, a spinster who lived by the water with four bloodhounds and was regularly arrested for canoeing at night in the bay, naked.

Strangest of all, perhaps, was an Idaho man named Henry Stuart, who moved to Fairhope in the 1920s, after being told by his doctor -- incorrectly, it turned out -- that he had only a year to live.

Stuart, who wore a long white beard and became known locally as the Hermit of Montrose, after a neighborhood in Fairhope, built himself a small round hurricane-proof hut out of concrete and lived in it for 18 years, apparently certain he might die at any moment. Stuart eventually died at 88 in 1946, somewhere in Oregon.

Today, Stuart's hut in Fairhope has become an odd sort of tourist attraction, a kind of temple to eccentricity and individualism, thanks largely to another Fairhope eccentric, a goateed man often seen in a seersucker suit riding around town on a Harley-Davidson: the novelist Sonny Brewer.

Since the publication last year of Brewer's first novel, "The Poet of Tolstoy Park" (Ballantine), which is based on Stuart's life and the construction of his concrete hut, readers, along with various searchers, spiritualists and philosophical types, have been turning up at the hut to commune with Stuart. Two thousand people have signed a guest book Brewer left in the hut last year, and some have brought sleeping bags and spent the night inside.

"It's a special place," said Jimbo Meador, 64, a kayak designer who lives in nearby Point Clear and who meditates regularly in the hut. "The acoustics in there are pretty unusual. Like you say, 'Om,' and it really resonates."

'From another planet'


Henry Stuart House

Brewer, who is 57, is quick to cop to the charge of being an oddball, even by Fairhope standards. He has been a carpenter, a bookstore owner, a real estate agent, an editor and a rock musician, and he once sold vintage cars for a living, though he lost money at it.

Brewer has also been through a boat phase, an RV phase, a convertible phase, and several motorcycle phases. As for religions, he's tried a bunch of those, too: He was raised a Baptist, became a Methodist, a Presbyterian, a Quaker, and converted to Catholicism for a while. Brewer said he's an Episcopalian -- for now.

"I sometimes have a feeling I'm from another planet," Brewer said in a soft southern Alabama drawl. "Even my own behavior looks alien and ridiculous to me."

Brewer discovered Henry Stuart's hut in the 1980s during one of those career changes. He had quit his job as a carpenter, and was on his way to a seminar on selling real estate when he pulled into a parking lot about a mile from town. Though originally built on 10 acres of wilderness, the hut in the intervening years had been encroached upon as Fairhope

grew. Office buildings have been built to within six feet of the dwelling. It now sits just off the parking lot of a local Coldwell Banker office, which used the hut for years to store its "for sale" signs.
"I thought, 'What is this crazy little house doing in a parking lot?'" Brewer recalled. "It was like finding a very strange bird nest in the forest. You want to know, 'What kind of bird built this?'"

Inside the real estate office, Brewer came across a framed copy of a newspaper article about Stuart and his hut. Stuart, the article said, left behind two grown sons in Idaho when he came South to die. He admired Tolstoy, naming the acreage around the hut Tolstoy Park, and with his white beard even resembled him.

Stuart was described as quick to lend a dollar, and unconcerned about repayment. And though described as a hermit, he accepted visitors regularly; 1,200 people signed a guest book he kept in his hut, according to one article, including the lawyer Clarence Darrow.

Stuart, who was in his late 60s at the time, built his hut over the course of a year and 16 days in 1925 and 1926, and refused all help with the construction, the newspaper reported. Stuart's bed was a hammock that hung 10 feet off the ground; he could get in only by climbing a ladder. He kept a loom on the floor that he used to weave rugs, which he sold for a living.

"I was completely mesmerized," Brewer said. He managed to find two other newspaper articles about Stuart, and six photographs. Stuart is barefoot in all of them, even one taken with a woman in a winter coat.

The more Brewer learned about the man, he said, the more obsessed he became.

"I identified with Henry; he did what he wanted to do, and so did I," Brewer said.

He decided to try to write about Henry Stuart. He considered a nonfiction account of Stuart's life, but settled on fiction, "because I lie," he said. He wrote a couple of short stories about Stuart, and the first 20 pages of a novel, but put it aside in favor of an autobiographical novel about his own life, which he sent to a literary agent in San Francisco.

By now, Brewer had quit real estate to open an independent bookstore called Over the Transom, in Fairhope. It was losing money -- a lot of money. Brewer's only hope was that his novel would sell, but his agent was not optimistic and asked him if he had anything else. Brewer mentioned the Stuart novel, which begins with Stuart taking off his shoes after hearing the news that he will die. Based on the first 20 pages and a six-page outline, the agent sold the novel to Ballantine for $100,000.

Brewer said he got the news hours before an appointment with a bankruptcy lawyer. "I broke down and cried," he said.
Brewer's next move was to persuade a local banker who owns the hut and the land around it to rent the building to him for $9 a month. He wrote a draft of "The Poet of Tolstoy Park" in four fevered months, and then immediately set about restoring the hut, ridding it of "snakes and lizards and fast-food wrappers," he said, replacing windows and removing a wooden floor. When he was finished, he moved in to revise his novel -- while barefoot.

"Where did Henry Stuart stop and Sonny Brewer start?" Brewer asked. "That line was not clear. Some ladies from the real estate office told me they thought I had gone crazy."

A local architect who studied the hut noticed that the diameter of the floor, 14 feet, perfectly matched the distance between the floor and the top of the hut's domed roof. The hut was also dug 16 inches into the ground, which at that depth is a constant 57 degrees, making the floor cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

When he was finished with his book, Brewer left a copy of the manuscript in the hut, and then left the door unlocked. Shortly after publication last year, he began to hear from people who had visited.

Somewhere along the way, Brewer said, people began leaving coins and dollar bills in an iron skillet in the hut, money that seems to be lent and borrowed according to Stuart's principles.

"Sometimes I come in here and it's $65, sometimes it's $5," Brewer said with a shrug. "The pile just comes and goes."

Brewer said that so far he has remained on good terms with the banker who owns the hut. But one thought keeps him up at night. "My fear is that sooner or later the proverbial offer that can't be refused might come along," he added. "I could see a Blockbuster Video standing where Henry's house is." That thought has inspired Brewer's latest crusade: getting the hut placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a move that could help preserve it in perpetuity. So far it hasn't gone so well. Though the state of Alabama designated the hut a landmark, the U.S. Department of the Interior said that his application needed more work.

"They said it was too weird," Brewer said. (1)

The Hermit of Manana

Ray Eugene Phillips was born in 1892, attended the University of Maine, fought in World War I, held down a job in New York City in the bustling 1920s, and then, seemingly on a whim, happily decided to leave it all behind for a life of solitude on the tiny, isolated island of Manana, Maine. He spent the rest of his life there, with a herd of sheep and a gander, a small wooden rowboat, in a shack made out of materials that washed up onto the shore.


The Wendell Beckwith Cabin

His story became one that traveled quickly and altered radically. Myths, legends, and folklore surrounded the story of Ray, then and now, and he became known up and down the east coast, as “The Hermit of Manana.” Newspapers sought him out, photographers hounded him, a children's author wrote a story about him, and rumors spread wildly. “The Hermit of Manana,” the documentary, seeks to sift through the stories and reach towards Ray as a person and what made him gladly choose this lifestyle.

Today Manana Island stands uninhabited. Ray Phillips was the longest resident of the island, from 1930-1975. For a time, the coast guard had a manned station there, but that was eventually automated. One family lived there for a couple of years but moved on. The grass has grown up high and Ray's paths are long gone, but you can not look out on Manana without thinking of him.(2)

What is an aspiring hermit to do? For now, I am going to enjoy my rights to life and liberty and pursue happiness, not wealth. After all, at the end of the day, money is just what it is: green papery stuff.
Thirii Myint, junior, Lynbrook High, San Jose

The Hermit of the Lake

Yet another hermit, now deceased, was a gent named Wendell Beckwith, an amateur scientist who lived a reclusive life on Best Island, Ontario (Canada). American-born Beckwith hand-built an elaborate home in the woods, conducted scientific observations, and entertained a stream of visitors before his death at 65 in 1980. He became known as the Hermit of the Lake.

To get there, you need to charter a bush plane, then rent a motorboat and guide and take a rather wild ride through the choppy waters of Whitewater Lake to Best Island.


Noah John Rondeau

The dwellings remain as they were on the day in August 1980 when Beckwith died on the island’s beach. Beckwith had lived year-round on the isolated lake. His most innovative cabin, The Snail, an ingenious combination of wood, earth and glass still attracts the occasional tourist

The Ministry of Natural Resources is mulling over whether to refurbish the isolated place or let it take its course in the wild.

Ernie Nichols is a float pilot who lives in Armstrong and is one of the few locals to remember Mr. Beckwith. "He was a very intelligent man, but he was, at heart, a recluse," he said. "He would have wanted it all just to go back to nature."(4)

Noah John Rondeau, the self-styled "Mayor of Cold River City, population 1."

The trail is one of several routes into the wildly beautiful Cold River country in the High Peaks Wilderness, an upstate New York area remote enough that it might well be the haunts of a hermit.

In fact, it was. Along the trail, deep in the woods, is the place once inhabited by Noah John Rondeau. A colorful, emblematic Adirondack figure, Rondeau lived alone on a bluff above the river for part of each year from 1914 until 1929, and then year-round from 1929 until a hurricane blew down a swath of the surrounding forest in November 1950.

Resentful of low wages and long hours in various jobs in upstate New York and in Vermont, he had taken to the woods in his early 30's and hunkered down to a modified hunter-gatherer's existence in the state forest preserve. "Man is forever a stranger and alone," he once said, according to an account by a fellow woodsman named Richard Smith. But Rondeau was no poet. His next comment, Mr. Smith said, was that he liked crowds best "going the other way."

When Rondeau first colonized his bluff, the Adirondack forest, designated "forever wild" only 20 years earlier, was just beginning its recovery from intensive logging in the mid-1800's. By the time he left, at age 67, for a more domestic existence in Saranac Lake and other towns, nature was resurgent.

Today, his last cabin, 8 feet by 12 feet and with a stovepipe protruding from its bark-and-tarpaper roof, is a popular exhibit in the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., where two lumberjacks took it in 1959. On a recording there, Rondeau speaks of "them wonderful mountains" in a singsong voice. But a hike into the mountains where the cabin once stood, topped by trailless peaks and threaded with chilly streams, remains an introduction to the glories of the backcountry and an enduring glimpse at the relationship between wilderness and solitude.

What drew Rondeau to the hermit life? And what drew another man, Louis Seymour, known as Adirondack French Louie, to a similar stint of solitary trapping life in the West Canada Lakes section of the Adirondacks? Why do hermits, fixtures of spiritual tradition in some cultures, misfits in others, find their way to empty spots on the map?

Rondeau's biographer, Maitland C. DeSormo, found a partial explanation for Rondeau's behavior in the deep affinity for north woods life exhibited by his ancestors, French-Canadian migrants to the Adirondacks. Rondeau's existence revolved around trapping and guiding (he met customers through Daniel Emmett, an Abenaki Indian guide whose clientele included at least one member of the Rockefeller family); a diet mostly of trout, wild game and greens; and a resourceful method of dwelling in two cabins and several wooden wigwams constructed so that they later provided firewood. Like many other loners, he was also a writer of diaries. And he kept Thoreau on his bookshelf.

The world learned about Rondeau, all 5’2” of him, in 1947, when the Conservation Department, after dropping him a note from the air, picked him up by helicopter and flew him to a sportsmen's show in New York. As Mr. DeSormo describes it, the department's idea was to show him off to demonstrate the wild character of the forest preserve. Rondeau played the part willingly, appearing in a muskrat hat and taking along his snowshoes and a buckskin suit. In an era of clean-shaven men, he had a long beard. He was a guest on a popular radio show and was, after a fashion, the toast of the town, signing autographs, meeting movie stars and being photographed for newsreels. Later he returned to the city several times.

After the 1950 storm, the aging Rondeau left the hermit life for good. He died in Lake Placid in 1967. All that marked the place were a weather-beaten sign tersely identifying it as Rondeau's home; a plaque with whimsical, anonymous verse ("Here dwelt Noah Rondeau, a hermit some say, year upon year, day after day," it began); and some rusted cans.(4)

A Hermit Nun

Sister Mary Dawiczyk doesn't always know where her next dollar is coming from, but she believes God knows.

"I do live by donations, and when I get low, I say, ‘Lord, I need big monies,' so it's kind of a joke between us," said the 57-year-old hermit who lives a life of prayer and semi-solitude in a bluffside coulee off Hwy. 35, north of Genoa, Wisconsin.
As an example, she tells how once when she was $100 overdrawn in her bank account, a benefactor stopped by the same afternoon with a check for $300. The money was enough to cover the overdraft and put her account back in the black as well as provide her with the means to assist someone else who needed money.

"That's how it is with God," she said. "If you trust him faithfully, he will take care of you."

A Carmelite sister who was raised in Connecticut, Dawiczyk came to the Genoa area in 1998 after a benefactor and friend purchased the 55-acre site and gave it to her for her hermitage.

Dawiczyk sought help in her quest from the Diocese of La Crosse, which aided her in finding a place to stay and guided her through a formal process of discernment developed for individuals wishing to live a hermitical life in the diocese.

Hermits typically are older women or men who feel capable of living a solitary life.

Dawiczyk said she rarely leaves the hermitage, usually for grocery shopping or doctor appointments. Her mode of transportation, both on the highway and around the 55-acre site, is a beige Ford Ranger pickup truck, which was a gift from a benefactor.

For earthly company, she mostly relies on a white male Siberian husky named Icon and two cats, including one, a rust- and white-color feline named Tigee, who lives in a lean-to attached to the wood cabin.(5)

A check locally with both the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the Valley Center Museum gave no evidence of a local hermit. One wondered about Nate Harrison, a black gentleman who lived on Palomar Mountain but Bob Larmer of the Valley Center Museum correctly pointed out that he probably would not qualify as a hermit since he owned a home, had a regular source of income, and would fairly regularly travel up and down the mountain with freight on a road eventually called Nate Harrison Grade. Other reliably informed sources affirmed that Nate also fathered a number of children with local Indian women. Typically, true hermits eschew the company and comforts of the opposite sex. Nate, apparently, did not.

Sources:

1 - Oddball finds his muse in hermit's refuge - Warren St. John, The New York Times, June 4, 2006.
2 - The Hermit of Manana, Elisabeth Harris, 2006: http://www.thehermitofmanana.com
3 - Following a Hermit’s Footsteps - By John Motyka, New York Times, Published: October 7, 2005
4 LaCross Tribune: Published - Sunday, July 17, 2005

 

 

 

 

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