Friday, November 16, 2012

A Curious Character -- Harry the Hermit

Many stories of Harry the Hermit are told by the older generation of Emery County  residents. He is a legend folded into their memories. Almost forgotten, until someone happens to see the tall silo, just outside of Orangeville, with silhouette paintings on it. Then, with the question, "Who painted that silo?" memories begin to unfold as someone who knows, tells of the Old Hermit in Orangeville who was an artist.

Harry the Hermit's Art Gallery Silo
I have seen the paintings up close and have heard the story. So as I conduct oral history interviews with people in that area, I often ask, "Did you know Harry the Hermit?" At those moments, people start to smile and become anxious to talk about what they knew of this curious character.

 "We had a real hermit living just outside of town! It was exciting when he came to town for supplies. He shopped at the Peacock Cash Store in Orangeville."

"Yes I knew him. My friends and I would visit him. He would show us all of his artwork. He had stacks of it in his house."

"Yes, I used to watch him come into town about once a month or so when I was young. He always wore a uniform, and had long hair and a long beard, but his feet were wrapped in rags."

"I worked on the Johnson farm. Harry would come out and talk to us. He seemed nice and friendly."

"Oh yes! We were scared to death of him. He walked by my house with this long hair and long beard. We'd see him coming and we'd scream and run in the house and hide. Mother would tell us that he wouldn't hurt us, but she wouldn't go out of the house either. She'd just watch out the window."

 This is believed to be a self portrait.
"He looked like a big grizzly bear coming at you. He really scared us."

So, the stories vary. With these encounters some greeted him cordially, helping him obtain whatever things he needed, and others were afraid of him because he was such a strange sight.

Emery County Historical Society went on a field trip to this famous silo and asked Leonard Johnson if he would tell us about Harry the Hermit. He told us Harry was a stepson of his great-grandfather Neils Neilson who owned the land where the silo stands. Henry Reid, who later became bishop of Orangeville Ward, went on a mission to Great Britain and baptized Harry's mother, Agnes Jane Watson, and at the end of his mission he brought her and her two sons Henry and Robert back to Emery County. Neils Neilson, a widower, married her in 1891.

When asked if he was mentally challenged in some way, Leonard said he thought maybe there was something of that kind. "He was a genius in some ways, if he had only been smart enough to use it. But there were some family problems, and Harry threatened the family with a six shooter at one time, so Grandpa led him out to the old rock house (that Neils had built when he first homesteaded the property) and told him that this was his home from then on."

Harry was born Henry Watson in 1879 in England. The time period for the memories and associations listed in this article took place in the 1930s and 1940s. He was in his 50s and 60s when Leonard remembers him. At that time Leonard Johnson's father--grandson of Neils Neilson--was operating the farm and so it was the Johnson family who watched out for Harry. Leonard said, 

"My dad  always made sure Harry had a milk cow and some chickens. Sometimes he had a pig. Harry grew a large garden and also kept some bees, and he had a  little extractor that would hold two bee frames."

What is left of Harry's house--built as a homestead house by
Neils Neilson in Orangeville
Leonard never heard of him having a job, and doesn't think he ever even worked on the farm or helped except in the fall, he would shock the wheat.  Then when the threshers came in, he'd take his sack and gather up wheat. He had a grinder he used to grind the wheat, and then he boil it and eat it as cereal. In the fall of the year, he would go over to the Justesens and pick a big sack of apples and put it on his shoulder and head home. He lived off the food he gathered and grew.

When people brought plates of food to him, he let his cats eat it. He loved cats and always had about a dozen in his house. They weren't very domesticated so when anyone came to visit, they ran out. His rock house had a wooden floor with a root cellar underneath. You'd lift up some boards on the floor and that's where he stored his vegetables and fruit--down that root cellar.

A Xeroxed copy of Harry wearing his rags. Although his hair is not long in
any of these pictures, it is likely he did not cut it on a regular basis. Many
accounts say he had long hair.

 At one point, he had a uniform. So it was circulated that Harry was a veteran of WWI. In researching we found documentation that he did sign up for the draft during World War I. So maybe the uniform indicates that he at least went in for training. We cannot find any further information on his military status.

Some remember hearing that he wore rags at home, but changed into his uniform to go to town. But as Harry got older he wore ragged clothes even into town. He mended or added to his clothing by attaching more scraps of canvas tarps or burlap sacks with string or bailing wire.
The Johnsons bought him a pair of Gun Boots, which he is wearing in the picture above standing in front of his rock house. When his shoes wore out, he took strips of a tire, cut it the length of his foot and wired it onto some old shoes. Trudging along in those shoes was a sight to see, but he seemed to like choosing his own clothing rather than accept it from others. In the copied photo to the right, you can see the layers of rags he attached to his clothing.

Another idiosyncrasy of this curious character is remembered by Leonard:  

"He was a peculiar old guy who had a pipe with the stem broke off—just a short stem. He would press me to bring him out $5.00 worth of chewing tobacco. And I knew he didn't chew and wondered what he was doing with that chewing tobacco. But he put it on a wooden tray and cut it up in little pieces and set it out in the sun and let it dry.That's what he was using in that little pipe. And that old bowl would get so hot you'd see red from that. Sometimes you'd see his eyelashes and eyebrows and the hair all singed; apparently he'd use the fire to light that pipe and got a little too close."

It seems as though Harry was very  friendly, which is not usually a trait of hermits, and some of the oral history accounts tell how the young people would go visit him in groups or on dates. Leonard said, "Most Sundays he had lots of people at his house. He would recite poetry that he had written, sing songs to them, show his paintings or drawings and sometimes give them away. I think most people sought him out because of his curious appearance, but he readily entertained them. I don't know how people knew him, but people would come in from all over. I remember one woman brought a group here to see him, three summers in a row,  from New York City!"                            

The political cartoons by Harry (left) indicate that he was aware and had opinions on local events, such things as elections.

One of many suppositions about his life and work is that he had taken some correspondence lessons in art at some point because on the backs of some of his pictures, was written "Lesson #2 or Lesson #6, etc. on them. Maybe that is how he became acquainted with New Yorkers--through the mail. The Johnson family picked up his mail at the post office and delivered it to him. Which brings us to another mystery of his past.

Harry received a monthly check from Western Building and Loan in the mail. It wasn't much, but it came every month and no living person knows why. Much of his history was before Leonard's time, and there is no one else that knows many details about him. With the limited cost of living for Harry, even a small check unspent would add up, so he probably had a good savings that he stashed somewhere--another presumption.

inside the silo
silo from a distance
Curious and curiouser is how Harry got to the top of the silo to paint those silhouettes. There is a ladder on one side of the silo, but how did he get to the other sides? No one living knows the answer, but somehow he did and even dated the gallery. September 22, 1919. The date is painted in such a beautiful hand, it was done by an artist, not the silo builder. The silo was built in rings. Every other day an new ring would be poured. Each one was stacked on top of the other with a horse and some kind of derrick. Most paintings cover more than one ring, so it wasn't done before they were stacked, nor would any farmer wait for artwork before assembling his silo. But perhaps by the same horse and derrick Harry dangled from a rope or belt to reach the upper heights of the silo.

Various paintings on the Orangeville Silo

One winter day Leonard's father realized he hadn't seen Harry and went in to check on him. He was sick in his bed in the back room of his house. His legs were swollen with a condition that used to be called Dropsy. The Sheriff and the Health Department came and took him to the Community Nursing Home in Price. There they bathed him, cut his hair, shaved him and put regular clothing on him. Leonard had moved from Emery County, but visited him to show him their new baby. He said Harry looked pretty good. He was walking every day for exercise and said they treated him really well.

Harry died in 1950 at the age of 71 and is buried in the Orangeville Cemetery. On his death certificate under "Occupation" it says "Hermit." At his death he left what money he had from his "little monthly check"  to the kind woman who had taken care of him in the nursing home.

There is a display about Harry in the Pioneer Museum in Castle Dale which includes some of his art work, and an interesting article about him published in 1994 in the Emery County Progress. Some facts--such as Harry finding work at the Neilson farm and taking their name because of his long association with the family--are wrong. but once someone becomes a legend it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Newspaper Clipping  (above) says Harry is from Wales and his real name was Welch. My source says, he is actually from England. But his actual name is another mystery. On the 1900 census his last name is listed as Walsh, however,  it is Watson on the marriage certificate of Neils Neilson to his mother Agnes Jane.

Through the display in the Pioneer Museum, newspaper articles, oral history accounts, and this post, Emery County is trying to preserve the history of Henry W. Neilson. He has no posterity or relatives to do this for him. His greatest memorial--the silo-- is on private property. It can be seen from a side road presently, and permission can be obtained to get onto the property to view it closer. Unfortunately, the word on the street--or the farm roads-- is that it will be torn down to accommodate new sprinkling systems.

We, as members of the boards of Emery County Historic Preservation Commission and The Emery County Historical Society, have sought for ways to rescue the silo or pieces of it. At present no one can gifure out a way this can be done. The integrity of the silo's cement rings has been compromised by age, so although the silo would stand in place for a very long time, it doesn't appear to be eligible for  moving or even cutting into pieces.

Along with the stories of legend, the many photographs we have taken and collected may be the only record we will have of this Curious Character.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Future Ideas

Presbyterian School
Reid Family Photos
Adeline Wakefield Collection
Addie Richards
Temple Mountain
Wilberg Resort
Harry the Hermit
M K Tunnels


More About Schools

I've talked about Collecting the History of Our Schools in an earlier post. The current oral history grant that I am working on for Emery County Archives is about the consolidation of schools, specifically the high schools. Emery County originally had the three high schools North, South, and Central. North Emery was located in Huntington, Central was in Castle Dale and South Emery was in Ferron. Eliminating Central School was the first of the consolidations in 193? and then in 1962, North and South Emery were eliminated and all students in Emery County, except for Green River which had to have its own school because of the distance from the other Emery County towns) went to a new Emery High School, which is still the current school. We are able to get these grants through  Utah State Historical Society and the Utah Humanities Council 

Oral histories are important because they are first hand records of places and events. You learn details of the past that you can't find in history books. For instance you may read that the elementary school in Huntington burned down in 1921, but it becomes more than just a fact when you hear Addie Richards tell you that the children marched out of the school as they had done during fire drills with the teacher playing a march on the piano until every student was out, and that as she watched her school burn her greatest regret was that she left her beautiful new coat in the school, and that the school board would not build a fires escape (I imagine they had no money with which to build one), so the teachers and principal had fund raising and built the fire escape not long before the fire happened, so every child made it out safely, and they had to attend school in people's homes until there was a new school built. Those details make history fabulously interesting.
Addie's high school--North Emery High 1928
Addie's junior high in 1925

Well, I'm getting side tracked. I am writing about the high schools in the area, not the elementary schools. Addie attended North Emery in this building to the right. It later became the elementary school, but it had the gymnasium and so that was still used by the high school for games and dances. Addie's album lists the above photograph as her junior high school--the building we know as North Emery on Main Street.
North Emery High School
Some of the people I interviewed in 2011 went to North Emery High in 1960 and 61. It was an old building then. Kent Powell described the North Emery High School experience as feeling like a campus. They attended classes in the two story building; there was a bas relief of George Washington just inside the entrance. It had an old academic feel about it. The gym and dressing rooms were in the building on the west part of the campus--north of that was the elementary school, and in between was the seminary building. The old church on main street--to the north of the high school was where they had plays and assemblies. The lunch building was across main street to the east. So it was a five building campus. According to another student, there was a hamburger place next to the school, so instead of going across the street to the lunch room, some students would grab a hamburger instead. Mrs. Johansen who taught P.E. discouraged this telling the students it would ruin their health and affect their unborn children.