by Dottie Grimes
|Harry the Hermit's Art Gallery Silo|
"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.|
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,
|What is left of Harry's house--built as a homestead house by|
Neils Neilson in Orangeville
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.
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|
|Various paintings on the Orangeville Silo|
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.
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.