Friday, November 16, 2012

A Curious Character -- Harry the Hermit

by Dottie Grimes

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

by Dottie Grimes

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.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Stumbling on to World War I -- Part II --Details Make The Story, Stories Make History

by Dottie Grimes

want to continue with the things we've stumbled on about World War I. 

I just watched the movie "War Horse" which takes place during this war. As I watched the fighting depicted on the big screen, I kept hearing Sheldon Axelson's letter home say,  "War is Hell." (See previous post--click on the orange text or scroll down)

Jimmy Jeffs in World War I
Last year when we were interviewing Arlene Callahan for an oral history. She shared some of her photographs with us, which brought us to another connection with World War I. She had taken care of her uncle James "Jimmy" Jeffs the last few years of his life, and he had given her all of his photographs and letters from the war. Most of the letters mention something about home, rather than what he was going through. They say, "I can't tell you much about what is going on here." 

  He brought home lots of post cards from the war that are so interesting. The post cards provided some amazing details to the history of that war and those times. Did you know the women of The Salvation Army set up a kitchen-station right there on the front lines in France to make donuts for the soldiers? I didn't--until I read those cards! Now that's what I call "supporting your troops!" I was amazed at the pictures so I looked it all up on line and found more information about it. The American soldiers developed a love for doughnuts and that is why we now have doughnuts in America. 
Salvation Army frying doughnuts on the front lines for the troops! Find the historic doughnut recipe by clicking here
If you have a couple of minutes view this youtube video about the Salvation Army women who made these doughnuts.

Jimmy Jeffs was among those soldiers who benefited from this sweet service. He came home safely through that war that was touted "the most horrible war in history." Great Britain lost a whole generation of young men, and America lost a great many. It was called "The Great War, or the "War to End All Wars." That is until we had another horrible war that included so many countries--at that time the "Great War"  was renamed "World War I" because we were in the middle of "World War II."

Another connection to World War I came from one of my assistants, Bernice Payne. She brought in the history of her grandfather who had been drafted into that war. His story was different from, but still similar to Jimmy's or Sheldon's.

George McMullin had just written to his mother in September telling her that it was
"impossible to get writing materials because they weren't allowed to carry it and they couldn't get it (letter) censored because the officers were too busy." He said there were more "air birds around here thicker than blackbirds in the spring at home." 
That was the last letter she received from him.

He was fighting in the Argonne Forest in France, where so many men were killed.  His mother received a telegram in November just as the war ended.

(The war ended November 11th 1918. The Emery County Progress reported that Emery County was celebrating the signing of the Armistice "which ended the most horrible war.")
George D. McMullin Killed in Action

  On November 23, 1918 the Progress ran articles about Corporal George D. McMullin's death.
"First Cleveland Lad to Lose Life at the Front...A shadow of gloom, all the more intense for the rejoicing on account of peace, was thrown over Emery County as a whole and the town of Cleveland in particular, by the receipt of a telegram by Flora Davis of Cleveland, saying that her son had been killed on October 24, 1918.  No particulars have been forthcoming and the grief-stricken mother still clings to hope that some mistake was made. Many friends of the family gathered at the home to offer consolation. Memorial services will likely be held as soon as public gatherings are permitted."
  The next week, the headlines were that Sheldon Axelson from Elmo had been killed, also in the last days of the war in the Argonne Forest.

George D. McMullin Prisoner of War
But then on December 28, 1918, the Progress announced the happy news that Mrs. Davis had received another telegram telling her that her son was wounded and then taken prisoner by the Germans, but was still alive!

I'm sure that had to be the dream and hope of every telegram-receiving mother in those times--that a mistake had been made and her son would be coming home! He didn't come home until the next May, but he DID come home. It is so sad that the Axelsons didn't get the same joyful telegram. But like Sheldon said, "War is Hell!" It ends badly for many, many families.

These stories become human and interesting when we learn the details. Details from journals, letters, postcards, pictures and newspapers make the stories; the stories make history.

  • Come visit Emery County Archives for details about history! 
  • If you have a World War I story email me at or comment on this blog.
 For some more details about World War I--Click here.

The following words were first used in the trenches of WWI, and are still used today!


Over the Top, 
Trench Coat, 
Pushing up the Daisies, 
Red Tape, 
Tune Up, 
In the Pink, 
Zero Hour, 
Busted ,
Ticked Off,
Put a Sock in it,
Hit the Deck, 
Coffin nail, 
Fed Up, 
Rise & Shine, 
Pipe down, 
Mess up, 
Get knocked off, 
Kick the Bucket, 
Rank & File, 
Chow Down, 
Missed the Bus, 
Basket Case

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Stumbing Upon World War I -- Part I

by Dottie Grimes

Oral histories are really the life blood of the Archives. As we talk to people and get their life histories, we get extraneous information as well, which  stimulates curiosity, research and connection. Connection is what I want to write about today.

Sheldon Axelson died in World War I
One of our oral history projects centered on Life On The Homefront During World War II. We gathered histories mostly from women in Emery County who had stayed at home and carried on while their husbands were at war. In one such interview Velma Allred told us about her Uncle Sheldon Axelson who died in World War I. She had never known him, but was impacted by stories told about him and the pictures she had seen of him. She said that he had died in the "closing days of the war in the Argonne Forest in France." In her albums and histories that she shared with us, there were pictures and a history of Sheldon. We scanned his photograph into the computer as we created a file in our Personal Histories  for Velma Allred. We also created a file for Sheldon Axelson.

In his file there is his history and a newspaper article telling about his death. He died in the last month of the war. The newspaper also included a letter he sent before leaving for France after completing his training:
I am feeling fine and glad I am able to do and do my share, and when in the trenches, I will always think of the ones behind...I hope Mother can stand it alright...I am keeping myself clean from women and whiskey so I can have good health and stand some hardships.
In the letter after his first experience on the battlefield he said,
I was just down and had a bath--the first time we have had a chance for one month--I feel so good to get clean....Last night I had a shave and washed my face and hands for the first time in ten days. We do well to get water to drink, say nothing about washing when on the line...if you heard the big guns shoot a few times you would think it was hell instead of war, but since war is hell, there is no difference...

Velma connected us to Sheldon Axelson's history, which connected us to World War I and that Sheldon was in on the bitterest fighting in that war which happened the last few days in the Argonne Forest in France, soon after the Armistice was signed and the war was over. This connection reminded us that war so long ago and so far away had an impact on Emery County and then we ran into another connection:

Orlan Mortensen driving a CCC truck 1936
A couple of years later we were interviewing Orlan Mortensen in Ferron about his experiences in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps.) In the process he asked a favor of the interviewer, Trinadee, concerning a memory from his childhood. He said that when he was a young boy living in Elmo, there was a soldier that was killed on the last days of World War I. He remembered that there was a procession going down the street for this soldier's funeral. There were beautiful, white horses pulling a wagon with his casket on it draped with a flag and most of the town following it. It was a spectacular sight in his memory. He knew the man's name was Sheldon Axelson, and he had seen his headstone and knew when he was killed, but he didn't know when the soldier was brought home to be buried. He wondered if we could research that date for him. He knew that it took a while to get the bodies of soldiers home from the war for burial back in WWI. He had often wondered about Sheldon as a person, and also wondered how old he, Orlan, was when this funeral parade was set into his memory.
Memorial Services in Elmo April 6, 1919  for Sheldon Axelson.
"A large crowd attended, many from neighboring towns."
When my assistant Trinadee told me his request, I immediately remembered Velma Allred's story about her uncle who had died during WWI and was buried in Elmo. We found his death date and began researching in the newspapers to find his burial date. We found the article telling exactly when he came home and a little bit about the event! We are always excited when we find information people are seeking. We copied the newspaper article for him; contacted Velma and asked if she were interested in talking with him about her uncle. She was so happy to talk to someone who wanted to know someone who remembered anything about her Uncle Sheldon funeral! We took him the article and that answered his questions. He realized from the date of burial, that he had only been three years old when he was so impressed with Sheldon's funeral procession. We connected him with Velma,and they talked about Sheldon.She was thrilled to hear his memory of the matched pair of white horses and the beautiful wagon. She had not been told those details.

Both people brought new elements to our county archives, and the connections to other histories expanded our interests and our fundamental historical value to the community.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Eric Larson--Disney's Legendary Animator from Cleveland

by Dottie Grimes
Emery County lays claim on Disney Legend Eric Larson, who was an animator for 53 years. He was part of a group of animators hired by Walt  Disney himself, who later referred to the original group of artists as his ''Nine Old Men.''

Click Here for a photo of Eric Larson and some characters he created.

Eric was born in Cleveland, Utah in 1905. His parents are Lars Peter Larson and Alganora (Nora) Oveson Larson. His grandparents were also from Emery County. His Maternal Grandparents are Lars Peter Oveson and Louisa Otterstrom. Paternal Grandparents are Erik Larson and Anna Elizabeth Erikson.

An Internet blog  50 Most Influential Animators tells us:
Eric Larson was born on September 3, 1905 in Cleveland, Utah... He was born into a Mormon family and would continue to be devout and active in the faith all through his life although he didn’t talk much about his beliefs at the studio.  Larson grew up on a ranch and became fascinated by the animals that live there and their personalities. “I was born and raised on a ranch,” he remembered in an interview. “And I always wanted to be a rancher up to the time of my second year in college. It’s still a life I love, would still like to do. (Click on the link at the top to read his whole story.)

Eric attended the University of Utah and majored in journalism. He moved to California and was talked into applying at the Disney Studios. He was hired at the time Mickey Mouse was still evolving. Disneyland and major movies had not even been thought about. When Disney's first feature-length cartoon was created, he was among the major animators. He was responsible for the forest animals which are in most scenes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was released in 1937.

In the Disney Family Album, Part 1 Eric talks about how growing up on a farm, and the animals of his childhood influenced his characters in all of his works. Watch the five minute video which tells about how he came up with the animals cleaning the house, etc.

See Disney Family Album 2 you can hear Eric talk about getting the animation of animals to look like real animals by the time the story of Bambi was ready to be told. They studied the bones and the movement of real deer to get the realistic look of all of the animals in Bambi. Eric was the supervising animator for Bambi and created the beloved character of Thumper. That  attention to anatomy carried on with 101 Dalmathions.

Eric Larson

A Partial List from Wikipedia of The Characters Eric Larson Created:  
In the 1970s Eric became the head of Disney's Animation Training Department. Many of the best animators today were trained by Eric. Often used mimes to help train the people for animators. See Disney Family Album Part 3

Eric also helped the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints movie Man's Search for Happiness in 1964 that was narrated  by Richard L. Evans. It was presented at the Mormon Pavillion in the New York World's Fair.

Eric was very, very gentle and he knew timing like nobody’s business,” said animator and dancer Betsy Baytos.  In real life Eric was a very giving, gentle, and unselfish human being who always helped mentor others and for decades was largely responsible for keeping together the sometimes egocentric and hyper aggressive top animators at the studio.  He had no ego and people always felt comfortable asking him for advice and guidance. Larson for the last 16 years of his career worked pretty much exclusively on running the training program at the Disney studio and was very successful at finding talent. (

He retired at the age of 80 because of poor health. "On October 25, 1988 Eric Larson passed away at the age of 83. The prince in The Little Mermaid was named Eric in his memory." (

His death left only four of Disney's "Nine Old Men."  Headlines remarked that another link to the Golden Age was gone.