The Fort Fisher Hermit

Story and photo by Lois Carol Wheatley

"Simplify, simplify, simplify" was the mantra of Henry David Thoreau-though a legion of critics have since pointed out that one lone "simplify" would have been far more simple.

Comparisons have been drawn between the life of Thoreau and the legend of The Fort Fisher Hermit, a gentleman by the name of Robert Harrill who abandoned home and family in the mountains of North Carolina to pursue the simple life at the southern tip of Pleasure Island on the Cape Fear Coast, in a concrete WWII-era bunker that allowed him a bare-bones existence living off the land and the sea.

Harrill's rise to stardom followed the same sort of trajectory as Thoreau's-neither one of them could truly be considered a recluse once their rustic quarters became a sort of makeshift stage that amounted to community theater-but the Hermit's story took a tragic twist.

Harrill attracted the kind of attention that ultimately made him the victim of a string of violent attacks and various run-ins with the law, and which culminated in his brutal murder. Local officials benignly pronounced it a simple heart attack.

As was the case with Thoreau, the simple life just got really complicated.

Major Tourist Attraction

At one point Harrill was declared the second most popular local tourist attraction, a close runner-up to the battleship USS North Carolina anchored in Wilmington's historic harbor.

During the 1960s and early '70s people arrived in droves to see where and how he lived, and to hear him discourse on topics that he thought someday would form the core curriculum of his proposed School of Common Sense. With no official crowd count available, some unofficial estimates were in the range of 100,000 visitors a year.

Word spread like wildfire about this wild man on the beach, a sort of cross between an animal in a zoo and a snake-handler at a religious revival. People thought he looked like Ernest Hemingway and the fact that he said he was writing a book boosted that image.

Newspapers, magazines and television shared his story with ever-widening spheres, and Harrill recognized the value of publicity. He resisted being photographed any other way than in his widely recognized trademarks, a bare chest, shorts and a straw hat, even in the dead of winter.

People milled around, some just to get a good look at him, some to talk. He looked back at the lookers and talked with the talkers about his social and political ideas, while sitting on rocks and logs around a campfire that the hermit built mostly to ward off snakes and mosquitoes.

Common sense half a century ago was pretty much comprised of what it is perceived to be today. Harrill saw little or no common sense in government, in society and, most significantly, in the individual. He taught his disciples to be self-reliant, optimistic, determined, to honor and respect nature, to express their own individuality and to give voice to their opinions.

"He made people think" is the epitaph on his grave marker in St. Paul's Cemetery in Carolina Beach, along with the dates February 2, 1893 through June 4, 1972.

"I was born on Groundhog Day and I've been trying to hibernate ever since," the hermit was known to say.

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