The Makings of a Hermit

Everyone dreams of chucking it all-job, mortgage and traffic snarls-and of going back to nature, to fundamentals, to ancestral roots. Yet a certain element of lunacy is generally associated with actually doing such a thing.

Some small grains of that truth are strewn liberally along the path that Harrill took from the mountains to the coast.

He grew up in an abusive home and ultimately moved in with relatives, escaping often into the surrounding woods and streams. His circumstances did not much improve when he reached adulthood and pursued one failed business proposition after another.

Harrill studied to be a Baptist minister, but was expelled during his senior year due to his beliefs about evolution. He tried his hand at farming and working in the textile mills of Shelby, NC. He tried selling craft items from a Model-T "bus," his own creation that many called a "homemade Winnebago." He drove his family in this makeshift vehicle for his first visits to the Cape Fear Coast.

Ultimately his marriage disintegrated and his oldest son committed suicide. According to various reports, his first stay at Broughton Mental Hospital followed on the heels of the departure of his wife and children, and was initiated by his in-laws. He admitted himself to the same institution the second time around and, finding escape not so easy this time, fashioned a key out of a spoon. No one pursued him.

In Spruce Pine, NC, he discovered the teachings of Dr. William Marcus Taylor's Bio-Psycho-Genetics School, and he was encouraged to discover his true self, to go back and start over again. Taylor's book, "The More Abundant Life, or Bio-Psycho-Genetics" (1924), may still be available (used) at amazon.com.

In any event, Harrill was inspired to hitchhike to the coast in 1955 at the ripe old age of 62.

The School of Common Sense

Common sense might have told him that living alone in a remote marshland with no means of support was going to be a difficult proposition, but Harrill devised some viable survival tactics. He painted a sign, "Fort Fisher Hermit," letting tourists know they were somewhere in his vicinity. He put out a cast-iron frying pan for cash donations, laid out a guest book for his visitors to sign, and charged a small fee to pose for photos.

From the money he collected in the skillet, Harrill said he was able to buy toilet paper. He'd stand out by the road, not actually sticking out his thumb, until somebody gave him a ride to the local A&P.

He dug a well, planted a garden, and did much fishing. He especially doted on kids and dogs and worked on writing a book about his miserable upbringing, entitled, "A Tyrant In Every Home," which has not survived in any form.

By all reports this manifesto consisted of a stack of yellow legal pads, the handwriting on them very neat and concise, that could have been carried off in a hurricane or, as he told one friend, taken to his sister for safekeeping, who may have wished to suppress a harsh portrayal of their family life.

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