Florida Everglades Hermits, 1940's to 1980
Alittle pamphlet of 55 pages, assembled by students of Everglades City High School in Florida around 1980 and entitled Hermits from the Mangrove Country of the Everglades (no publisher or date) is a valuable source of information about seven hermits who lived in the Everglades or on offshore and otherwise uninhabited islands of the Gulf of Mexico, off southwestern Florida.
The student-authors observe that
Most definitions of hermits state that hermits are persons who live alone, away from other people and have abandoned society -- perhaps for religious reasons. We studied the lives of sever hermits as well as hearing about other hermits of the past. In no case was religion mentioned as a reason for seeking a life away from civilization. Nor did any of "our" hermits avoid people or seem to dislike being around people. On the contrary, they seemed to enjoy visitors and were friendly and more than willing to discuss their chosen life style.
Brief biographies of each follow. Also available are scanned photographs.
- Arthur Leslie Darwin, hermit of Posseum Key
Arthur Darwin lived on the island of Posseum Key, at the southern end of the Thousand Islands, since 1945 to his death in 1977 at the age of 112. He had been allowed to stay on the island after it was made part of the National Park System, in the early 1950's, living on seven or eight acres. Darwin had originally resided in the area as a hunter and carpenter. On the island he constructed a one-room concrete block house 14 x 16 feet> He had no electricity or running water, using a propane gas stove for cooking. His property consisted of a grill, skillet, trunk, and shelving for canned foods. His source of water was a cistern to catch rain. Darwin grew fruit (chiefly bananas) and vegetables and raised rabbits, selling much of his produce every two weeks in Everglades City, where he went for supplies. Encroaching mangroves and their tannic acid altered the island soil to the point that Darwin had to abandon growing.
Darwin owned a battery-powered radio but professed little interest in world events. He had no books and proffered no advice or deep convictions, nor did he contrive ways to combat boredom or loneliness. He acknowledged that he came to the island not to "get away from the world. I just like it here." Even so, in advanced age he complained that "it's not like it used to be, that's for sure. If I wasn't so old, since everybody else has left, I'd leave, too. But I'll stay here till I die."
- Martha Frock, woman hermit
At sixty-two, Martha Frock lived in the Everglades six miles from the nearest road in a house she built on ten acres of swamp. Her "little shack," as she called it, is made of wood resting on concrete blocks 16 inches from the ground. Frock spent many years as a waitress and in newspaper route delivery in the urban east coast of Florida before moving. She has no electricity but runs a stove, refrigerator, and two lights on propane, and uses a pitcher pump to draw well water. She cuts palm fronds to lay atop her roof for insulation against the heat. Her car had broken long ago and she was forced to persuade neighbors to take her grocery shopping, but even then she often eats only two or three times a week. Frock gets old magazines from a neighbor and has a radio but spends much time working on her grounds. Her sentiments when describing how she felt after one of her brief trips away: "Coming back here's just like going to heaven."
- Roy Ozmer, hermit of Pelican Key
Robert Roy Ozmer (1899-1969) was perhaps the most literate of the Everglades hermits, a newspaperman, actor, sailor, and artisan among other previous careers. According to his widow, he read widely, had traveled extensively, and enjoyed a "keen mind." As the student-authors put it: "Roy Ozmer was a hermit not because he didn't like people but because of a personal problem." That problem was alcoholism. He had separated himself from his family and lived on the island in hopes of curing himself. "I've foregone society," he was quoted as saying, "but if the world wants to come out and share a cup of coffee or talk over a problem, it's all right with me." Several photographs show Ozmer with a jaunty beret; he left poems and drawings as well.
- Leon Whilden, hermit of the Everglades
A native of Denmark, Whilden moved to the Everglades in 1949 to live in what became the Big Cypress National Preserve. He traveled widely around the world, visiting his children scattered across the globe, but lived in a van on the premises of Orchid Isles, his 13-acre nursery, selling orchids, bromeliads, and ferns. But Whilden was a reluctant merchant, refusing many customers he judged incompetent gardeners or whom he simply disliked. To supplement his income, then, he worked occasionally in airport maintenance near Miami. Whilden was less affable than the other hermits interviewed or discussed. He does not fit the stereotype of hermit with his trim, clean-shaven appearance and neat and fitting clothes. Nor does he like the "hermit" appellation. He insists that he just likes living "by myself."
- Al Seely, hermit of Dismal Key
Al Seely was a machinist, musician, surveyor, and military veteran. One day in 1969, he was diagnosed as having six months to live. He moved to the Ten Thousand Islands to live and was alive and well in 1980 when the student-authors researched their book. Seely was an invaluable source for lore and information, especially about past hermits.
Seely originally lived in a fishing hut on Panther Key, then in a tent on Brush Key, before coming to Dismal Key and inhabiting the two-room house of a former resident and hermit, Foster Atkinson (about which more below). Seely confounds the anti-social view of the recluse, even maintaining a guest book for visitors and writing an autobiography describing himself as a "phony hermit." He lives from a veterans' pension and sells paintings. He reads widely (with a full shelf of books), works the grounds of his sixty-five acres, and boats to the coastal villages part of the year. But too much time with people tires him, he owns. He told the students that he had intended to kill wild animals for food, but he found he was unable to do so.
- Eardley Foster Atkinson
Details about Foster Atkinson were provided by Al Seely, who knew Atkinson briefly but had also heard stories about him. Atkinson had resided on Dismal Key during the time Seely was on Panther Key; Seely moved to Atkinson's house on Dismal Key after Atkinson's death. Seely reports that Atkinson was the sort of person "doomed to fail" at anything he tried. He had traveled the rails as a hobo, quarreled with every employer he had, lived "from hand to bowl," and was an alcoholic. Atkinson was selling sea shells for money while living in a tent on a mainland beach when he was approached about becoming caretaker of the Dismal Key house, which he thereafter inherited. Seely relates other anecdotes about the Atkinson, who died at seventy-two.
The pamphlet includes the story of the nineteenth-century hermit Juan Gomez, and a would-be hermit Henry Dalmas, as told by Seely. Dalmas visited Seely on weekends and expressed his desire to become a hermit -- when he had enough money to support himself on an island, since he wanted a generator for electricity to run lights, power tools, etc. This daydream went on until Dalmas was seventy-two years old. He finally moved to an island -- only to die six months later. Commenting on the short-lived hermit career of Dalmas, Seely concludes philosophically: "If you ever have any thoughts about becoming a hermit ... do it now!"