Photograph from Adirondack Experience
Tall tales and tumbledown shacks, from Moses Follensby to Bobcat Ranney
In 1852, a group of surveyors surprised an old man living in a crude shelter near Herkimer County’s Ice Cave Mountain. He ran off so quickly that they didn’t see much more than a flash of the red patch on the bottom of his drawers. Ever heard of “Old Patch”? No? That’s because any hermit worth his salt should remain widely unknown. It’s part of the standard definition, avoiding society and all that. But our most storied hermit, Noah John Rondeau, didn’t exactly shy away from company. And neither did many of the other self-reliant woodsmen who populate our regional mythology. So what transforms a run-of-the-mill squatter or early settler into a bona fide hermit in the popular imagination? Historian Maitland DeSormo said the key is eccentricity, though that doesn’t always settle the question. Anne LaBastille lived alone in an off-the-grid cabin on Twitchell Lake for years, and she certainly thumbed her nose at societal norms, but she only ever attained the title of “hermit-like” in The New York Times. For an eccentric to truly break into hermitdom, he needs a promoter—an influencer, as the kids would say—to take up the tale: Alfred B. Street crafted a titillating backstory for Moses Follensby; Atwell Martin’s old saws were memorialized by Reverend Byron-Curtiss and Harvey Dunham; Noah John Rondeau got his big break with a Conservation Department publicity campaign.
Following is a compilation of our biggest backwoods stars, though it’s far from comprehensive. Counting up Adirondack hermits is a little like numbering pine needles on the forest floor, just as nailing down a set of their defining characteristics remains as elusive as Old Patch’s backside disappearing into the woods.
Hermitted: Follensby Pond, from around 1820 to his death
Claim to Fame: Doomed love and disappearing treasure
The life story of one of our earliest hermits has one of the more tenuous relationships with reality. His legend was born with Alfred B. Street, who, in Woods and Waters: Or, The Saranacs and Racket (1860), concocted a romantic tale of lost love and stolen riches: Captain Folingsby, “a strange, melancholy man” with highbrow manners, was found raving with fever by a trapper and hunter. The delirious man called on lords and generals and a woman named Georgiana, cursing her and an unnamed rogue. He pointed toward the fireplace before he died. In it, under a stone, the visiting pair found a British uniform and letters identifying the hermit as the son of an earl, along with golden and jeweled items. But when the two awoke the next morning, the cache was gone. In an 1869 essay, Joel T. Headley changed the story up a bit, giving out that Folingsby was a Napoleonic soldier whose sweetheart drove him to the wilderness by marrying his brother.
Hermitted: Stillwater, followed by Smith’s Lake (now Lake Lila), circa 1820 to circa 1845
Claim to Fame: Could hike dozens of miles, but couldn’t chew his food properly
Charles E. Snyder, in an 1896 address to the Herkimer County Historical Society, laid out some possible motives for Smith’s self-imposed isolation. One rumor was that he went into seclusion after the death of his fiancée; others argued that he’d cut and run “because his wife made it too interesting for him at home.” The first account we have of Smith was crafted by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, in 1877’s Historical Sketches of Northern New York and the Adirondack Wilderness. Sylvester’s write-up left us with some fanciful nuggets: that Smith trekked 40 miles to Number Four for help while choking on moose meat, and that he lugged around an extensive collection of taxidermy to exhibit to townsfolk. Sylvester reported that the recluse fled to Smith’s Lake after Stillwater got too crowded, and he took off again when his new digs began to cramp his style, this time for parts unknown. Fellow hermit James O’Kane took over Smith’s Stillwater stamping grounds after he vacated—O’Kane was said to be more welcoming than his predecessor, though visitors in 1851 described him as an “unpleasant-looking chap” who slept on a bed of “old bags of straw, black with grease and dirt.”
Hermitted: North Lake, circa 1840 to 1889
Claim to Fame: A bottomless belly, and a bottomless supply of tall tales
Martin escaped to the woods for the usual reason: a woman let him down, marrying another before he could finish staking his claim. He lived in an A-frame shack at the headwaters of the Black River, trapping, guiding and, later in life, tending the North Lake dam. Martin was famously superstitious (word was he nailed a dried weasel above his door—or stove, depending on the source—to keep the witches away), had a deep distrust for “wimmin,” and feuded with his neighbor, Kettle Jones, over a jacklight debacle. Legends about him are legion. He was supposed to have choked a whole wolf pack with his bare hands and to have killed a deer, a fish, a rabbit, three partridges and one raccoon with a single shot. Oh, and he kicked Paul Bunyan’s butt in a ground-shaking throwdown. Martin died in 1889 after being carted out of the woods and deposited in the county poorhouse.
Hermitted: Piseco Lake, 1847 until his death, in 1891
Claim to Fame: Invented the “Old Lobb” trout spoon
Outdoor columnist Mortimer Norton, who profiled Floyd Ferris Lobb, explained that “a part of his youth … was enlivened by a wife, but in some manner there arose adverse marital problems.” So Lobb set up housekeeping in a lean-to on Piseco Lake, trapping some and fishing regularly. He’d anchored a spruce pole in the deep water in front of his hut and baited the spot with pieces of minnows. When his boat was hitched to the pole, it was a snap to pull up a pack of lake trout. And that wasn’t his only energy-saving maneuver. Norton claims that when Lobb went wider afield on his fishing expeditions, he’d string his laundry along behind the boat. In his later years, volunteers built him a snugger cabin and hung a “Lobbville” sign over the door. His champion trout spoon outlived him; the design was picked up by a Utica company after his death.
William Henry “Bill” Smith
Hermitted: Near Bloomingdale, 1860s until his death, in 1906
Claim to Fame: Floor-length beard
Bill Smith made it clear that rumors of his death were greatly exaggerat-ed. At least the ones that made the rounds in 1895, a decade before his ac-tual demise. Seems a New York Times correspondent, starved for lively happenings in Saranac Lake, made the whole thing up, including pithy quotes and a drawing of the grave site. Newspapers around the region picked up the story and ran with it—some relying on a competing article in the New York World that added a few more colorful details—until Smith caught wind. His real story wasn’t all that newsworthy. He’d been a garden-variety lumberman and hotelier until his wife died, when he withdrew to his remote farm for good. But he didn’t shun attention; Smith welcomed curiosity-seekers to his cabin and even offered himself—and his impressive beard—as a dime-museum exhibit.
Bowen the Hermit
Hermitted: Long Lake, 1850s until his death, in 1888
Claim to Fame: Charcoal baron
Though his portrait gives off a Charles Manson vibe, Bowen was said to be well-read and well-mannered. Little is known of him, except that he may have come from Canada and, according to Alfred Donaldson’s A History of the Adirondacks (1921), he was “considered an expert” at making charcoal, burying piles of wood and letting them burn for days. Donaldson also left us with this yarn: A local preacher was eager to save Bowen, who was an agnostic. Though the hermit was stubborn in his beliefs, the preacher told him he would change his mind “when the hand of death was upon him.” So Bowen sent for the man from his deathbed, “to have the satisfaction of telling him that … he had neither changed his mind nor lost his skepticism.”
Harney the Hermit
Hermitted: Long Lake, 1860s to 1904
Claim to Fame: Rumored to be a snappy dresser as a younger man; in his later years, not so much
Harney’s real name was Larmie Fournier, a Canadian who left his wife and young children and disappeared into the woods. In 1961, amateur historian R. Rossman Lawrence typed up several oral histories starring Harney. Neighbors remembered that he spoke Parisian French and had been in the French navy. He’d kept himself afloat with a big garden and livestock, selling milk and produce to vacationers in the summertime. He also drove an oxcart for hotelier Mother Johnson at Raquette Falls and was a key player at her burial. Donaldson wrote that Harney lived in his shanty on Long Lake until he was “a very old man—and also a very dirty one.” His son came to fetch him home in 1904.
Hermitted: Raquette Lake and environs, circa 1865 until his death, in 1902
Claim to Fame: Notorious jerk
Dunning lit out for the wilderness because of a woman, too; he beat his wife so terribly that he was forced to vacate the Piseco Lake area. Though Donaldson reported that Dunning’s father was a pre-Revolutionary scout serving under Sir William Johnson, other accounts dismiss that ancestry as unsubstantiated. Sources do agree that Dunning was a precocious hunter and guide, leading his first foray into the wilderness as a preteen. Though he supported himself in the tourist trade, he’s credited with saying that if he had his druthers, the “city dudes with velvet suits and pop-guns” would “stay out o’ my woods.” His most celebrated feud was with pulp-novelist Ned Buntline, of Blue Mountain Lake, which may or may not have included the sinking of Buntline’s boat and the killing of one of Dunning’s hounds. Dunning was exhibited at the 1902 Sportsmen’s Show in New York City; he died of asphyxiation in a hotel on the way home, thanks to one of those newfangled gas lamps.
John Henry Hill
Hermitted: Phantom Island, Lake George, from 1870 to 1876
Claim to Fame: Pre-Raphaelite artist of some note
Although Hill—a third-generation artist—had some success in New York City, he got a bit snippety about the public’s perceived indifference to his talents. He wrote in his diary that he decided “to take them at their word and cut clear … and tend to my own business.” So he built a cabin on Phantom Island and spent his time painting and printing etchings on a press he’d hauled over the ice from Bolton Landing. Hill wasn’t all that happy when Seneca Ray Stoddard promoted him as a sightseeing-worthy curiosity in a 1875 guidebook. He became more ornery over time, shouting at the crowds that gawked at his island. This behavior would never do for the tourist trade; constables rounded him up in 1876 and sent him to an asylum. He was released, but never returned to Lake George.
Hermitted: Lewey Lake, then West Canada Lake, about 1873 until his death, in 1915
Claim to Fame: Drunken shenanigans on his twice-yearly trips to town
Louis Seymour, better known as French Louie, had a sprawling network of temporary camps throughout his trapping grounds—one was said to be little more than a hollow log, another a cave with a handily situated smoke hole—but his main residence boasted a cabin, extensive gardens and a menagerie of chickens, snakes (good for pest control) and a series of dogs. Twice a year he’d descend on the community of Newton’s Corners (now Speculator) to sell his cache of furs and indulge in an epic bender. A hermit named Sam Seymour, purportedly from the same small town in Canada as Louie, lived on the opposite shore of Lewey Lake when the more famous Seymour first set up camp; there was some speculation that the two were brothers, though little evidence.
Dingle Dangle and Kettle Jones
Hermitted: North Lake, Horn Lake and environs, tail end of the 19th century
Claims to fame: Dingle Dangle claimed he’d discovered gold near Ice Cave Mountain; Kettle Jones was best known for his wild-berry brandy and boozy raccoon
Dingle Dangle and Kettle—John R. and Owen Jones, respectively—were born into a large Welsh clan in Steuben. Dingle Dangle came to hermitting later in life; in earlier years he was a postmaster, painter and aspiring inventor. He concocted an “oily substance” to coat flies that always brought him “a fine mess of trout,” according to Howard Thomas, author of Folklore from the Adirondack Foothills (1958). Unfortunately, his love life was less successful, and so he joined the class of hermit whose failed courtships drove them from society. But he was a little too good at losing himself in the forest. Sometime after the turn of the century, he set off for a temporary camp on Snyder Lake and was never seen again.
Kettle had a shack a few miles from Atwell Martin’s, and the two struck up an uneasy friendship that quickly soured. The breaking point was rumored to involve a jacklighting trip on South Lake, when Kettle shot at a deer but instead took down the lamp staff. Kettle’s wild-berry brandy brought sportsmen from miles around, but his pet raccoon was perhaps its biggest fan—visiting hunters said the critter would dunk food in the brew before feasting. According to lore, Kettle sold his raccoon again and again—every time a buyer got it home, it’d run right back to Kettle and his hooch.
Hermitted: On Fall Stream, north of Piseco, from 1890 to 1916
Claim to Fame: Accused of murder
Brown, a former railroad man whose real name was David Brennan, came to the Adirondacks from Boston after almost killing a man in a fight. For a quarter century he lived off the land, hunting, trapping and selling shingles he’d split. He was a cantankerous fellow, threatening visitors and taking shots at the game protector. Then, in 1916, he was hired as a guide but misplaced his employer. When the man’s corpse surfaced, Brown didn’t stick around to see how things would play out—he skedaddled to Syracuse. He was tried for murder in absentia and acquitted.
Ferdinand “Ferdie” Jennsen
HERMITTED: North of Tupper Lake, circa 1890s until his death, in 1947
CLAIM TO FAME: Man of strong opinions
Lost love—what else?—drove Jennsen from his native Denmark to the depths of the Adirondacks, where he lived for more than 50 years in a little cabin of vertical logs. A visitor in the 1940s described Ferdie as an avid consumer of news (he listened regularly on a battery-powered radio) who was “extremely partisan with several pet phobias.” At age 87, he died in the fire that leveled his home.
Noah John Rondeau
Hermitted: Cold River Flow, 1929–1950
Claim to Fame: Mr. Congeniality
After decades of hagiographic articles, books and blogs, what’s left to say about Noah John? Still, we can be forgiven a little hero worship—Rondeau lived out the fantasy of every barefooted boy and girl who ever packed up a handkerchief bindle and decamped to the back 40. He settled into his hermitage, a six-hour walk from civilization, after running away from an overbearing father and then working as a barber and taking on odd jobs until he got good and sick of society. Not too sick, though. He was welcoming to hikers, and hammed for the public at sportsmen’s shows. A 1946 New York State Conservationist article noted that he’d revert to “picturesque hermit talk if he thinks his hiker-visitor would be made any happier by it.” The Big Blowdown of 1950 chased Rondeau out of his rustic spread; in his later years, he played Santa Claus at Wilmington’s North Pole theme park.
Archie “Bobcat” Ranney
Hermitted: Near Bakers Mills, from about 1934 to 1952
Claim to fame: A fondness for porcupine dinners
Ranney spent most of his life as a typesetter before ditching his wife and family in Binghamton to live with his dog in the hills around Bakers Mills. He’s been called the Hermit of Tombstone Swamp or the Hermit of Dogtown, but he was no recluse; Ranney appeared at a sportsmen’s show and entertained underprivileged city boys at a state police camp. He could also be relied on for entertaining letters to newspapers, including a folksy write-up about rattlesnake bounties in 1936: “Now they wanter thin-out them sassy reptiles over onto Tongue mountain so’s them Noo York city fellers can gallivant around over them hills, a pickin posies.” (Ranney dropped the backwoodsman bit in his thoughtful correspondence with Howard Zahniser, of the Wilderness Society.) Barney Fowler—who wrote about Ranney regularly in his Camps and Trails columns—described him as “a man of scraggly beard, long hair, raccoon cap” who was given to frequent banjo picking. In 1952, at age 80, he almost froze to death in his cabin, but managed to drag himself to a neighbor’s home. The Associated Press reported that the scruffy, hard-of-hearing mountainman charmed the nurses at the hospital as he recovered.