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The Fort Fisher Hermit
Robert E. Harrill, also known as “The Hermit” is a character embedded in the history of Fort Fisher, NC. Definitely one of Pleasure Island’s most famous people. He has been the subject of documentaries, books, “society” and many articles have been written about his life and times. He lived “off the land” in an old, abandoned World War II bunker for 16 years. Harrill hitchhiked to Fort Fisher, on the North Carolina coast from the mountains in search of peace and refuge from an abusive and frustrating life. In the early 60s he finally decided to move away from society and get closer to nature. His life was sad, sweet, inspiring and courageous. His death shrouded in mystery only adds another layer to his story. He was unusual, teaching his version of the “school of common sense”, in the late 1960s it was considered the second largest tourist attraction in the state of North Carolina after the Battleship USS North Carolina.
I followed the “Hermit Path” to the retreat he used to call home. Like everyone else, I’m interested in a man who lived in the middle of a salt marsh, right next to the ocean, so independently for so long. He lived on the “fat of the land”; here on the shore were oysters, fish, and a garden he planted himself. He braved the hurricanes, humidity and heat of Carolina summers, fought for his right to stay in his “home” against developers and other authorities who considered him a bum. Mostly his friends were animals, stray cats, dogs and wild raccoons. Although, I don’t imagine he was lonely for human company – he is said to have kept a guest book which by the time of his death contained at least 100,000 entries. These passers-by made their contribution to him – dropping money into his pan or sharing some food. He also accepted donations to pose for a photo.
Reported in 1968 in the New Hanover Sun regarding its popularity,
“Everyone should be a hermit for a few minutes to an hour or so every 24 hours, to study, meditate and commune with their creator…millions of people want to do exactly what I do, but because it’s so much easier thought rather than done, subconsciously they elect me to represent them, that’s why I’m successful…”
I imagine he didn’t miss much food or drink. There is an entry on his site from a local who was about 16 at the time taking him into town for groceries. The man remembers piling 30 bags of groceries into his trunk!
letters and stories, along with his personal collected writings show that he lived a hard life. He grew up through the Depression in an abusive household as a child. His marriage ended in divorce and his eldest son committed suicide. I can relate to his desire to escape to a simpler life. However, to continue his story, Edward’s youngest son founded the Society of Hermits. The Hermit’s inspirations, “teachings” and thoughts are recorded in photographs and films
His death on June 3, 1972 was reported as a heart attack. The Hermit was found by a group of teenagers early in the morning. His body was in a spread eagle position on a pile of trash. I have a hard time conveying how sad this makes me.
You can still visit his shelter and walk the trail from the Fort Fisher/South End Beach Access. The trail starts opposite the Visitor Center. The trail is about ¼ mile to the lodge. You can continue to the Observatory deck at the top of the island, where you can see herons, egrets, egrets and other amazing birds of the coastal colony. A regular sight for our hermit friend.
Having learned all this about Robert Harrill, I felt compelled to track it down and find his grave. Located on Dow Road in Federal Point Methodist Cemetery. It is a quiet spot by the river in a shady, historic area of the grounds. The grave itself is covered in shells left as mementos, in fact I left one myself as I knelt down to read the tombstone. He writes “It made people think.” I’m not the only one, his visitors are still looking for him, most recently a DVD of the movie Fort Fisher Hermit was also left on Robert’s grave. His life story, “The Battle for Independence; The Life and Times of the Fort Fisher Hermit” is sold at lulu.com.
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