Robert E. Harrill, also known as “The Hermit” is a character woven into the history of Fort Fisher, North Carolina. Surely one of the most famous characters on Pleasure Island. He has been the subject of a documentary, a book, a “society” and has written many articles about his life and times. He lived “off the ground” in an old abandoned bunker during WWII 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 disappointing life. At age 60, he finally decided to get away from society and get closer to nature. Her life was sad, sweet, inspiring, and brave; his death shrouded in mystery only adds one more layer to his story. He was sociable, 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 “Path of the Hermit” to the bunker that I used to call home. Like everyone else, I am intrigued by a man who lived in the middle of a salt marsh, right by the ocean, so independently for so long. He lived on the “fat of the earth”, here on the coast there were oysters, fish and a garden that he himself planted. He faced hurricanes, the humidity and the heat of Carolina summers, he fought for his right to stay in his “home” against developers and other authorities who considered him a homeless man. Mainly, his friends were animals, stray cats, dogs, and wild raccoons. Although, I don’t imagine that he was alone for human company, it has been said that he had a guest book that at his death contained no less than 100,000 entries. These passersby made their contributions to him, dropping money into his pan or sharing some food. He also accepted donations for posing for a photo.
He was quoted in 1968 in the New Hanover Sun regarding his popularity,
“Everyone should be a hermit for a few minutes to an hour approximately every 24 hours, to study, meditate and commune with their creator … millions of people want to do exactly what I am doing, but since it is much easier think what to do, subconsciously they choose me to represent them, that’s why I am successful … “
I guess I didn’t miss much food or drink. There is an entry on his website from a local who was about 16 years old at the time and used to take him to town to buy food. The man remembers stacking 30 bags of groceries in his trunk!
Letters and stories, along with her collected personal writings, indicate that she lived a difficult life. He grew up through depression in an abusive home as a child. Their marriage ended in divorce and their eldest son’s committee committed suicide. I can identify with his desire to escape to a simpler life. However, to continue his story, his youngest son, Edward, founded The Hermits’ Society. The inspirations, “teachings” and thoughts of the Hermit are recorded in photographs and films.
His death on June 3, 1972 was classified as a heart attack. The Hermit was found by a group of teenagers early in the morning. His body was in the position of an eagle stretched out on a pile of garbage. I find it difficult to convey how sad this makes me.
You can still visit your bunker and walk the trail from Fort Fisher / South End Beach Access. The trail begins in front of the Visitor Center. The trail is approximately ¼ mile to the bunker. You can continue to the Observatory platform at the top of the island where you can see herons, ibis, egrets, and other amazing colonial shore birds. A regular show for our friend the hermit.
Having learned all this about Robert Harrill, I felt compelled to follow him and find his grave. It is located on Dow Road at the Federal Point Methodist Cemetery. It is a quiet riverside location in a shady, historic area of the grounds. The grave itself is covered in shells that have been left as souvenirs, in fact I left one myself when I knelt down to read the tombstone. It says “It made people think.” I’m not the only one, your visitors are still looking for it, most recently a DVD of the movie Fort Fisher Hermit was also left at Robert’s grave. His life story, “The Battle for Independence; The Life and Times of the Hermit of Fort Fisher” is for sale on lulu.com.