Robert Edward Harrill (1893-1972) was, at one time — at least, by his own claims — the Cape Fear coast’s second top-drawing tourist attraction after the Battleship North Carolina Memorial.
In one summer alone, an estimated 17,000 visitors trekked their way to an abandoned World War II-vintage Army bunker at Federal Point (not far from the modern N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher). There, they could see (and occasionally smell) the feisty coastal character, who would hold forth on his personal philosophy in sessions he called his “School of Common Sense.”
His guestbook, weighted down with sea shells, eventually contained more than 100,000 signatures, with visitors from all 50 states and at least 20 foreign countries.
Harrill — who had apparently visited Carolina Beach periodically for many years — first settled in the area in 1955, living in a tent not far from the seashore. (A few locals claim he arrived a year earlier and may have weathered Hurricane Hazel.) By most accounts, New Hanover sheriff’s deputies arrested him on a vagrancy charge and shipped him back to Shelby, N.C., his former hometown. Harrill returned the following summer, though, and settled in the bunker, where — despite occasional hassles with the Army, local officials and neighboring property owners — he stayed for the next 16 years.
Harrill lived on what he called “a millionaire’s menu,” seining the nearby marshes for small fish, digging for oysters and picking berries. Occasionally, he ate horseshoe crab and scrounged nearby trash cans (later, dumpsters) for leftovers. In later years, he also planted a small vegetable garden. He lived simply and supplemented his needs with occasional donations, left by visitors in a frying pan (later, a battered hubcap). He also agreed to be photographed with visitors for a modest fee.
Before long, tourists, local high school students and others began to visit the “hermit,” who was actually quite sociable and loved to talk to a willing audience. He preached a gospel of self-sufficiency and independence. Sometimes he sounded quite conservative (“America is rapidly turning into 99 and a half million tyrants, chiselers, freeloaders, swindlers, thieves, kleptomanics, robbers, thugs, hoodlums and gangsters,” he once proclaimed) and sometimes radical, attacking the traditional family. He often told people he was writing a huge book to be called “A Tyrant in Every Home,” but no manuscript was ever found.
The Hermit proved to be a brilliant self-promoter. The claim about his tourist draw came from a letter he mailed out to the governor and state legislators. In 1960, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he publicly wrote to Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev, urging him to come to Federal Point for a visit “to really get to know the American people as I have.” He also wrote guest columns for local newspapers.
Much detail about the Hermit’s origins was not discovered until after his death. Born Feb. 2, 1893 in Gaffney, S.C., Harrill apparently had a rough childhood. His mother and two brothers died of typhoid fever when he was a child. His father remarried and he reportedly clashed with his stepmother. (Some sources claim his “tyrant” was a step-grandmother with whom he was sent to live.)
Some sources say Harrill tried to become a Baptist minister but was expelled from the training school because of heretical opinions about evolution. Over the next few decades he farmed and worked in textile mills, was a day laborer for the New Deal Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression and made a little money as a traveling salesman and peddler. A photograph found by the Shelby Star shows Harrill happily giving his pitch as a street vendor in downtown Shelby as a young man.
In 1913, Harrill wed Katie Hamrick, but the marriage was troubled. A daughter died in infancy; a son died in the 1930s, an apparent suicide. She eventually left Harrill, taking their children with her to Pennsylvania. Her relatives had Harrill committed to a state insane asylum at Morganton, but the story goes that he made his escape after shaping a spoon into a key.
At some point, Harrill became fascinated by the “Bio-Psycho-Genetics” teachings of Dr. William Marcus Taylor and reportedly traveled to Spruce Pine, N.C., to study under Taylor personally. Taylor’s ideas were apparently the source of much of the Hermit’s philosophy.
The Hermit’s popularity grew in the 1960s, when local members of the Counter-culture came to see him as a kindred spirit.
Harrill died on June 3, 1972. His body was discovered in the bunker by local boys. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death was a heart attack, but a number of people — including his son, George Edward Harrill, and Michael Edwards. a fan who wrote a number of books and pamphlets about the Hermit — claimed that foul play was involved. They noted suspicious cuts and the quantity of sand on the Hermit’s legs, found at the scene. The younger Harrill continued to push for an investigation until his death in 1997. Rumors also swirled about a “treasure” the Hermit supposedly left buried near the bunker, and the area was backhoed mysteriously soon after his death. No great sums, however, ever came to light.
In 1989, Harrill was reburied at Carolina Beach. His epitaph reads, “He made people think.”
In 1993, Edwards, and local museum curator Harry Warren founded the Hermit Society, to honor Harrill’s memory. Local filmmakers Rob Hill, Scott Davis and Richard Sirianni collaborated on a documentary, “The Fort Fisher Hermit: The Life and Death of Robert E. Harrill,” which premiered in 2004 at Wilmington’s Cucalorus Film Festival. Later revised, with narration by actor Barry Corbin (“Northern Exposure”), the film was screened in 2007 on North Carolina Public Television.
A “Fort Fisher Hermit Trail” (also known as the Basin Trail) leads to Harrill’s bunker at the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, 1000 Loggerhead Road, Kure Beach [Map this].
Date posted: March 13, 2009