Robert E. Harrill, also known as “The Hermit,” is a character woven into the history of Fort Fisher, NC. He surely one of the most famous characters of Pleasure Island. He has been the subject of a documentary, a book, a “society” and has written many articles about his life and his time. He lived “off the ground” in an old abandoned WWII 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 disappointing life. In his early 60s, he finally decided to get away from society and get closer to nature. His life was sad, sweet, inspiring and brave; his death shrouded in mystery just adds another layer to his story. He was gregarious, teaching his version of “common sense school”, by 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’s Trail” to the bunker I used to call home. Like everyone else, I am intrigued by a man who lived in the middle of a salt marsh, right next to the ocean, independently for so long. He lived off the “fat of the land”, here on the coast there were oysters, fish and a garden that he planted himself. Braving the hurricanes, humidity and heat of the Carolina summers, he fought for his right to stay in his “home” against developers and other authorities who considered him a vagrant. Mainly, his friends were animals, stray cats, dogs and wild raccoons. Although I don’t imagine he felt lonely in human company, it has been said that he kept a guest book that at his death contained no less than 100,000 entries. These passers-by gave him his contributions, throwing money into his frying 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 or so every 24 hours, to study, meditate, and commune with their creator… Millions of people want to do exactly what I’m doing, but because it’s so much easier to think than do, they subconsciously choose me to represent them, which is why I’m successful…”
I imagine he did not miss much food or drink. There is an entry on his website of a local who was about 16 at the time and used to take him into town for groceries. The man remembers stacking 30 grocery bags in his trunk!
letters and stories, along with his collected personal writings, indicate that he lived a hard life. He grew up through depression in an abusive home as a child. His marriage ended in divorce and the committee of his eldest son committed suicide. I can relate to his desire to escape to a simpler life. However, to continue his story, his youngest son, Edward, founded The Hermits’ Society. The Hermit’s inspirations, “teachings” and thoughts are recorded in photographs and film.
His death on June 3, 1972 was listed 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 hard to convey how sad this makes me.
You can still visit his bunker and walk the trail from Fort Fisher/South End Beach Access. The trail begins in front of the Visitor Center. The trail is about ¼ mile to the bunker. You can continue to the Observatory deck at the top of the island, where you can see herons, ibis, egrets and other amazing coastal colonial 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 in the Federal Point Methodist Cemetery. It is a quiet place next to the river in a shady and historic area of the grounds. The grave itself is covered in shells which have been left as keepsakes, in fact I left one myself as I knelt down to read the tombstone. He says “He made people think.” I’m not the only one, visitors to it are still looking for it, more recently a DVD of the film 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 for sale at lulu.com.