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The Fort Fisher Hermit
Robert E. Harrill, also known as “The Hermit” is a person embedded in the history of Fort Fisher, NC. Definitely one of the most famous people in Pleasure Island. He has been the subject of articles, books, “society” and has had many stories written about his life and times. He lived “from the country” in an old, abandoned house of the Second World War for 16 years. Harrill drove to Fort Fisher, on the coast of North Carolina from the mountains in search of peace and sanctuary from a brutal and frustrating life. In the early 60’s, he decided to leave society and walk with nature. His life was sad, sweet, encouraging and brave; his death shrouded in mystery only adds another layer to his story. He was a socialite, teaching his own brand of “school of thought”, by the late 1960s he was considered North Carolina’s second largest tourist attraction after the Battleship USS North Carolina.
I followed the “Hermit’s Trail” to the bedroom they called home. Like everyone else, I am fascinated by a man who lived in the middle of a salt marsh, near the sea, independently for a long time. He lived on the “oil of the land”; on the beach there were oysters, fish and a garden that he planted himself. He fought against the wind, humidity and heat of the Carolina summer, he fought for his right to live in his “house” against the builders and other officials who considered him poor. His companions were mainly animals, stray cats, dogs and wild bears. Although, I don’t think he was lonely for the company of people—he is said to have kept a guest book that at his death contained at least 100,000 entries. Passers-by would donate money to him – drop money into his frying pan or share food with them. He also accepted donations for taking pictures.
He was quoted in 1968 in the New Hanover Sun about his popularity,
“Everyone should be self-confident for a few minutes to an hour or more every 24 hours, to study, meditate, and talk to their creator…millions of people want to do what I’m doing, but thinking is easier than doing, they unconsciously choose me to represent them, that’s why So I did well.” …
I don’t think he missed much food or drink. There is a note on his website from a local who was 16 years old at the time and gave him a ride into town to shop. The man remembers piling 30 bags of food in his bag!
letters and articles, along with his collected writings show that he lived a difficult life. He grew up in an abusive family as a child. His marriage ended in divorce and his eldest son committed suicide. I agree with his desire to escape to a simpler life. To continue his story, his youngest son Edward founded The Hermits’ Society. The Hermit’s inspiration, “teachings”, and ideas are documented in pictures and videos
His death on June 3, 1972 was recorded as a heart attack. The Hermit was found by a group of young people early in the morning. His body was in the place of an eagle spread out on a pile of garbage. It’s hard to describe how sad this makes me.
You can visit his bunker and walk the path from the Fort Fisher / South End Beach Access. The trail starts past the Visitors Center. The trail is about ¼ mile to the lodge. You can continue to the Observatory at the top of the island where you can see heron, ibis, egret and other amazing shorebirds. A regular visit to our hermit friend.
After learning all this about Robert Harrill I felt compelled to follow it up and find his grave. It is located on Dow Road in the Federal Point Methodist Cemetery. It is a peaceful spot along the River in the shade, a popular spot in the park. The grave itself has shells left as souvenirs, in fact I left one myself when I knelt down to read the headstone. It is said: “He made people think”. I’m not the only one, his visitors are still looking for him, recently a DVD of the Fort Fisher Hermit Movie was also left at Robert’s grave. His autobiography, “The Battle for Independence; The Life and Times of the Fort Fisher Hermit” is for sale on lulu.com.
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