By Adrian Gerth
Five decades have passed since Robert Harrill called this place his home, though it is still quiet inside the bunker. There’s no rush of traffic, no bright lights dotting the landscape, no hum of walking conversations. Only the buzz of cicadas, the push of the breeze, the sounds of nature that most of us have unconsciously learned to tune out. For a man who felt at ease in the woods near his childhood home, this salt marsh must have brought him the peace he had sought so long for. Nature would guide his life in a way that society had not allowed.
Born the second of February, 1893, Robert faced adversity at a young age. The death of his mother and brothers at as a child prompted his father to remarry, bringing a tyrannical stepmother into Robert’s life. Paired with abuse from his father, Robert was never comfortable in his childhood home. Moving in with new relatives made little difference, and he would often take refuge in the woods, finding peace by himself in nature. His first true love was found in academics. Always a passionate student, he excelled in his studies at Boiling Springs High and entered seminary school, excited to progress. After an argument over evolution caused some friction with his professors, he met Katie Hamrick, whose class and grace fueled a passion in him greater than his schooling ever had. Shortly after they met, she agreed to marry him.
The time that Katie and Robert had together was probably the most peaceful of his life before he became the Hermit. After converting an old Model-T to a sort of homemade Winnebago, they traveled with their two sons, Boge and Alvin, all over the state, in a sort of permanent vacation. Robert supported the family by selling trinkets, jewelry, and dog collars in the towns they visited. Trips to Carolina Beach were a family favorite, and Robert knew it was a place he could survive by living off the land, if all else failed. After several years of traveling, the Harrills decided to come home to Shelby to provide a more stable environment for their family.
Stability means many different things to different people; perhaps it was the lack of security in his own life that made this concept so hard for Robert. His in-laws, of a more conventional type than him, were a major source of friction to Robert and Katie’s marriage. Believing that he could not provide for her in an acceptable way because of his background, they had him committed to Broughton Mental Institution for observation. Quickly tiring of the facilities treatment, Robert left on his own accord to return to his family, the hospital staff never bothering to bring him back. The summer of 1935 may have been a breaking point for the Harrill’s marriage. Faced with economic hardship and expecting a child, their oldest son Alvin committed suicide as he felt himself incapable of providing for his own family.
After many unhappy years, Katie began looking for an escape. Taking an ad in the paper for a housekeeper in Pennsylvania, she took Boge up north, where she eventually married the man she worked for. For a man so devoted to his family, this broke Robert to a point where he could no longer stay in the town he had tried so hard to fit in. He checked himself back into Broughton, looking for help with his inner demons. Like his first visit, he found little solace in contemporary medicine and walked out, possibly with the help of a key fashioned from a spoon. In 1955, he packed his bags and hitchhiked the 260 miles to Carolina Beach. His first attempt was stymied when he was arrested as a vagrant and returned to Shelby. This did little to deter him, as he made his way back to the fort the following summer and set up his home in the abandoned World War II bunker.
He didn’t fit the normal definition of hermit; with over 100,000 visitors from every state and at least twenty foreign nations, Robert became the second biggest tourist attraction in the state, overtaken only by the Battleship. His home wasn’t your typical tourist destination; there are no shops, sandy beaches, hotels, not a paved road even to this day. More than the location, it was the man himself that drew people there. He embodied a solitary spirit that is entwined with the American dream of liberty and human independence. He had the courage to do what many people dream of, but rarely do.
Perhaps it was this courage that made him such an attraction to some, and a target to others. He was many things to many people; mentally ill, a visionary, a vagabond. To most of his visitors, he was a wealth of knowledge that society couldn’t teach you. Romanticized as a Southern Thoreau, many of his visitors came to hear his wisdom, which he called the School of Common Sense. His laughter was contagious, and his ability to laugh at himself could make even those who saw him as a loon understand, if only for a moment, the world from his eccentric perspective.
Of course, not everyone is as empathetic as Robert; for some, it was a common weekend activity to go and “mess with the hermit.” Once the bars closed, the more restless locals would come to the Fort to throw beer cans at Robert, or try to steal the money he was rumored to hide within his bunker. He was harassed, robbed, and beaten on multiple occasions, and successfully defended himself in court a number of times, serving as both lead prosecutor and star witness. That his wisdom served in nature as well as in the court of law surely showed that any psychological problems he had stemmed from confrontation with society, rather than a troubled mind.
Many theories abound as to the Hermit’s demise, ranging from a simple heart attack or accidental drowning, to a more sinister plot involving contractors and a few drunken aggressors. The police report filed after his death lists “heart attack” as the foremost cause of his death, but the circumstances that led to this are still under debate to this day. “The Reluctant Hermit of Fort Fisher,” written by co-authors Fred Pickler and Daniel Norris, goes into great detail of Robert’s life, and the many factors that may have led to his death. The installation of Sunny Point or a waterfront development has brought many people to a conspiratorial conclusion. Although he certainly met a shadowy end, neither of these theories is rooted much in fact. The power struggle between the military and development interests of the area hardly brought out the big guns, with Sunny Point winning the land outright. They even sent a Dr. Stanley South to visit the Hermit and see what kind of man was living right outside of the buffer zone of the fort. Dr. South deemed Robert to be of no threat, making any action to remove him unnecessary.
Regardless of how he met his end, Robert Harrill’s life as the Hermit was an interesting experiment in how society meets with someone trying to live on their own accord. We all have questions in this life: what our purpose is, what we should do with the time given to us. Try as he did to answer these questions within the bounds of society, Robert failed time and again. Perhaps becoming the Hermit was his answer to these questions; if he could not forge his place in the world with his own hands, he would let Nature choose his life for him. In his own words,
“Everybody loves a lover, everybody loves me. Come, let’s have a little fun, down beside the sea.”
For a fascinatingly detailed account of the Hermit’s life, read “The Reluctant Hermit of Fort Fisher” by Fred Pickler and Daniel Norris. The book is on sale now and more details can be found on their website, www.thehermitbook.com. Cape Fear Playhouse is bringing Robert Harrill to life with “The Hermit of Fort Fisher.” Written by David Wright and directed by Steve Vernon, the play begins at 8 p.m. on July 31st, running every Thursday through Sunday (matinee at 3 p.m.) until the endof August. More details can be found on their website, www.bigdawgproductions.com.