Robert E. Harrill, also known as the "The Hermit" is a character woven into the history of Fort Fisher, NC. Surely one of the most famous people of Pleasure Island. He has been the subject of a documentary, a book, a "society" and has had many articles written about his life and times. He lived "off the land" in an old, abandoned War World II bunker for 16 years. Harrill hitchhiked to Fort Fisher, on the coast of North Carolina from the mountains seeking peace and sanctuary from an abusive and disappointing life. In his early 60's, he finally decided to move away from society and closer to nature. His life was sad, sweet, inspirational and courageous; his death surrounded in mystery only adds one more layer to his story. He was gregarious, teaching his version of "the school of common sense", by the late 1960's he was deemed to be 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 he used to call home. Like everyone else, I find myself intrigued by a man who lived in the middle of a salt marshland, just beside the ocean, so independently for so long. He lived off the "fat of the land"; here at the coast it was oysters, fish and a garden he planted himself. He braved hurricanes, the 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 the animals, stray cats, dogs and wild raccoons. Although, I do not imagine he was lonely for human company-it has been said that he kept a guest book that by his death contained no less than 100,000 entries. These passers by made their contributions to him-dropping money in his frying pan or sharing some food. He also accepted donations for posing in a photo.
He was quoted in 1968 in the New Hanover Sun with regard to his popularity,
"Everybody ought to 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 just what I'm doing, but since it is much easier thought of than done, they subconsciously elect me to represent them, that's why I'm successful … "
I imagine he did not miss much food or drink. There is an entry on his website from a local who was about 16 at the time used to ride him into town for groceries. The man remembers piling 30 bags of groceries into his trunk!
letters and stories, along with his personal collected writings indicate he lived a hard life. He grew up through the depression in an abusive household as a child. His marriage ended in divorce and his eldest son committee suicide. I can relate to his desire to escape to a simpler life. To continue his story however, his younger son Edward founded The Hermits' Society. The Hermit's inspirations, "teachings", and thoughts are recorded in photograph and movie
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 a spread eagle position on a pile of trash. I find it hard to convey how this saddens me.
You can still visit his bunker and walk the trail from the Fort Fisher / South End Beach Access. The trail begins across from the Visitors Center. The trail is approximately ¼ mile to the bunker. You can continue on to the Observatory deck at the very top if the island where you can view heron, ibis, egret and other amazing coastal colonial birds. A regular sight for our friend the hermit.
Having learned all of this about Robert Harrill I felt compelled, to follow it through and find his grave. It is located on Dow Road in the Federal Point Methodist Cemetery. It is a peaceful spot beside the River in a shady, historic area of the grounds. The grave itself is covered in shells that have been left as mementos, in fact I left one myself as I knelt to read the headstone. It reads "He made people think". I am not the only one, his visitors still seek him out, most recently a DVD of the Fort Fisher Hermit Movie was also left on Robert's grave. The story of his life, "The Battle for Independence; The Life and Times of the Fort Fisher Hermit" is for sale on lulu.com.