A Haven for Hermits
The entrepreneurial success of the “Hermit of the Maine Desert” shows a longtime fascination with recluses in the Pine Tree Stat
The North Pond Hermit is likely Maine’s most prolific alleged criminal. Yet, because of the five-year statute of limitations and the minor monetary damage of his thefts, Christopher Knight will face minimal jail time if convicted. That means he’ll soon have to navigate the society he’s spent three decades avoiding. While it’s sure to be daunting for him, a look back into Maine’s history shows that not only is it possible to turn one’s hermit lifestyle into a capitalist endeavor, but it’s also potentially lucrative.
A rotund man with a scraggly beard, Charles Coffin lived on the sandy edges of Freeport’s Desert of Maine in the 1920s and ’30s. He spent years traveling with circuses before settling by himself inside a tiny log cabin. When the Desert of Maine began gaining prominence, Coffin opened his home to summer tourists and charged them fifteen cents each to view the oddities of his hermitage. While Coffin was a hermit in only the loosest sense of the word, he successfully marketed himself using that mystique. One newspaper of the time referred to him as “the most talked of, the most written of, and the most photographed man in town,” thanks to the popularity of the items he collected, including personal wood carvings, the first pencil sharpener, and his one-piece orchestra. He routinely performed concerts for those who stopped by his cabin.
Unlike Coffin, Knight probably won’t take out any ads that say, “Be Sure and See the Maine Hermit.” But as the recent media frenzy around Knight has proven, there’s an enduring fascination with hermits. Coffin’s death in 1941 opened a so-far-unfilled niche in the Maine tourist marketplace should Knight want the job opportunity. No references required. — W.B.
Other Legendary Maine Hermits
A reality star of his day, Joe Knowles spent a well publicized eight weeks in 1913 alone in the Maine woods with nothing but a white cotton jockstrap. He was exposed as a sham when it was uncovered that he was instead in a nearby cabin drinking beer with his friend/ghostwriter.
The Hermit of Manana
Ray Phillips lost his job in NYC during the Great Depression and set off aboard his sloop towards uninhabited Manana Island, just off Monhegan. He lived there for forty years in a driftwood cabin and traveled once a year to the mainland for a haircut and a night on the town.
Greenleaf H. Davis
Known as “Hunter,” Davis lived as a hunter and trapper twenty miles from Mount Katahdin, near Upper and Lower Shin Ponds. He entertained himself with a homemade fiddle, and is believed to have spent weeks with Henry David Thoreau in the woods near Katahdin.
Photo for Maine Historic Preservation Commission