Hermit’s Life the Only One for Walter Whittaker
By Ray Elliott
Ask Walter Whittaker, rural Lawrenceville, why he chose to move out in the
woods and live the life of a hermit, and he'll pro-bably shake his head, look
at the ground and tell you he doesn't know.
Spend a little time with him and he'll probably end up telling you something like,
"Oh, I just never could get along with anybody, especially my relation. I
was always fussin' and quarrelin' with somebody. I just thought I'd get back here
where they couldn't bother me, and I couldn't bother them."
Never married, Whittaker join-ed the navy during World War II when he was past
40 years old. At the time, it seemed as though he had little choice.
"He was the only single guy in the county," Whittaker's 84 year--old
brother, Ed, said. "They was takin' lots of married men, younger men with
families. This old Captain Cook was on the draft board and knew Walter most of
"He told him, he said, 'Whit-taker, you're gonna have to do somethin'. You're
the most talk-ed about man in the county, not bein' in the army and bein' single.'
He said, 'You better get in there, for they're gonna draft you.'
Whittaker took Cook's advice and joined the navy. Sent to Alaska with the seabees,
he worked on construction until the war was over. It was during this time that
he'll tell you he sometimes helped unload ships and carried 100-pound gunny sacks
of coal in each hand from where the crane left them to where they were stacked.
"I just wanted to get that dang war over with an' get home again," he'll
tell you. But they hated me because I worked hard. Them navy guys, they all made
fun of me, 'cause I didn't drink beer or smoke any. I said, 'Well, you guys smoke
all you want. I don't like it. I don't want any.' My dad always taught me not
to use it. And I never did smoke or drink. Maybe that's what's wrong with me."
Sometimes he'll laugh a little and look at a sockless foot or the missing index
finger on his right hand where he got a redwood splinter "pickin' up bottles
in a California beer joint” that went undetected by navy doctors until the
finger had to be amputated. It was amputated in front of the knuckle, he'll tell
you, so he "could still have a little to wave at the girls."
Then he'll go on with the story.
"There was 13 million guys in the navy, and the first thing they told us
was to never go anywhere by yourself," he'll say, flicking a fly from his
tattered, patched overalls or taking his patched-so-many-time-straw-hat-that-you-can-hardly-tell-
it's-a-straw hat anymore from his head and holding it in his gnarled hands.
"One day I was goin' to town. I was a little ways off, and I was walkin'.
The old lieutenant and two or three more of 'em stopped and they said, 'Where
you goin', Walter?' And I said, 'I'm goin' to town.' 'Why,' one of 'em said, 'you
ain't supposed to be out here by yourself.' I said, 'Well, they won't nobody come
"Kinda tickled me in a way. Oh, I just never would go with 'em, and they
didn't want me. I was always teasin' 'em and makin' 'em mad. Scufflin' with 'em
and wrasslin' and holdin’ ‘em down. They couldn't stand that."
There seems to be nothing left of that personality, nothing to suggest why he's
chosen to live in the woods for the last 30 years or more. He isn't sure how long
it's been. Or doesn't care.
Now he'll greet you with a "Get out and come on up." And he'll tell
you stories from another time, another place. Still, you won't deny that the man
you're talking with "marches to a different drummer."
Whittaker was born and raised near the old Blackburn School north of Lawrenceville,
three miles south of where he now lives. When he first left home he may have been
18; he may have been 20. He doesn't remember. That's been a long time ago for
a 79-year-old man who measures time by bad winters and dry summers.
Whenever he left, though, he left with three other Lawrenceville boys and caught
a west-bound freight train. That was the beginning of 15 or 20 years of roaming
the country, working about any place he landed.
"It's a free ride, see, an' you're not supposed to do it," he'll tell
you about riding freight trains. "Me and old Mart Zehner and Red Brashears
and Earl Childers, I believe it was that went that first time. We got outside
Garden City, Kansas, and I said, 'I'm gonna go over to this farmhouse to see if
I can get me a job. Come with me.'
“They wasn’t no use goin' over there, they said. I went over there.
Just an old man and woman livin’ there. Horsepower them days, you know.
Cut their wheat, I asked. And they said, 'Well, we was just sittin’ down
to have some breakfast. You better have some.'
"I said, ‘Well, I better go back and tell them guys to come. How many
of ‘em can you use?' He said, Well, I can. use ‘em all.’ Went
back out there and couldn't see no one. They'd walked on down the railroad. Cut
out to somewhere. Never seen ‘em for years. I went in and worked for this
guy, threshin' I don't know how many bundles of wheat."
From there Whittaker headed west. Hopping off a freight train in Denver, some
kids tried to rob him.
"They was a bunch of young whups there," he'll tell you. "Wasn't
any of 'em as big as I was, but as old and they tried to rob me. I'd just back
off, away from ‘em. If they'd crowd me too much, I'd just back up and act
like I was gonna hit 'em.
"They finally just give up and quit bothern' me. They knowed I was alone,
see, and they figured I had some money. But they didn't get it. Hardly anybody'd
fight me. I just bluffed 'em, I guess. I wasn’t afraid of nothin' or nobody.”
That attitude, about 225 pounds on a 6' frame and the desire to fight led Whittaker
to the ring as a sparring partner for some bigname heavyweight boxers who trained
in California where he worked in the oil fields.
"Yeah," he'll say in the same low, almost noncommittal tone of voice
he uses when he talks about anything else in his life. "I used to fight old
Jack Dempsey, Luis Firpo, Jess Willard–all them prize fighters out in California.
"I just exercised them guys. I knocked 'em back and forth, outrun 'em or
get away from 'em or somethin'. Hit 'em and then got out of the way quicker 'n
they could get to me. Old Mart Zehner, he was out there, and he called me Firpo
even after we got back here.
"I sure put the hammer on a lot of 'em. If I'd just wanted to get in there
and get in the big money, I could of won a lot of fights. I could of whipped any
of them guys that I practiced with. "
Dempsey? you might ask, knowing that Whittaker has already told you that he thought
Firpo was the best fighter.
"I believe I could of," Whittaker'll tell you as his eyes catch a weed,
a berry or he thinks of a story or an idea, according to where he is at the time.
"I believe I could have done as good as any of 'em. But I had a good job.
I'd just as soon work."
A lot has happened in his life since those days. Somewhere along the line he'll
tell you he found the time to travel. He went wherever the urge or inclination
led him, including all over the United States, Mexico, South America, Africa,
China, Australia and India. It was in India that he saw the metallic bluegreen
splendor of the peacock in its native habitat.
"I like them peacocks," he'll tell you talking about the ones he used
to have and how he'd liked to have built a big shed so he could keep it heated
for the peacocks in the winter. “They’re a tropical bird, you know.
They'll freeze to death in winter.”
It has been several years since he's had any peacocks, although you'll still see
a skinned one or two tacked to a wall somewhere as he shows you around the place.
And now he'll tell you he’s gotten rid of the last of his chickens, too.
Coyotes and stray dogs got to getting too many of them.
"Now I sure miss them chickens," he'll tell you. "I like to raise
From the common chicken to the strutting peacock, Walter has raised about every
kind of fowl around. He's raised turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas, pheasants and
"Old Ed," he'll tell you, "found a nest of quail eggs when he was
cuttin' hay and give 'em to me so an old banty hen could hatch 'em. Well, the
old banty raised 'em. But the quails would follow the turkeys every place they
"I had a golden pheasant hen, too. And I crossed her with an ordinary rooster.
Boy, that old thing, he got bigger than any of 'em. But he didn't live very long.
"The only one I ever heard of. Never talked to anybody yet who ever heard
of one. He was a funny lookin' thing. Looked a little bit like a pheasant, but
quite a bit bigger. Several colors. He wouldn't have nothin' to do with none of
'em. They'd all fight him off."
But then one day the pheasant started setting.
"He kinda picked out these old hens he run with," Ed said one day when
Walter was talking about the pheasant. "There was an old hen settin' up there
in the box, and he got in another box. And he stayed there. I told Walter, 'Put
some eggs under him.' He hatched off a bunch of chickens and as them chickens
got out on the ground, he brought 'em down in the woods and raised 'em."
Ed, "a collector of old things, not a speculator," who went to his first
sale in 1904, owns the land where Walter lives. Farther back in the woods a cabin,
a blacksmith shop, a shed and the ground around them hold the things Ed has been
collecting for over 40years.
The cabin, built by Robert Samuel Reed in 1859, was torn down and rebuilt by the
Whittakers in 1961. This is noted on a blackboard inside the cabin.
"Guy that owned thus old log house was gonna bulldoze it down and burn it,"
Water'll tell you as he takes you around and tells you what things are, how they
were used or where they came from. "Ed said, 'I'd like to have it. We’ll
take it down.'
"Started in on Easter Sunday in '61, and I believe we had it down in a week.
Had a bunch of kids helpin' us. Them old logs, I thought they'd weigh a ton. But
I could lift 'em, they'd dried out so light.”
Since then, Walter’ll tell you, over 4000 people from across the country
and around the world have visited the cabin. He knows the number because he'll
have you sign the guest book before you leave.
Under the date on the blackboard that tells when the cabin was rebuilt is the
Whittakers' guest policy. It says:
“You are welcome. Everybody's religion and politics are O.K. with us, so
let's not discuss them. This is a place of recreation and contentment. We treat
it as our home and ask that you do the same, so we can ask you to come back."
The bi-focal wearing, white-whiskered, shell of the former man who could carry
a 100-pound gunny sack of coal in each hand, Walter Whittaker'll talk to you about
the things in the cabin, occasionally stopping in midsentence to tell you about
a piece of furniture, a string of goose eggs on the wall or anything else that
crosses his mind.
"Take a look upstairs," he'll say, pulling down the rope that brings
the ladder from the loft. You'll gasp slightly as you peer over the edge of the
floor and stare in the face of a wolf, mouth open, fangs bared.
"Scared, ain't he?" he'll ask no one in particular. "They caught
him in a fox drive over here south of Russellville after World War II. Nobody
wanted it, so I brought it out here. Knowed an old guy in Pinkstaff who was a
taxidermist. He fixed it up for me. Did a good job on it, too."
Sitting in the cabin after he gets tired of standing or walking around, Walter’ll
sit and point with his cane at a picture of a "Senorita" he got in Mexico
or at a piece of furniture. Whatever it is he points at, he's got something to
say about it.
"Now that old organ," he'll say. "I forgot where old Ed got it.
He picked it up somewhere. And that old victorola there. Have to wind it up, spring
broke on it and it's full of mud dobber nests. Same way with the organ."
And so it'll go.
Although the cabin is furnished, Whittaker stays at another house just through
the woods and across the pond. When the Whittakers reconstructed the cabin, they
built a fireplace at one end and left a cook stove at the other. Then shortly
after the rebuilding was completed, Walter's old house burned.
"I had an old heatin' stove in one room," he'll tell you, "an'
back in the kitchen I had an old cook stove. So I just got up one mornin' an'
took a shovel full of coal out of the heat stove and put 'em in the cook stove.
"Scattered fire all along the way. I got down the hill a little ways and
looked around. The smoke was comin' out the winders. Aw, she did burn quick. They
was enough logs left over from the cabin to build me one up there in the old place
about 10-15' square."
And it's in that 10-15' square that Whittaker has lived since the old place burned.
He's added a shed-like building that has everything from chicken nests to bee
hives either in or around it.
Inside the building with glassless windows, Whittaker has a stove, feather beds
and other odds and ends he's collected since the fire 20 years ago. He sleeps
there most nights, but on summer days he rests in the cool of the old cabin or
out on a set of bed springs he has rigged up under a tree.
That's the way he's lived since about the end of World War II.
After he came back from the service, Whittaker moved back on the home place near
Blackburn School where he had heired 100 acres.
"Yeah,” he’ll say, walking around or grabbing a bit or a ball
and chain that once held a horse or a slave. "I had a shack in the side of
the hill there. Called it a cave. There was a big spring there. I had water hooked
up to that spring.
"Then old Ed, he wanted me to sell out down there and come up here. Wanted
me to help him with this place, I guess. So I did. Wish I'd stayed down there,
though. I liked it better.
"But this is the best life in the world to me, anyhow," he'll tell you.
"Suits me just fine. Used to be just me and my dogs and chickens and cats.
There in that cold winter I had dogs and chickens and peacocks and geese and ducks
that froze to death. I got a white cat up there that's ears are froze off."
Whittaker goes to bed at sunset and gets up at sunrise and keeps from freezing
to death on those cold nights by sleeping between four of his feather beds and
from some heat from the small wood stove.
"Yeah," he'll tell you, "I'd freeze up if it wasn't for them feather
beds around. It's kinda hard to get 'em warm, but after you get 'em warm they
stay warm. 'Course I don't sleep very much. Just lay there and listen to the chickens
crowin', dogs barkin'. That's the only music I got. Suits me all right, too."
About the only thing Walter Whittaker’ll say doesn't suit him or that he'd
do differently if he had his life to live over is that he might like to have a
"Never knowed what to say to 'em, though,'' he'll tell you about women. "Never
even had a girl friend. I know a 100 old widder women an' 20 old maids. Lived
by themselves. Got 'em a car and a good income and a good home. Never did take
any of 'em for a buggy ride.
"All of 'em asked me to come live with 'em. I think they're kiddin' me. Probably
call the sheriff if I did. They don't none of 'em want me. I don't blame ‘em."
Other than that, Whittaker seems content with his life in the woods without most
of the modern conveniences people nowadays take for granted. Even his diet is
"I don't do much cookin'," he'll tell you. "I just eat old bachelor
mulligan, if I do. Throw somethin' in an' boil it. But I eat Kellogg bran, drink
milk an' eat honey. Honey an’ milk, that's my main eatin'.
"Oh, I eat persimmons, wild cherries and blackberries. Blueberries, may apples
and paw paws. There ain't nothin' better 'n a paw paw. Better 'n any banana you
ever ate. I can eat my fill of 'em anytime. They agree with me, too."
Lots of things seem to agree with Whittaker but after spending some time with
him you probably still won't know why he's chosen to live the life he has lived
for so many years. Yet you'll be glad you met him, glad you've had the opportunity
to share time with him. There'll be a hundred stories he's told you that you'll
remember for years to come.
"Used to have an old collie dog," you'll remember his telling you. "She
liked to fish better ‘n anything or anybody in the world. Best dog I ever
had. I called her Jeanie.
"Got her from a lady named Jeanie. Ed's got her brother. That dog'd eat more
fish. But she wouldn't eat a catfish head. She'd spit it out. She knowed them
bones was in there.
"I don't know what happened to her. Always heard that when a dog gets old,
they'll go off and hide and die and you'll never find 'em. I always thought she
was in an old bulldoze pile. But, gosh, you couldn't get up under there to see
or nothin’. I sure hated to lose her. I sure thought a lot of that old dog.”
Then you’ll remember, too, Walter telling you about how he feels about getting
old, living the life he does.
“I was sick this mornin',' you'll remember him saying. I ate somethin' that
made me sick, I guess. Dizzy, I couldn't walk. I just laid back down an' in a
little while I was all right. But a guy gets that away when he gets old.
"It's purt near a mile over there to Ed's. Over a half a mile to the first
neighbors, and I'd die before I got there.
"That don't worry me none, though. Everybody's got to die. I've about lived
my term. I tell a lot of 'em when I get ready to go, I'll just go out here in
the woods, keel over and let the varmints eat me."
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