I've been waiting at your shack since before sunrise - darn near didn't find the place. But I guess that's the point, huh? You're not here - you're not anywhere - as mysterious in death, as you were in life. I need some more clues, some help. Who ARE you? I'm gonna walk out in the woods now -- maybe you're out there somewhere.
I have a hard time getting shed of the hermit. Some days I feel he's helping me. Some days, he's peering out of this forest, chuckling. I don't know why he lived out here. I never found the smoking gun I sought, but I did collect some clues -- a few of which interrupt my sleep.
Harlon Perrin and I explored Cheaney's backroads April 5th. He points north across the sandy road from the original Perrin homestead. "There used to be a man, a very old man, that lived in a shack out in those woods. I was just a boy."
"What was his name?" Knowing that's the Frank Lemley place.
"I'm not sure I ever knew." Mr. Perrin grew up just east of here.
Not two weeks later I pass this same stretch of road, just east of the Salt Branch, with Shorty Fox. Shorty's family rented the Lemley place in the thirties. He tells the same story, adding in a German shepherd that never left the old man's side. He too, doesn't know the man's name. That day, this man becomes "the hermit". 'Had to call him something.
I run down a lot of empty rabbit holes…usually file these scraps away. The hermit refuses to be stuck in a drawer, however. You'd be surprised how many men lived alone in rural shacks back then…within a mile of this place…we've been through quite a list of suspects.
Shorty sees the hermit sitting on his porch in the evenings -- on the floor, bare feet hanging off the steps -- sometimes against the doorjam. The hermit cut wood for people, he said. Once a huge oak fell, pinning him -- didn't kill him but crippled him up pretty bad. Neighbors had a hard time rescuing him because of his protective Shepherd. The hermit was nice to the two boys (both now in their eighties), dipped snuff - not a tall man. He talked with a brogue and never strayed from those dark woods staring back at me -- the Hermit Woods.
Frank Lemley died in 1934, leaving this farm behind. After his death, the family moved to Abilene. The land where this shack hid rented out to several families…someone would remember the hermit. The Foxes moved on the place in 1934. Bill Logan's family replaced them in 1938, staying six years -- then the Highsmiths. Johnny and Myrtle Love bought the land in the fifties. We figured the hermit was a Lemley, maybe a DeShazo.
The Frank Lemley home sat on the road up front -- said to be quite a house back then (there's a newer home there now). The shack was isolated half a mile back from there, against the trees. Folks tended to hide problems back then. Was something wrong with this guy? Maybe he was on the run.
I guess the hermit was part of the deal offered renters…over a hundred acres, good water, nice house, and by the way -- this old man lives back in those woods. Harliss Logan, about ten at the time, remembers the man as "Uncle Bill or Will" - no last name. Mr. Logan said the man was an old snaggle-toothed guy -- unclean, unkempt. He might have been called Will Gunn. He says rent was paid to Sanford Lemley, the estate's administrator. Sanford was a respected nice man, from all accounts.
I search for suspects. Frank had a son Wilford that could be "Will", but he's only 41 in 1934, not an "old man". Frank's wife Fanny has a brother, William C. Gunsolus, 61 -- a better fit, though we don't know for sure. Could a family really move off and leave an elderly (back then) man "off in the woods?" Neighborhood kids remember his living there from 1934 - 1944.
I thought I had that part in stone. I pictured the Lemleys moving from there in 1934. The 1930 census shows Will Gunsolus still on the place (Frank's family alive), but he's the only person listed. Were they not home? Where did the family go those last four years before Frank passed?
Frank and his next wife Maggie Lemley had a daughter Ruth Minter. Mrs. Minter's two sons remember her talking about the hermit. He gave the family a lot of trouble, they said. Nothing serious…he wouldn't do what they thought was right, wouldn't conform to their standards of living. The old man did nothing but hunt and fish. Though the Salt Branch is now grown up, there used to be deep rock "holes" where fish could be caught, where kids could swim. They identified the man as the brother of Frank Lemley's first wife. The search narrowed in on William C. Gunsolus…Uncle Will -- the hermit.
The 1880 census sees Uncle Will seven-years-old, born "near Ranger". The 1900 census shows him twenty-seven, living with Frank and Fanny. He signs an Eastland County deed in 1911 while in Aspermont, in Stonewall County. His WWI draft card shows him living with the Lemleys back on the place, employed by Frank as a farmer. We never find he served in the war. The 1920 census shows him in Mineral Wells, living with Frank and Fanny's daughter, Docia Lemley Ford as a boarder. In 1930 (he's 53) he's back on the Lemley Place in Eastland Co.
The hermit sold Frank Lemley this land in 1910 (although it was not recorded at the courthouse until 1913). Frank's first wife Fanny (the hermit's sister) dies a little over six months after this deed is recorded, 45 years old. It appears Frank and Fanny first sold the land to the hermit several years before that…this part is not yet untangled. The hermit sells Frank another tract to the east, the deed recorded the same day. Shirley Cawyer's Cemetery Inscriptions book records Fanny's headstone as "Frances Gonsalus, wf. of Frank Lemley" in 1972. The stone onsite now lists her as Lemley, the "Gonsalus" gone.
There's been an unspoken undercurrent that something was wrong with the hermit, though none who would advance a memory would confirm that. This man was in sight of many people, yet specifics are hard to come by. Mr. Perrin and Mr. Fox both said he was nice, don't remember anything wrong with him (it didn't strike them strange then that this man lived in the woods by himself). They were not afraid of him. Mrs. Perrin and Mrs. Logan took him food sometimes. I'd be surprised if Mrs. Perrin would have let Harlon near the old man if something had been amiss. Census takers tell us the hermit could read and write.
Both boys remembered the hermit's rough shack - twenty by eighteen…one room, no ceiling, open to the roof. Made out of one by twelve plank…no batten on the walls. Was it built for the hermit, or maybe an old homestead he inherited? Mr. Logan remembers his dad walking with the man to Russell Creek to fish (a far piece). Uncle Will relied on the community and tenants to take care of him. He supplemented that with squirrels and rabbits he shot or trapped.
August 10, I went back to Hermit Woods alone, before sunrise. The shack was said to be fifty yards off the Salt branch. I turned off my truck, stepped out. I understood how alone this place really is. Either his family, or this man himself, wanted him to fall off the Earth. Will Gunsolus passed away in 1945, and yet…
I walk into the woods. They are lush, not as thick, once you break through. Birds sing, dew's on the grass, deer and squirrel live here in abundance - this is Eden. I find some scrap sheet iron, some stacked wood. I follow a trail and come to an opening…twenty tree stumps, gray with age, standing silent guard over the place this old man fell that day, pinned critically-injured under the giant oak.
I retrace back to my starting place - searching, pacing seventy-two yards east off the Salt Branch, finding three massive foundation stones near old farm equipment. Adding a missing fourth, the rocks form a rectangle - seventeen by eight. I feel like knocking on the invisible front door, unopened since almost 70 years before. I find small pottery shards, old tin cans remnants -- eaten through by time. A covered hole behind the shack…probably his dumping ground. The woods behind cross-cross with little paths…the hermit's or animals' - perfect for invisibility. I return to his "front porch" as the sun breaks above the eastern trees, look south across a glade. The hill falls away toward the Branch - silent. I hunger for a newspaper and cup of coffee - questioning who is crazy, the hermit or the rest of us.
One contributor reminded me, "many people living in the 1870s wouldn't have necessarily had 'nice' homes to begin with. The shack might have been his parents' homestead…they didn't live long enough to 'prosper' in the early 1900s. He might not have seen it as a shack…he might have seen it as home." Uncle Will never married…no woman ever 'civilized' him (or broke him, depending on one's viewpoint).
The story quickens when a distant Lemley relative checks in. "I remember Will Gonzales well…We (his family) stopped on Sunday mornings. He stayed in the middle of the bar ditch. Never got any closer. I believe he stayed up and down Russell Creek and lived off MaMa and Eva and everyone else. He lived off the land. I knew he was Frank Lemley's brother in law." Another remembers stopping on the side of the road on her way to church in Ranger…handing him some food in a bag - leftover biscuits, maybe some jam they made at home...this was in 1940-41.. "I think most everybody helped him."
The hermit's granddad is Dr. Peter Gunsolus, who has a historic marker in Breckenridge near Gunsolus Creek. Coming here from Chicago, he practiced medicine there from the 1850s. He's the father of fifty-three children from seven marriages some say (step-children included, I suspect, but still impressive).
The hermit's young life probably started around the Russell Creek Community. The August 15, 1880 Russell Creek Church of Christ charter lists Frank Lemley, I. B. Gunsolus (the hermit's mom), and S. Francis Gunsolus (Frank's future wife, the hermit's sister). The hermit's dad is still alive but not on this list - he dies the following year. The hermit was a seven-year-old boy, sitting on a hard oak bench listening to preachers paint pictures of heaven in his imagination. By what path did he leave that fellowship, those fine people, and end up out here alone in these trees?
Sanford Lemley (Frank's son) took care of the hermit in his later years (he took care of several relatives, off and on). He'd load him up, take him back to his own house, clean him up, put him in fresh clothes. A man that Mr. Lemley worked with knew nothing of the hermit. Sanford died childless.
The hermit's obituary reports he was a member of the Church of Christ (Frank Lemley's mother Amy and brother Smith were instrumental in founding the church in Russell Creek, which seeded the churches in Ranger and Cheaney). Services were held at Killingsworth's in Ranger, Mack Stirman of the Church of Christ in charge. According to the Ranger paper, interment was in the "Gunsolous Cemetery". No tombstone was purchased.
Chance introduced me last week to the hearse driver at the hermit's funeral, the last at Russell Creek's Lemley Cemetery. He remembered the mud being so deep that an orange-wheeled tractor was used to get the casket to its final resting place. It was a small funeral he said, six or seven cars.
Ranger city death records show he was born July 24, 1873 and died October 6, 1945, 72-years-old. The cause of death mydocarditis. He was a retired farmer, they say, father Zel and mother Bendy Ramsey. City records also list the cemetery as Gunsolus Cemetery.
The hermit's grave sits by itself, yards from the site of Russell Creek's old log school house, across the footpath from the stone-fenced Lemley plot. His death certificate lists his residence as "scr" Rusk and Walnut, Ranger. In 1945 at that intersection, there were apartments above Brashier's Furniture (for women only), above Trader's Grocery, a family's house, and Southern Ice.
The cemetery is not fenced, but strangely beautiful as the Earth reclaims the site. His parents are buried there somewhere. The hermit's sister and Frank are buried about two miles away at Crossroads. Sanford's buried eight miles away at Alameda.
The sun has broken high above these trees. Save for the memory of two young boys, the hermit would have been forgotten. William C. Gunsolus, son of Isaiah C. "Zel" and Icey Binda Ramsey Gunsolus. The man's dad died when he was eight - his mother when he was eighteen.
I feel like I owe this man a story, can't tell you why. I'm hoping the holes get filled in. The hermit lived away from man on purpose, I'm almost sure of that. Henry David Thoreau, wrote in 1845's Walden, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." My kids smile that I am "hot on the trail" of a dead man…I stand convinced he will answer my questions someday, when he's ready.
Humble thanks to Harlon Perrin. Special thanks to Cevellia Woods Barron, Alicia Brown, Kenneth and Salata Brown, Jana Clark, Twila Dobson, Edwards Funeral Home -- Ranger, Shorty Fox, Charla Henson, Mike Herrington, Frances Howard, Dr. Stephen Lemley, Harliss Logan, Rager Minter, Dorinda Logan Munsell, Ruth DeShazo Minter (Eastland History Book), Talmadge Minter, the City of Ranger, A. J. Ratliff , Al Rogers, Mrs. Jasper Willliamson, Charlie Wolford, Loresta Veale, Buddy Vinson, and Floyd Woods. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jeff Clark - Jdclark3312@aol.com
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