||[Variously reprinted from AP wire service: Los Angeles Times 12 September 1971, Eugene Register-Guard 23 August 1971, and others"|
Everglades Hermit Found his ParadiseBy Stratton L. Douthat of Associated Press
It may be true that no man is an island, but Arthur Darwin comes pretty close to it. He’s tucked himself away on a tiny island in the Everglades where he lives alone; a space age hermit.
EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. – Had he been born 200 years ago, Arthur Darwin might have become a mountain man and explored the Rockies. As it was, he was born nearly 100 years later and became a space age hermit.
Since 1945, when he was a mere 70, Darwin has lived alone on Possum Key, a tiny island in the heart of a watery wilderness inside Everglades National Park. His one-room concrete block home is reachable only by boat.
“Cut the blocks myself,” he drawled in a soft Texas accent. “Hunted over the area for two years before I finally settled on this place. I wasn’t looking to get away from the world. I just liked it here.”
A man about 5-feet-5, Darwin is bent by the weight of 96 years of living. He walks with a hesitant, stumbling gait and his cheeks are weathered and spotted. But his sky blue eyes are as clear as a boy’s.
“Come on up to the house,” he said as the boat pulled up in front of his island landing. “The mosquitoes aren’t so bad in there.”
The 14-by-16 shack is dominated by a double bed, squarely in the center of the room. The exposed beams are blackened by years of cookfire smoke, and fishing gear litters the bare concrete floor. The only furniture, aside from the bed, are a propane gas stove, an open grill and a small trunk, covered with ancient magazines and newspapers. Two dusty rifles were stacked in the corner.
The windows had no glass – only screens and wooden shutters – and the mosquitoes were legion.
“They’re not bad in the winter,” he said, brushing a dozen from his cheek, “but they are in summer. I’ve never got used to them.”
Except for a once-a-month boat trip to Everglades City for supplies, a trip that takes about two hours each way in his skiff with its five horsepower engine, he never leaves the island. He has weathered four or five hurricanes – “they don’t do nothin’” – and rarely has visitors.
“Don’t hardly ever see anybody around here except for a few fishermen. Used to see some Indians when they hunted this area, but they haven’t been by for a long time.”
On his monthly trip to civilization, Darwin picks up a $72 Social Security check and buys supplies for another month. In recent years his food has come mainly from cans and his only concessions to technology are radio batteries and propane gas.
“I can keep up with the date until my batteries run out,” he said. “And I use kindling wood on the grill after the gas is gone.”
When the radio is working, he keeps up fairly well with world events, although he professes little interest.
“I don’t care anything about the space news,” he said. “I don’t have any interest in the Moon. If God had wanted us to go to the Moon, He’d have built us a concrete road.”
Possum Key is located at the southern tip of the Ten Thousand Islands on Florida’s lower Gulf Coast. It’s about 100 miles west of Miami and 40 miles south of Naples. After Everglades City, the only way one can reach the island is via a boat trip through desolate bayous that wind and weave through a myriad of small keys, all covered with dense mangroves.
Man has failed to leave his mark here. Abandoned fishing camps soon rot and are overgrown. There aren’t even any beer cans – just wild ducks, herons, raccoons, and an occasional alligator. Tarpon, snook and playful manatee ripple the streams. The sky is unclouded and the water is clean, albeit stained dark by the tannic acid released by the mangrove leaves.
Darwin lives here without electricity or running water – “just the rain.” He goes to bed when it gets dark and rises with the sun. There’s no ringing telephone and no stack of bills.
At one time, Darwin was a hermit-entrepreneur, raising rabbits and bananas. “I had 6,500 banana stalks on 10 acres,” he said. “I’d load up the boat and take a load to Everglades City every couple of weeks. But I got too old.”
A few stalks still surround the house and they rustle in the breeze, along with the coconut palms and the giant royal Poinciana that shades the solitary abode.
Because of his years, Darwin also has abandoned fishing and gardening. “About all I do now is read and chop kindling. I have to do that.”
Darwin says “it’s not in my nature” when asked if he gets lonely. Yet he lived in society for 70 years and raised 10 children at Evadale, Tex., before coming to Florida.
“I left Texas in ’34 because of the Panic,” he said. “There wasn’t any work and I came here because I heard there was fur to be trapped here.”
During his years in Texas, Darwin worked as a carpenter during the summers and trapped in the winter. “I also worked for five years two different times as a fisherman on the Mississippi River and I guess I’ve trapped in eight different states.”
Darwin was 60 when he left Texas, and he never returned. He alighted in Everglades City and spent the next 10 years trapping and doing carpenter work before heading into the ‘glades.
“Yessir,” says park ranger Lee Dillon, “Mr Darwin is a real hermit. He’s become something of a celebrity around here. Some folks had a fair a while back and put him in a tent and charged 25 cents for three minutes to talk to the hermit.”
Dillon, stationed at Everglades City, said he stops by from time to time to check on Darwin.
Darwin’s wife died years ago and he never sees any of his children except Luke, a son who visited his father and settled in Everglades City. On occasion, he may stay overnight with Luke.
When he first settled on Possum Key, Darwin felt he was homesteading the island. But the federal government acquired the land in 1957 and gave him lifetime tenure.
“They just up and took it away from me,” he said.
While he’s not happy about what happened, he says he’s more saddened by the changes in his world.
“When I first came here this place was a paradise. There was all the birds and fish and animals anybody could want. But they changed all that when they lowered Lake Okeechobee.”
After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lowered the lake in the 1950s, he said, the lack of available fresh water allowed the salt water to push in, contaminating what for eons had been a fresh water environment.
“After that, the mangroves came in and pushed out the willows, and their tannic acid killed all the bass. Then the rabbits, deer and bobcats left because their food was gone. When I first came here I trapped otter and coons. The otter are about all gone now, but one season I caught 47 and the Seminoles came by and accused me of catching them all.
“No, it’s not like it used to be, that’s for sure. If I wasn’t so old, since everything else has left, I’d leave, too. But I guess I’ll stay here ‘til I die.”