THE HERMIT OF MEREDITH HILL
Joseph Plummer, the far-famed hermit of Meredith Hill, was born in Londonderry Oct. 28, 1774. His parents, Jesse and Sally Plummer, soon after his birth came to Sanbornton and settled with six children. Subsequently they moved into Meredith, but returned after some years and both died in Sanbornton in 1824, the Father being 82 and the Mother 85 years of age at death. They were always very poor but respectable people, and reared a family of ten children, Moses, Nathaniel, Jesse, Amos, Nathan, Joseph, Stephen, Parker, Sally and Polly, all deceased. They were all, with the exception of the Hermit, persons of good standing and good property.
Joseph was peculiar from a child; was timid, never played with his brothers and sisters, did not associate with the family, passed most of his time alone, and if a stranger came suddenly upon him when with his family he would dodge under a bed or into some dark corner. He went to school and acquired the ordinary district school education of his time.
At about the age of 21 years in 1795, he bought seven acres of land at the foot of Meredith Hill and there built a house in the solitary forest in the form of a log hut. After living in this primitive form for many years he built a new house of larger dimensions, 22 ft. square, near the old one, which later became his shop. He built a barn some 30 feet square, and had an ox which he used in a cart harnessed as we do a horse, reining him by the horns.
He had another tract of land of about 43 acres, three quarters of a mile from his home lot. He built his house and barn without help except in raising the barn. His new house was built of hewn pine timber free from sap, six inches thick and from six to ten inches wide. These timbers were doweled together, tightened with mortar, and the roof had spars and perlines, the whole roof and walls being covered with shingles.
Flood of 1826
Joseph was ingenious. He had a foot lathe and a good supply of tools. He made baskets, chairs, tubs, and wooden scales. He also made violins and bass viols and played on them. In 1826 there was a tremendous storm which swept down over Meredith Hill in such torrents as to overflow the stream, a tributary of Salmon Brook, at the foot of the hill and overflowed his premises. He attempted in the night to get over to the old Fox place but was obliged to retreat and take refuge in his barn.
The flood came up to his house, washed out a part of the foundations and he supposed it would be swept down stream with many of his implements which were carried away from the premises. This was the condition of his homestead when he fled from the lowlands to the top of the hill in the darkness and tempest. This occurrence so alarmed him that he at once went to work to move his home to the other lot three quarters of a mile distant out of reach of the flood. He built a new house about fifteen feet square; precisely in the same mode he built the other.
The location like the other was in the heart of the forest. It was very near the line which divides Meredith from Sanbornton and about three-fourths of a mile from the so-called Plummer Road. The house had no windows except a little hole closed with a board in the garret. There was one door about four feet high and three feet wide, with a trap door so that anyone who might enter without his permission would tumble into the cellar. The chimney was built of stone with scythes edge upward protruding to prevent people from “coming down on him.”
There were no steps at his door, which was two feet from ground. The house contained but one room, and there was a ladder upon which to ascend to the chamber. His bedstead was made of spruce poles tolerably worked out and put together, with boards for the sides, ends and bottom, a box on legs, a few old bed clothes, being the only bed or bedding. His fireplace was of the ancient kind and his wood was in long sticks which he ran into the fire endwise, pushing the sticks in as fast as they were consumed.
He was careful not to eat much, used little meat, except what he took in the woods. Wild meat, fish, potatoes, corn bread, berries, roots and herbs formed nearly all his subsistence. He had a spider in which he baked his bread, mostly Indian cakes. Occasionally he would bake a wheat cake patting it down in the spider with a spoon which he would constantly wet with his tongue. His potatoes, which he ate largely, he baked in an old teakettle, cooking up a supply for a week or two and eating them cold. In the proper season he made much use of mustard, boiling the large stocks in clear water, stripping off the leaves with his hands and making a meal of them. He had great faith in herbs as a preventative of disease usually carrying a quantity stuffed into his bosom. He also kept brimstone in his house to the same end. He generally ground corn by hand with a mill of his own construction.
He kept an account of his expense for living and said it cost him about thirteen cents a week.
He had a small box, in the center of the inside cover to which was a spot marked. In this box he kept two kernels of corn of different colors. When a matter of any doubt occurred to him he would shake the box, turn it over and if the kernel nearest the spot was that which was distinguished to signify “DO” the thing would be done, otherwise not.
His niece, Mrs. Chase Brown, on one occasion wanted him to give or sell her a rolling pin. He shook his box and the corn told him not to give; he shook it again and it told him not to sell, so his niece went home without the rolling pin. This illustrates his mode of solving all doubtful questions.
He had an orchard on his old place and also on his new. He had a small meadow also on his new place and he cleared up a little of the forest adjacent, including in all about an acre. This he enclosed with a good stone wall. He picked up the rocks from the brook in the drought of the summer and hauled them to the lot on his hand sled in the winter. Many of the best he drew from the old place in the same way.
His orchard was natural fruit and poor at that. In common years he raised about 75 bushels of apples. He made his cider by freezing his apples to make them pound up easier, and then mashed them in a box made for the purpose, with a huge pounder which he used with his hands, pressing out the juice as the farmers’ wives press their cheese. The cider was very good. He raised tobacco and made snuff. He also made his maple sugar “black as the ace of spades.” The sugar as well as the snuff he sold to visitors.
He had an apparatus in his house for weighing his visitors, steel-years suspended from a beam with a sort of hoop attached, in which the person sat with great comfort. He was careful of his wood and timbers. He was laborious in cleaning up his lot cutting out the down wood in summer. He had a large stock of wood piled up in the form of a hay stack, which became finally as tall and as big as a common barn. The sticks were five or six feet long. In the winter he worked regularly drawing from his pile to the house, going daily the same number of trips in good weather and good sledding. His wood was well dried and his huge fireplace gave enough light in his house in the evening. He made candles and had a lantern which he made with three panes of glass 7×9 put together prismatic form, though he seldom used either candle or lantern.
On entering his cabin the eye would rest on all sorts of curious things which the ingenious tenant of the forest manufactured, from a birch bucket to a bass viol. The huge stack of wood above mentioned was found when he died to be a mass of rottenness.
In the early days of his hermitage he kept a small stock of cattle, but gradually reduced the number to a single steer, which he used for work and for carriage purposes reining him, as already stated, by the horns. The animal became after some years, afraid of everybody but the hermit himself, and so he was compelled to give up driving him on the public road. For a quarter of a century before his death he kept no animal of any kind on his premises. He had a vehicle for riding purposes as also a cart for work, both of which, wheels and all, he made himself. When he gave up the steer he had a smaller rigging to haul himself, though the block wheels were heavy enough for an ox.
Your Neighbor’s Visitors
The young people of the neighborhood used to visit him frequently in the winter evenings and he would receive them cordially, treating them in the old style with cider and apples. His place was the resort of visitors constantly both summer and winter, a hundred a week sometimes coming to see the noted hermit in the summer season for thirty or forty of his last years. He was shrewd enough to make a penny by the sale of his wares and the use of his unpatented machine for weighing lady visitors. He was, however, always afraid of strangers, watching with eagle eyes their every motion. When he went abroad he carried a sort of cane for defense, one end large and heavy, evidently designed to use upon the head of an assailant, and the other with an iron spear.
He was about five feet ten inches in stature, lean, weighing about one hundred and forty pounds, of a nervous temperament, and very quick in motion. He was sharp in a trade, quick in figures, read history and was a great student of the Bible, having most of it at his tongue’s end. The students of theology at the New Hampton Literary Institution used to resort to his cabin to discourse with him on the doctrines of his Bible, still preserved, which is a curiosity, black with the smut which was usually upon his hands from handling the huge brands which gave him light in the evenings. He had a board six or seven feet long which he used to place one end higher than the other in a comfortable place near his cabin to stretch himself on in good weather to read and rest. His eye was undimmed to the last. He never used glasses and could see when he died, at eighty-eight years of age, as well as in his prime.
He was scarcely ever sick. At one time, he had a bad sore on his back and Dr. Carr being called applied a plaster. As soon as he left the Hermit made a poultice of herbs and ashes, placed it on his bed and lay down with the sore in the poultice. It troubled him a long time.
He never read newspapers, and one of the greatest trials of his life was laying out a new road over his premises. He wrote some verses fiercely denouncing turnpikes and railroads, probably at this period, though the effusion found in his handwriting contains no date. Since the above was written the verses have been furnished to us by Mr. Simeon C. Drake. Joseph was particularly hostile to loafers and spendthrifts and was a mortal enemy to cheats and rascals generally. In a note to his verses he remarks, that, “What we ought to hate is riding free horses to death, and wasting time and property for fear we shall have something left when we die, cheating creditors out of their honest dues and the cursed love of domineering.”
We give his own language and orthography in the above as well as in the verses which follow:
“By iron stoves and wooden clocks
Awful storms and dismal shocks
Railroads and turnpikes through the land,
Forebodes destruction near at hand.
But who can make the people see,
If blind as bats they choose to be.
Deaf as the adder, they appear.
The truth they cannot bear to hear.
Devil’s lies they much esteem,
Because it suits their wicked schemes,
His hook is baited with deceit,
And they no doubt will bite the bait.
Then off to fly in vain they try,
Like fish that from the hook would fly,
The barbed hook will not let go
But draws them down to endless woe.”
Stayed Away From Funeral
When his mother would go to see him he would sometimes meet her with cordiality, and sometimes fasten the door against her. When she died he went to the house and looked at the corpse but did not go to the funeral.
John Folsom, who married one of his sisters, did his blacksmith work for some years till some little misunderstanding occurred and thenceforth he would have nothing whatever to do with him. He became, however, very much attached to Noah Folsom, the son of John, who worked at the trade with his Father, and when Noah died he went to the grave with the procession, but not into the church where the services took place. This is the only time he ever attended any portion of a funeral, and was never known to attend religious worship, though he was very much given to religious contemplations, and was, it is said, a Calvinist Baptist.
He never went to town meeting, in fact shunned with manifest though suppressed terror a crowd of people anywhere. This made him alarmed at the opening of railroads and the improvement in travel in any form.
His dress was usually of uncolored cloth and he wore no hat. He shaved his hair close to his head with the shears and for the most part shaved his face with the same instrument, though he had a razor and it is believed did sometimes use it on his face.
Failed at Courting
He never tried courting but in a single instance, so far as tradition informs us. Two of his brothers married into the same family of Deacon Fox on Meredith Hill, and Joseph on one occasion made up his mind to sally forth from his retreat and see the remaining daughter. He was somewhat original in his method and broke down in his project. He went up to the Deacon’s and quietly took a position in the bedroom of his lady love, and when she on retiring for the night, opened her bedroom door her astonished eyes fell on the white robed specter sitting on her bed. She made a rush with screams downstairs into the Deacon’s bedroom with Joseph close after her. The Deacon solemnly said on learning the facts, “Joseph, that is not the way to court,” to which he replied, “There is more than one way to do it.”
Meanwhile the girl had fled to a neighbor’s house half frightened to death and that ended Joseph’s efforts for a wife. Old Suke Edgerly, years afterward, called one night to stay with him. When he got ready to take a nap he put up his ladder, went up into the second story, pulled his ladder up, and left old Suke to get comfort out of the rags on his bedstead.
Freeman Plummer, living about three quarters of a mile from the cabin used to look after his uncle in his last days, though till near the close of his days, except when he had a sore on his back, he took care of his own matters entirely.
On Dec. 1, 1862 Mrs. Freeman Plummer went to the cabin and found the old man quite unwell, and on the morning of Dec. 3rd she went there again and found him dead on the bed. He died as for nearly three score years and ten he had lived, alone. The spot for his grave he had selected many years before his death, and there in a corner of his little field, about 15 rods from his cabin, he was buried.
Gideon Pike, a family connection, administered upon his estate. His two lots of land and buildings were sold to Simeon C. Drake of Sanbornton in 1862, who soon after sold them to Nashua parties for $1,800.00. These owners stripped off the heavy burden of wood and timber, except perhaps 200 cards of wood which was resold to Mr. Drake for $500.00. Money was found in nearly twenty different places secreted in the cabin, $80.00 in silver in one place. The personal property amounted to $800.00. This estate about $2,200.00 was divided between 30 nieces and nephews. All his brothers and sisters had died before him. The house in which he died is still standing (1900). That which stood on the old when he died has been taken down and rebuilt by Mr. Drake for a hog-sty.
Wall around Grave
It would seem that it was inborn in him a fear of human beings that drove him into solitude. Where this irrepressible fear did not hold sway he had for the most part good sense. His superstition originated from his congenital district of his fellowmen, and was increased by his solitary life. Excepting the distress from his natural timidity he seemed to pass a contented and happy life. On a marble slab erected to the memory of his solitary life, is the following:
“THE GRAVE OF A HERMIT
DEC. 3, 1862
Content with seeking happiness for himself only, he lived in seclusion. He died alone. Peace to his ashes and rest of his soul.”
He was an industrious and honest man, trod the path to which his nature seemed to have absolutely led him. Who shall say that he did not work out wisely and well the career which the inscrutable had thus fashioned, his being marked out for him upon the earth.
This writing came from: Mrs. Fred D. Plummer of Pleasant Street, Laconia, NH, found among the papers of her late husband, an account of the life of the famed hermit of Sanbornton, Joseph Plummer, interest in who was revived by Mrs. Georgia Glidden Morrill of East Gilford.
The father of the hermit was Jesse D. Plummer, great-great grandfather of Fred D. Plummer and also great grandfather of Mary E. Plummer who married Georges Clemenceau, later Premier of France, in 1868.