The Hermit of Mont Vernon New Hampshire: Jarvis Smith (1850-1925)

Jarvis Smith and his stilt home on Beech Hill in Mont Vernon NH. From the 1917 Boston Post.

I’d heard the old tales of a hermit that lived in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire but until recently I had not known his name. The story of this solitary man came to light in a series of newspaper posts published during the World War I era. The earliest article is quite interesting (as follows).

From a 1916 Boston Post article entitled “HOW A HERMIT PASSES HIS TIME,” by Joe Toye, the following story was gleaned.
Did you ever go calling on a hermit? And particularly a hermit who shaves himself with fire? There are hermits and hermits, and the one of which I am to write was the most hermitty hermit I ever hermitted with. He is a regular hermit, such as you read about in the books. He lives all alone in the middle of the woods, with the caterpillers [sic] and creepy things for company.

Postcard of the Mont Vernon hermit standing in front of his Mont Vernon “Stilt House.” Property of the blog editor.

His name is Jarvis Smith, and he does his hermitting about seven miles out of Milford N.H., between Mt. Vernon and Beech Hill.  Love, according to the story current about the countryside, was responsible for Jarvis Smith, once a wealthy bachelor, becoming a hermit. So I went to question Jarvis as to his unhappy romance.

The chauffeur of the automobile which carried me from Milford over the hills to Beach Hill said he knew where the hermit lived but he didn’t know much about him. “Here’s his mansion,” he said, after we had been riding for a half-hour or so.

*It Was Some Mansion*
It was some mansion. The first impression was that it was the skeleton of a huge bonfire-pile. For 20 feet in the air long poles were piled up, making a frame with openings about five feet square. At the top was a sort of roof-frame. I peered back of the odd pile of logs and found a one-story, plain-board hut, almost hidden behind stacks of cord- wood and miscellaneous boxes and boards. High on the frame, about 15 feet above the ground, was the coping of a piazza, just laid there at random.

“There’s Jarvey now,” said the chauffeur.
About 20 feet down the road a figure came out of the woods. It was a man. He wore one of the most dilapidated straw sunbonnets imaginable. It was one of those hats farmers wear when they are haying, only this one had seen much better days. The brim was almost entirely gone and what little there was left hung, literally in ribbons, down the back of his neck and in front of his face.

Jarvey also wore a blue flannel shirt, old black overalls which were patched with brown cloth sewed to the overalls with twine, a pair of black trousers underneath them, and these tucked into rubber shoes–the kind that have felt inner-soles. The man was about six feet tall and weighed about 160 pounds. He was just a bit stoop-shouldered. In one hand he carried a two-gallon enameled pot, such as one would boil ham in, and in the other, an empty tomato can. There were two leaks in the pot and these were plugged with pieces of rag.

Jarey paid not the slightest attention to us, but dipped the can into the pot, filled it with liquid and threw the liquid at some hopeless looking apple trees which were distributed along the road.
“Jarvey’s watering his trees,” said the chauffeur. “Hello, Jarvey,” he called.
“WHow do?” answered Jarvey, barely looking up and continuing to water the trees. “What are you doing, Jarvey?” asked the chauffeur.

*Hermit’s Evasive Answer*
“Well,” said Jarvey, “I might be doing somethin’ and, then again, I might be doin’ nawthin’ at all.”
“Mr. Jarvey,” said I, for at that time all I knew was that his name was Jarvey, “I’m from the Post and I want to write a story about you.”
“There ain’t nothin’ to write, be there?” asked Jarvey, calmly continuing to water the trees.
“There might be,” said the reporter. “Well There ain’t much use of doin’t that, be there?” asked Jarvey.
“We think so.”
“What good would it do me?” said Jarvey. “There ain’t nothin’ in it.” “There might be,” said I. “Didn’t you ever aspire to be a great author?” “What’s that?”
“Didn’t you ever feel that you would like to write the story of your life?’
“Never did,” said Jarvey.
He continued to spray the trees,. He was walking about now. He led me into the woods, never bothering to look about to see how I was getting along. If I wanted to come along with him and ask foolish question, all right. But he wasn’t going to wait for me. He dashed about, spraying those trees as though he didn’t have all the time in the world to do it. We were now in a lonesome hollow, far from the chauffeur. There were several holes about three feet wide and two feet deep. The ground was for the most part rocky and overgrown with brush.
“What’s in those holes, Jarvey?” I asked.
“Can’t you see potatoes planted ’round the tops of them?”
I didn’t inquire further into this agricultural oddity.
“What’s that you’ve got in the pot?” I asked. “That stuff you’re throwing on the trees?”
“Wood ashes and water,” said he. “Kills the bugs. Better’n a sprayer. Them things ain’t no good. Can get at the bugs better with a tin can.” He dipped into the muddy water in the pot, filled the can and threw the dirty water aloft. I was liberally showered. It didn’t worry Jarvey a bit. As far as he was concerned it might never have happened.
“What’s your first name, Mr. Jarvey?” I asked.
He spat a large cud of tobacco at the ground, looked at me for the first time in five minutes, and said: “Name’s Smith. Jarvis Smith.”
“How do you spell it? J-a-r-v-i-s?” “S’pose so.”
“How long have you been living here?”
“Oh, a long time.”
“How Long?”
“Long time.”
“Twenty years/”
“‘Bout that.”
“Twenty-five?”
“No.”
“Ho’d you happen to come?”
“Oh, just came.”
“How old are you?”
“Born in 1850. Father was a farmer. Had four boys and three girls.”
“Were you the oldest?”
“No.”
“Are the rest living?”
“Parents ain’t. Rest are.”
“Where?”
“Don’t know. Somewhere, I guess.”
“Why do you live alone?”
“Oh, some people like to live that way. Some don’t. Do they?”
“No. What brought you here?”
I looked about. The place was awfully lonesome. I was about to inquire into Jarvey’s personal affairs. I wondered what would happen. The chauffeur was away up the road.
“Was it love made you come here and live alone?” I finally mustered up courage to say.
“Oh, no,” said he. “Nothin’ like that.”
“Weren’t you disappointed in love?”

*He Discusses Love*
“Nope. That sort of thing is all right for some people but I never cared much about it.”
“Well now, that’s strange,” said I, “I was told that you were engaged to a girl and she threw you over and you were so heart-broken that you became a hermit.”
“Nope.”
“Weren’t you ever in love?”
“Nope.”
“Now, Jarvey, you don’t mean to stand there and tell me you never were in love. You know that isn’t so. Everybody is some time or another.”
“Nope. Some people like that sort of thing. But I ain’t got no hankering after the women.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you never went around with a girl?”
“Oh,” said Jarvey, still watering the trees, “I’ve sit up with them when I was young. But nothin’ serious. Never the same girl twice. Didn’t believe in that sort of thing. May be all right for some. But not for me. Some people are that way, aren’t they?”
“Yes. How did you happen to come here, you had lots of money and some land once, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yes had a 113-acre farm and some other land here and there, but another fellow’s got it now.”
“Do you own this land?”
“Yes.”
“How much is there?”
“Quite a smart lot.”
“How much?”
“Runs along the brook there,” said Jarvey.” it’s all in writing some where.”
“Can you read?”
“Read some.”
“Much?”
“No.”
“How do you amuse yourself?”
“Don’t.”
“What do you do when you aren’t working?”
“Eat. Sleep.”
“What time do you get up?”
“When I wake.”
“Early?”
“Sometimes.”
“When do you go to bed?”
“When I quit work.”
“Did you ever read about the war/”
“You mean the fighting’s going’ on now?”
“Yes.”
“Read something somewhere of it. Lots of fightin’, ain’t it?”
“Yes.”

*Opinion on Great War”
“Well, let ’em fight, if they want to. Don’t worry me none, does it?”
“I guess not. How do you shave?”
“Just burn em off.”
“What?”
“Just burn ’em off.”
By the time we were back at the house, Jarvey sat down on a box.
“Will you shave for me?”
“Certain.”
He went into the interior of the wood pile, I followed him. He came to the door of the house. He unlocked it. I peered inside. It was densely black. I couldn’t see anything except, near the door, a miscellaneous pile of junk.
Jarvey came back with a stick about a foot long, charred at one end, and a small can of kerosene. He soaked the stick in kerosene and lighted it. With it flaming fiercely, he applied the torch to his chin. His whiskers sizzled. The flame went up his nostrils and into his eyes–not exactly into his eyes for they were closed, but all about his eyes.
He took off his hat and held the flame to it, brushing it with fire. He laid the hat aside. He then began singing his clothes. He let the flame go up his shirtsleeves. He shoved it down his back. Then he rubbed it over his bald head, which was already scorched and blackened. His eyebrows and lashes were entirely gone.
“Very cleansing,” said he. “Makes the hair grow, too. Burn grass; grass grows better. Would you like to try it?”
“No thanks,” said I. “I’ve got to catch a train.”
And I caught it.

Mont Vernon Hermit House early in its existence. Postcard property of the blog editor.

There was a followup story in the Nashua Telegraph two years later, published on January 18, 1918 with the headline: MONT VERNON HERMIT IS HOOVERIZING. How Smith, Curious Character, Lives in Stilt House. Report That He Was Ill Found to Be Unfounded — Visited by Many City People.  “Mont Vernon.–With the hills covered with from three to five feet of snow,there has been a question in the minds of some of the inhabitants as to how Jarvis Smith, the hermit of Mont Vernon, is passing the winter. Recently the report was brought to Overseer of the Poor George Hadley that he was ill and Mr. Hadley hurried out to his hut. [several lines illegible]. He has not left his home to go to the village in the past three years. His estate has dwindled to nothing and the old man is now a county charge, living on $2 a week. He survived on salt pork and canned beans and has not tasted sugar or butter in ten years. He has not had a new suit of clothes in that time but can be ween on warm days with his legs wrapped in burlap, feet in overshoes while his body has nothing but a pair of trousers and a woolen shirt. The cold days he hives up in his house on stilts and when he is in, there is no getting him out until a warm spell for he always pulls the ladder up with him. He has had numerous visitors this winter, for Mont Vernon is filled with city people enjoying the winter sports and it is a common thing to snow shoe out to the hermit’s. They love to see him take his tobacco bath and shave by singing with apiece of birch bark. [2 lines illegible]. He burns it cord length and as it burns off he pushes it in the fire. He claims that this is less waste.  Jarvis does not know that there is a war in Europe or that this country is fighting there. He was born in Wilton in 1850 and outside of living there and in Milford has never been outside of Mont Vernon. He has never been outside of the country and has never seen an electric car. He has always lived alone and in his present home has lived for the past 29 years.”

Photograph of Mont Vernon NH
cemetery. Copyright J.W. Brown

As early as 1906 Jarvis Smith was living in Mont Vernon, but not yet called a “hermit.” His eccentricity is shown the following story, published in the Augusta Chronicle (Augusta Georgia), 6 August 1906. A TORCH HIS RAZOR. Mt. Vernon N.H., Correspondence Boston Herald. “Every man is his own barber in Mt. Vernon, as far as shaving is concerned for there are no tonsorial parlors. In many other New Hampshire towns men are frequently accommodated by the village postmaster, storekeeper, blacksmith or carpenter who owns a razor or two and is a barber when occasion requires. When Mt. Vernon men want a haircut they go to Milford or some other large town. There is one native of the place, a man of fifty-six years who has neither a beard nor a heavy growth of hair, who does not leave town or enlist the aid of a neighbor in “chopping off” his locks. He is his own barber and probably one of the best known characters in Mt. Vernon–Jarvis Smith or “Jarve” as he is called. “Jarve” has a unique method of removing his superfluous hair and while it is possibly original with himself, it is not a secret. He has no patent upon it and rather prefers others to follow his example if they wish to practice economy. The process can be done anywhere, in the parlor or the street, in the field or on the woodlot, and “Jarve” does it when he finds it necessary, regardless of where he happens to be. Smith’s method is by singing. After dipping a piece of wood into kerosene oil and igniting it, he starts to work. With the burning torch in one hand and using the other for a “fire extinguisher,” he singes one side of his face then the other, the upper lip and chin, and in that wide rids himself of all the hair on his face, and while he crops it down about as close as the average man does with a razor, he very rarely burns himself. He same sort of torch is used to remove his superfluous hair. “Burn myself?” said Smith. “No. If a man knows how to take his whiskers and hair off in this way he needn’t be afraid of scorching his face or head. I conceived the idea some years ago and I would not take chances with a sharp razor. Life is too precious and I am not ready to die yet.”

****PARTIAL GENEALOGY OF JARVIS SMITH, THE HERMIT****

Jarvis Smith Death Certificate; front side only.

Jarvis A. Smith was born 2 March 1850 in Wilton or Mont Vernon NH, son of Lewis W. & Cynthia (Mitchell) Smith.  His family moved around frequently, and he spent his childhood in Mont Vernon and Lyndeborough NH. His mother divorced his father in 1869, and by 1870 Jarvis lived with his mother (she calls herself a widow) and three youngest siblings in Wilton NH. At age 19 he is employed in the local woolen mill and probably supporting the family.  By 1880 Jarvis had moved to Milford NH working in farming to support his elderly mother; and his youngest brother was living with them, employed in the woolen mill. Up until this time he appears to have led a fairly normal life. As early as 1906 (based on newspaper story) he was living in Mont Vernon NH. By the 1910 U.S. Census his mother has died, and he is living alone in Mont Vernon, apparently as a single “hermit,” no occupation noted. In the 1920 U.S. Census Jarvis is an inmate in the Hillsborough County Farm in the Grasmere section of Goffstown NH, aged 69, listed as ‘pauper.’  His death certificate states that he died on 1 Feb 1925 at the nearby Hillsborough County General Hospital. His death certificate shows he was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Grasmere NH (which is a different place than Pine Grove Cemetery in Manchester NH).  This Cemetery is also known as the Hillsborough County Cemetery, and the County Farm Cemetery.

Jarvis Smith’s father:
Lewis W. Smith was born abt 1819 in Mont Vernon New Hampshire, son of  Jacob & Katherine (White) Smith, and grandson of Jacob & Hannah (Upon) Smith. During the Civil War Lewis served as a Private in the 8th Regiment NH Volunteer infantry, and was discharged disabled on 5 June 1863 in New Orleans LA. Lewis W. Smith married 1st) 7 May 1843 in Framingham MA to Cynthia Mitchell. Cynthia was  granted a divorce in June 1869 in NH (no cause stated in decree). Cynthia Mitchell was born abt 1815 in Vershire Orange Co. VT, daughter of Moses & — (Eastman) Mitchell. Cynthia died 9 May 1885 in Milford NH and is  buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Wilton NH.   Lewis W. Smith married 2d) 10 July 1869 in Wilton NH to Harriet Josephine “Hattie” Stearns, dau of John W. & Sarah Jane (Hodgman) Stearms. As a widow she m2d) 15 June 1889 in Bennington NH to David H. Bumford. Lewis and his 2nd wife are buried in New Boston Cemetery, New Boston, NH.
—-
Children of Lewis W. & Cynthia (Mitchell) Smith: [siblings of Jarvis Smith]
1. Wallace L. Smith, b 1844, d. 18 Feb 1906 Lyndeborough NH; m. 25 Dec 1869 in Wilton NH to Martha J. Jackson
2. Cynthia Smith, b abt 1849; m. 23 Feb 1867 to George E. Winn, son of Archibald Winn
3. *JARVIS Smith, b 2 March 1850 Wilton or Mont Vernon NH. The Hermit of Mont Vernon. Single, no apparent issue.
4. Naomi F. Smith, b 12 Dec 1852 Wilton NH, married 9 July 1870 in Wilton NH to George W. Herrick, son of Amos & Betsey Herrick. She is buried in Vale End Cemetery, Wilton NH
5. Frank Zimri Smith b 17 Oct 1853 Francestown NH; d. 21 Oct 1897 Milford NH, fell from building, concussion of spinal cord; m. Fannie Smith. Buried Milford #3 Cemetery (West Street Cemetery); painter.
6. Eunice A. Smith, b abt 1856 Greenfield NH; d. 7 March 1878, age 22. Buried Laurel Hill Cemetery, Wilton NH. Operative, died of consumption.
7. Lewis Smith, b abt 1857 NH. In 1880 living in Wilton NH working in a tannery.
Children of Lewis W. & Harriett J. (Stearnes) Smith:
8. Nellie A. Smith, b. abt 1870 Lyndeboro NH; m. 21 Jan 1890 in Contoocook NH to Parmlee H. Lufkin, son of Thomas E. & Sarah (Heath) Lufkin
9. Charles Jacob Smith, b 1871, d. 1950
10. George H. Smith, b. 1 Feb 1875 in NH, d. 1 May 1893 Greenland NH.

SEE Additional SMITH Genealogy in the History of Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, by Charles James Smith, 1907. Jarvis Smith’s line goes back to Cooley Smith, son of Thomas & Elizabeth Smith, born 9 April 1709, m. Sarah Burnham. Resided Middleton MA, had 11 children.

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6 Responses to The Hermit of Mont Vernon New Hampshire: Jarvis Smith (1850-1925)

  1. Fascinating story! I just love that first paragraph of the 1916 newspaper article. Was the mystery of why Jarvis became a hermit ever solved?

    • Janice Brown says:

      Liz, unless a long lost diary written by Jarvis pops up, I’m afraid it will remain a mystery. Back in his day it was believed that people became hermits because they were unhappy in love, and thus the leading questions on the interviewer’s part in that story. And thanks for reading. It was exiting for me to find a likeness of him.

  2. Michael says:

    What a character and life/lifestyle! Thank you for sharing this fascinating read, Janice.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Thank you Michael! Back in the 1970s when I lived in the town I heard some mention of him, but never a name and not more than he was eccentric and lived in a strange house. It was fun for me to see his face and learn his name. I wish I knew more about him!

  3. Amy says:

    I think today we would probably assume Jarvis was mentally ill. I don’t know whether we would be right, but certainly burning your hair and clothes are not the sign of a rational person.

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