Dan the Hermit

During the course of our research here at Dayton Unknown, we come across many authors over and over again, leading us to search their writings for more information and idea for future posts. One such author is a <em>Dayton Daily News</em> reporter from the 1930s, Howard Burba. Burba was always able to weave an interesting story, including this one about Daniel the Hermit.

The following is an excerpt of an article written by Howard Burba, which appeared in the Dayton Daily News on March 4, 1934.

Looking back across the years one finds quaint and unusual chapters in Dayton’s history. But they are chapters not contained in the histories so far published. One must need go into that greatest of all local histories, the one and only complete history of Dayton, to find these really picturesque chapters. One must search the files of early Dayton Newspapers.

Here is a chapter, for instance, that no local historian has thought to incorporate in his writings – the story of old “Dan the Hermit.” He was not entitled to distinction for any service he ever rendered science, religion or the public in general. But he demonstrated the practicability of living isolated from the great masses of humanity for more than a score of years.

Away back in 1874 a reporter for a Dayton newspaper heard the story of “Dan the Hermit” and started out to satisfy his curiosity. It was not a new story even then, but it was new to him, as it must be to a great many of you, so let’s follow him for a moment, and hear the tale as he told it to Dayton readers just 60 years ago:

The home of this distinguished hermit,” he wrote, “is situated five miles east of the city on the Xenia pike in Greene co. The traveler, after passing the five-mile stone and looking to the left and a little ahead, will take in the whole situation at a glance. The most rickety, dilapidated, ancient log house conceivable, windows long since fell out, one door is off its hinges, weeds, briars, thorns and thistles overgrow the very threshold. The roof is nearly all gone. Logs are rotted off, the whole place presenting a dreary and desolate appearance. Large figures in white paint on the front near the roof show the date 1820. The surroundings are as forbidding as is the house itself. The old log barn which 50 years ago was the envy of many a farmer, is now without a covering, except here and there a clapboard, more hardy than its fellows, has withstood the winter’s snows and summer’s storms, affording in isolated places a shelter for the peewee, the owl and other members of the feathered tribe. The floor has entirely disappeared; doors disappeared and gone, and in their stead fence rails forming crosses used as substitutes. The whole structure partakes of general decay and is fast sinking into ruin.

“The eye turns from this picture of desolation and wanders over the farm, but the same decay meets it everywhere.  Fences all rotted down, fields once under a high state of cultivation, but now overgrown with bushes, briars and weeds. The once magnificent orchard of choice fruit trees is dead or rapidly decaying, and tells the tale of persistent neglect.

“After viewing all this ruin and dilapidation the belief gains strength that hobgoblins, ghosts and ghouls are in quiet possession of the place today. Yet it is and has been for more than two-score years the home of a solitary specimen of the genus homo – a living, moving, orthodox hermit, the wonder and talk of a neighborhood.

“This individual is a relative of a well-known and highly respectable family, some of whom have lived in that vicinity for the last 70 years. His name is Daniel Harshman, and he is generally known as ‘Dan the Hermit.’ He is about 60 years old and of medium height, long black hair falling over his shoulders, gray-mixed beard reaching far down on his breast, low receding forehead and dull lead-colored eyes. This will serve as a portrait.

“His unwashed face and hands and the old rags with which he attempts to clothe his nakedness gives him the most forbidding appearance imaginable. His intellect is of a very low order. It is only with great effort that he converses at all, and then his sentences are of only three or four words. He is easily roused to anger, and at such times it is dangerous to be near him. His eccentricities manifested themselves in his youth and have grown with age

“When but a boy Dan preferred being alone and inactive, and would hide himself in some out-of-the-way place for days at a time. His father was wealthy, and at his death willed Dan a farm of 160 acres, now the site of his hermitage, besides other real estate, the value of which is probably $25,000. He has never made provision for the payment of his taxes, neither knowing nor caring anything about them. His brother, John, living nearby, has regularly paid them, and has long since acquired a title to all of his real estate.

When told about his taxes being due his invariable answer is: ‘Don’t know,’ and it is presumably true that he doesn’t.

He attempts to farm a few acres every year. His corn for the last 15 years has never been planted until the middle of July and his wheat seldom put in the ground until the first of December or until snow has fallen. As a consequence, he never raises any grain. This year his corn was only a few feet high and just in tassel when the frost nipped it. His few hills of potatoes are never larger than a small hickory nut. The only crop that he depends upon for his winter’s rations is his apples. They are considerable in number, but not in size. He keeps no hogs, no chickens, no sheep, no cows, but sometimes three or four horses. He has had for the past 16 years and up until recently a team of fine-looking horses that never had harness upon them. When feed was plentiful they were fat and sleek, but towards spring when feed became scarce they grew so poor that it required all of his strength to assist them to their feet. This was repeated year after year until the neighbors opened the doors and gave the animals their freedom. Farmers repeatedly offered him good prices for the horses, but it was of no avail. Sell them he would not.

‘Dan’ has not been to the city of Dayton for more than 10 years. Then he came in to see ‘what kind of a place it was.’ He rigged up an old horse to a two-horse wagon, getting astride of the animal and, as he told a neighbor after, ‘went to see the sights.’ If he didn’t see them, many Daytonians saw him.

An anecdote is told of Dan which illustrates his intelligence. When he was about 80 years of age his father died, leaving a will. One of the witnesses, Judge Huston, well-known in Greene co., had also died and his signature was to be proven in the court at Xenia. Lawyer Nesbitt was employed to manage the case in the court, which he did to the satisfaction of all parties.  When Mr. Nesbitt told Dan that he would be required to pay the court charges, and witnesses as well as his own fees, he handed the lawyer a Mexican dollar and requested him to ‘take the pay out of that.’

Dan has not been off his farm for several years. His relatives often urge him to forsake the hermitage and make his home with them, but to no purpose. He prefers to sleep, eat and mediate in the solitude of his own place. Bread and sometimes meat and other provisions are often taken to him by his brother and family, which alone keeps him from starving. Now and then a clean shirt, or an old coat, is given him, but he refuses to wear them until he is almost naked. He cooks his food, when he has any, in an old crock or upon the live coals of his fire. He drinks out of the same crock. He eats with his fingers, possessing no tableware of any description, with the exception of one old knife which he uses for many purposes. As a usual rule when he has meat he makes his teeth do the carving.

There is no bed in the house, and no one can remember ever seeing one in it. He sleeps upon the floor, amid a pile of old rags and straw, alive with vermin. His only bed-fellows are a dog or two and the rats and mice which constantly scamper about the floors and in the walls of the old building. Thus he passes the days of his hermitage, eating when he has anything to eat and sleeping the greater portion of the day and night. What his thoughts are, if he has any, are past finding out.

That this account of ‘Dan the Hermit’ is not overdrawn can readily be substantiated by anyone who cares to make a visit to his place out on the Xenia pike.”

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