Research Report #57 — The Shawangunk Hermit’s Hut

“The East End of the Hut”. Taken by Albert K. Smiley, 11 December 1925. The hut, “built in the side of the cliff between two large rocks”, the “two ends of the shelter (closed) with chestnut poles.” © Courtesy Mohonk Archives.

For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Read the Report: The Shawangunk Hermit’s Hut. March 1985. Daniel Smiley.

A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus: In the years I worked with Daniel Smiley, every spring in late March or early April, usually after a rainy night with fog hanging low over some remaining winter corn snow still on the ground, Dan would say “we have to go out today and check for amphibians.” I had learned very quickly that when working with Dan, and coming in each morning, I had to be prepared for anything, especially for a change in the plans for that day that we had made the night before. This driven by nature’s schedule and Dan being closely in touch over the years with the timing of activities of the natural world surrounding him.

Wood Frog Egg Masses at Hermit’s Pool © Mohonk Preserve Daniel Smiley Research Center Archives

Looking for amphibians, simply meant that we would be going out to check vernal pools that Dan had watched and recorded, some for decades, looking mostly for the first adult Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders. Because of increasing day length and warming baseline temperatures above freezing, these individuals were exiting their wintering cells or hibernacula and traveling over the wet ground, sometimes still covered with patchy snow, to reach their ancestral vernal pools for their annual breeding. Sometimes reaching the pools that were still mostly covered by ice.

Spotted Salamander © Ethan Pierce
Wood Frog © John Mizel

Starting in the late 1970’s, one of the vernal pools that Dan was determined to reach each spring, navigating late winter conditions, was Hermit’s Pool. Dan and I surveyed this pool in the summer of 1981, as part of our research into the characteristics of some 30 Shawangunk vernal pools. Hermit’s Pool is a relatively small shallow oval pool along Overcliff Road with some open tannic water surrounded by thickets of Highbush Blueberry. Regularly, over several weekly spring visits, we could usually count several hundred Wood Frog egg masses mostly deposited in the area of open water. The duck-like quacking chorus of the adult Wood Frogs always keenly focused our thoughts and dialogue to the vitality of the species, about the importance of long-term species monitoring, commenting about possible reasons for annual variations we were observing in this very sensitive species, and discussing the importance of the preservation and stewardship provided by the Mohonk Preserve for this small but extremely valuable part of the Shawangunk ecosystem.

“View to the Southwest.” Taken by Albert K. Smiley, 11 December 1925. Not documented, but we think with Dan’s Mother, Mabel Craven Smiley. © Courtesy Mohonk Archives.

As one of the hundreds of formal place names used for locating natural and cultural history observations that Dan had mapped over the decades, Hermit’s Pool, and the nearby Hermit’s Hut, had a special interest. Where had the names come from? In this March 1985 cultural history report, Dan summarized the origin of the Hermit’s name, much that he had experienced first hand over 60 years earlier.

The history of Hermit’s Hut goes back to the early days of the Mohonk School, the college preparatory boys school located at Mohonk and started by Dan’s Mother, Mabel Craven Smiley, in 1920. Dan entered the school that year at age 13. We have quite good documentation about some of the activities at the school over the years from articles in the bimonthly publication called The Mohonk Sentinel. One of the activities carried on by the boys, in small groups, “to build strong rugged health into its students,” was the building of “huts” at various locations around the Mohonk property. Some of the remains of these structures can still be seen on the land today, such as the “Straight Eight” hut chimney along the Undivided Lot Trail, the remains of the “Chestnut Spring Cabin” at the base of the Sky Top cliff, and the stonework remaining from the “Duck Pond Cabin,” completed by the boys in 1929. As Dan recounts, he “was a member of the Straight-Eight (there were 8 members),” and he helped build the hut chimney. Dan told me the name “straight eight” came from the straight eight-cylinder car engine of the day where all the cylinders stood upright, like the boys, shoulder to shoulder. Each hut had some basic tools and various domestic supplies.

Mohonk School Boys building the “Straight Eight Hut”, about 1925, with young Dan Smiley sitting on the chimney. © Daniel Smiley Research Center Collection.
“The East End of the Hut.” Taken by Albert K. Smiley, 11 December 1925. The hut, “built in the side of the cliff between two large rocks”, the “two ends of the shelter (closed) with chestnut poles.” © Courtesy Mohonk Archives.

The Shawangunk Hermit apparently came to light, according to Dan’s first hand knowledge, and from an account in the February 1926, The Mohonk Sentinel, as a result of “some things….stolen from the various huts which have been built by the school boys.” Dan recounted that the missing “tools” came from “our group” at the “Straight Eight” hut, below Zaidee’s Bower. The hermit and his hut were first discovered by hunters in the fall of 1925, in the woods west of Rhododendron Swamp and above Sleepy Hollow Swamp. The hermit’s hut was then described as being “built in the side of the cliff between two large rocks.” The “old man who had the appearance of a hermit lived there, and that, from the looks of several barrels of soaking corn, he was somewhat of a moonshiner also.” “Immediately suspicion (regarding the stolen items) was centered on the old hermit.” After a search, the hermit’s hut was finally rediscovered by Dan’s fellow schoolboy Henry Dougherty. While none of the missing school boy’s tools were found, the secluded life and setting of the Shawangunk hermit had been exposed. Within days, “the (Ulster County) sheriff was notified that a man was living on the estate without permission.” Ultimately, the hermit was arrested, and “the sheriff’s men pulled down part of his shack, and destroyed practically all of his winter supplies, which….he had just gathered.” Looking back, Dan recounted that when the deputy sheriff arrested him, the hermit “seemed quite willing to go….perhaps the county jail would be more comfortable in winter than his perch on the ledge.” We never did learn his name.

Wooden shoe soles “whittled” by the Shawangunk Hermit, circa 1926, with Dan’s original label. Collection Mohonk Preserve, Daniel Smiley Research Center. © Paul C. Huth.

As part of Dan and my close work over the years on the organization and management of the collections at the Research Center, I well remember once finding a pair of bagged and labeled thick wooden shoe soles that Dan said were saved from the remains at the old Hermit’s Hut. Dan recalled, “he was good with whittling and had carved out heavy wooden soles which he was going to attach to his leather uppers. When he was arrested his shoes were in bad shape”. These soles are still part of the extensive legacy collections housed at the Daniel Smiley Research Center.

As to the “several barrels of soaking corn,” Dan clearly remembered that there was no evidence of the hermit making moonshine, and that “we presumed that he was going to cook (the field corn) and eat it.” He noted that the hermit had “done a good job in closing in the two ends of the shelter with chestnut poles.” The hermit had apparently used the nearby Hermit’s Pool “as a source of water during the cool part of the year, and did his washing there.” Also, Dan remembered there was a barrel partly filled with apples and a container of “fresh milk” at the hut when the hermit was arrested. Where the hermit got the fresh milk, “other than milking a cow in the pasture, was a mystery.”

“The West End of the Hut”. Taken by Albert K. Smiley, 11 December 1925. Note the Hermit’s Barrel on the left, and Eagle Cliff and it’s tower in the center background. Sky Top is on the right side through the trees. © Courtesy Mohonk Archives.

It is interesting how “things go around and come around.” Dan often said that over the years he liked to visit the “delightful location” of the old Hermit’s Hut for picnics. In the early 1970’s, Dan took Native American researcher Nicholas Shoumatoff to the location of the Hermit’s Hut ledge. Nick felt the site could have been attractive as a seasonal rockshelter, like that along nearby Rhododendron Swamp, and as a Native American vantage point.

The Hermit’s Hut site again drew attention as a good natural protected location for the release of young Peregrine Falcons in 1977, 1978, and 1979. Starting in 1975, the Mohonk Trust “functioned as a coordinator for the experimental reintroduction of (peregrine) falcons to the Shawangunks as practiced by the Peregrine Fund based at Cornell University.” In May, 1977, a Peregrine hack box, with a Raccoon guard, was installed at Hermit’s Hut. On 14 June, three young Peregrines arrived and were placed in the hack box. Attendants spent 24 hours shifts with the birds. By the end of July, staff from the US Fish and Wildlife Service had trapped 11 Raccoons, which were considered potential predators of the young Peregrines. One of the released young birds was later found dead about a half-mile away. In July 1978, three more Peregrine young were “installed at Hermit’s Hut.” Two survived and were released successfully. In 1979, four young male Peregrines were released from the Hermit’s Hut site. That year, 10 more Raccoons were trapped by DEC during the release window. On 21 July, a “sub-adult male” was observed at the hack box site. From the leg band, it was determined to be one of the birds released there the year before! In June of 1983, John Barclay from the Peregrine Fund, notified the Preserve that a male, released from a hack site in the Shawangunks, at Hermit’s Hut, or possibly at Millbrook Mountain, and a female, hacked at Sea Island, New Jersey, in 1980, were nesting under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge! As Dan noted, “This marked the first time that a released New York peregrine nested.” The pair raised three young.

“View to the Northeast”. Taken by Albert K. Smiley, 11 December 1925. Oakwood Drive ascending slope in the background. Sky Top in the center. © Courtesy Mohonk Archives.

In summer 2007, the area of Hermit’s Hut was visited by our 18th Schaefer Summer Intern, Charlotte Gabrielsen, from Hartwick College, as part of her research project surveying certain native plant populations.

We are fortunate to have Dan’s clear sense of responsibility and compulsion to write down the details of these interesting episodes of Shawangunk history.

Read the Report: The Shawangunk Hermit’s Hut. March 1985. Daniel Smiley.

With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.