Monday, February 29, 2016

Bobcat Ranney: The Hermit Of Tombstone Swamp

Bobcat Picture from Adirondack MuseumIn this digital age, it’s hard for anyone to escape entirely from the eyes of the world, and that goes for Adirondack hermits, too. Even dead ones.

A case in point is Archie “Bobcat” Ranney, who lived in a cabin near Bakers Mills, sometimes surviving on porcupine meat.

I learned about Ranney from Dick MacKinnon, a native of Schenectady, who in turned learned about him from Jim Osterhout, a childhood friend who once met the hermit. Dick sent me a bunch of emails with articles about Ranney as well as a few photos. I then stumbled across more articles about him on my own. Everything was online.

Ranney was born in Vermont in 1871. Like his more well-known colleague, Noah John Rondeau, he gained some fame as an attraction at a sportsmen’s show. A brief article in The Conservationist in 1948 described him as “the Hermit of Tombstone Swamp.”

“The Adirondacks acquired a new permanent resident and porcupines a direct route to oblivion several years ago when 76-year-old Archie Ranney, an ex-printer, read of the beauties of the State and came to see it for himself,” the Conservationist said.

The article quotes Ranney as saying porcupine meat has been underrated. “I ate 10 in 10 weeks once and liked every mouthful,” he told the magazine.

Paul Schaefer, the celebrated conservationist, named Tombstone Swamp when he was a young man in the 1920s. The swamp was located about four miles west of the Schaefer family’s cabin near Bakers Mills.

“Second Pond Brook courses its serpentine way through an ancient beaver meadow there,” Schaefer writes in Cabin Country. “Several years earlier, I had noticed a stone about 6 inches square and 3 feet above the ground along an old game trails on its western bank. I had no idea what it represented and had never found anyone who did. I named the meadow.”

Schaefer’s book makes no mention of Ranney, but the two men knew each other well. The late newspaper columnist Barney Fowler says Ranney visited the North Creek area after reading a magazine article by Schaefer, and Schaefer showed him around. Bobcat liked the region so much that he moved there and built a cabin. He lived alone, with only a dog for company.

Bobcat headshotAt the time, Ranney would have been about 62. He moved from the Binghamton area, where he had been a linotype operator. In a 1946 letter to the Binghamton Press, he explained his decision.

“I came here 12 years ago when the high insurance labor laws prevented men from obtaining work and my wife working in an Endicott factory had to declare herself a widow in order to retain her job,” he wrote. “During that time I have gotten in my entire wood supply on a six-foot handsled over an area of one-fourth to one-half mile in extent, on snowshoes with snow two to four feet in the woods and 10 to 12 in drifts, with temperatures often 20 to 30 degrees below zero.” He was then 74. Well, nobody said the hermit’s life was easy.

Bobcat didn’t subsist entirely on porcupines. In the same letter, he describes how he would go to town for supplies: “As I live on the mountain, two miles from Bakers Mills, I have to start out at 9 a.m. to catch the mail stage to North Creek, seven miles.… Returning with 15 pounds of dog food, 10 pounds of potatoes and a possible 10 pounds of other food, I tote the 40 pounds two miles up the mountain on my back, with no meat nor flour nor gravy, and the day practically spent. I have potatoes with salt for my supper, if I am lucky enough to have time to cut a tree and get a wheelbarrow load in from the woodlot, a quarter mile distant, before dark, and that with a pair of crippled hands.”

At Schaefer’s suggestion, Ranney attended a sportsmen’s show in Schenectady in 1948. Barney Fowler, writing years later for the Schenectady Gazette, recalled the hermit’s appearance: “He was the old guy who leaped on the stage, brandishing a huge knife, thirsting for any synthetic blood which might be floating around.”

Though he lived in a remote shack, ate porcupines, and wore a raccoon cap, Ranney was no savage. In fact, he was rather cultured. He played the banjo, composed verses, and seemed to have an affinity for the written word. He once wrote some articles for the North Creek News about a train trip to California to visit his sister. He was not enthralled with the arid landscape of the Southwest: “It did not at all resemble our heavily clad Adirondacks. Bare, rocky peaks extended as far as the eye could see looking desolate and bleak.”

Twice, Bobcat almost perished in his lonely hut. In early spring of 1948, when he was 76, he made the trek to North Creek to pick up supplies for himself and his dog Cubby. The Albany Times Union reported that after returning home he was struck by rheumatism and unable to get up from his bed. “He lay there for 36 hours without food or water, before neighbors learned of his plight,” according to the newspaper. His neighbors nursed him back to health.

“It won’t be long before the ‘Hermit of Tombstone Swamp’ will be up and about again, tramping through the fields he loves so well and conversing with neighbors who love him as much as he loves nature,” the article said.

Bobcat did recover — well enough to attend the Schenectady show later that year. But in the winter of 1952, he had another close call when he ran out of wood one cold evening. A recent storm had covered his woodpile with deep snow. Now 80 years old, Bobcat rolled himself in a quilt and resolved to freeze to death. A few hours later, he changed his mind.

“At 11 p.m., I took the quilt and started to go to my neighbor, the widow Dalabas, 150 paces across from my shack,” Ranney told the Associated Press. “Three and one-half hours later, I stumbled in. I had a felt boot on my left foot, a sneaker on my right, and the snow was drifted six to eight feet high.”

As a result of this ordeal, Bobcat ended up in a hospital near Binghamton, where he was treated for exposure and diagnosed with a heart condition. He was reunited with his wife and son.

“He left them 20 years ago to become a hermit, and they were never able to get him to return home,” a local paper reported. “However, ill health has accomplished what family persuasion could not, and the ‘Bobcat’ is going to have to confine his quest for solitary contentment to the book he says he is planning to write about those 20 years in the woods.”

Apparently, the book was either never written or never published. Bobcat Ranney died a few years later, in 1955, and was buried in the Tioga Point Cemetery in Athens, Pennsylvania, just south of the New York State border.

Dick MacKinnon noted the irony of a hermit’s leaving behind a trail of digital breadcrumbs for anyone to follow.

“Someone can go from complete obscurity and living the life of a hermit to this article based upon research conducted entirely over the Internet and involving many people who have not necessarily ever met face to face,” he emailed me. “Perhaps we have become electronic hermits?”

Top photo of Archie “Bobcat” Ranney courtesy of Adirondack Museum.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

11 Responses

  1. stan says:

    Good – well written.

  2. Dave Gibson says:

    Thank you very much for filling in so much information. Paul (Schaefer) often spoke of Bobcat, and left a remarkable portrait of him at the Adirondack Research Library (now of Union College). The interior walls of Bobcat’s home were lined with newspaper, said Paul. Neighborly relations were interesting indeed. You will find Bobcat Ranney mentioned in the published memoir of his neighbor on that hillside, Daisy (Dalaba) Allen. That memoir of growing up on a farm in the central Adirondacks was titled Ranger Bowback in honor of Daisy’s father “The Ranger” and was the subject of one of my posts. It is available from Mrs. Allen’s daughter in Bakers Mills.

  3. Hazel Wells says:

    My mother grew up in Bakers Mills. She remembers him getting his milk from her Grandmother Anna Hitchcock.

  4. Todd Eastman says:

    An important part of history is the “near history” where the connections are recent enough to shape the facts. This lives all around us and quickly becomes the domain of the researcher rather than the journalist as time rolls forward. Trust the journalists!!!

    • Cranberry Bill says:

      With our overwhelming audio/video world, our life histories may just become stories about us watching other stories.

  5. Dave Ruch says:

    Fascinating piece. I wonder what remains of the verses he composed, and where he might have learned to play banjo along the way. Thanks for the article.

  6. Jim Schaefer says:

    Thanks for the “fill-in.” I knew Ranny as a 10-12 year old on Edwards Hill near my family base camp Cragorehol. My late cousin Cubby Schaefer and I found Ranny’s small “cabin” near the intersection of the trace that gave access to Cragorehol, Diamond Brook where my Uncle Paul Schaefer’s hunting camp was located and “The Flow” in Second Pond country. Ranny’s hovel was small, crushed by snow and related weather forces so was at a huge slant. We picked our way around inside looking for treasure (Hah!). All we found was a trove of rusty tin cans, a fragile frying pan, mouse nests and a memorable stench. The latter must have permeated our clothes because the folks back at Cragorehol for no given reason just warned us to be careful not to step on a rusty nail or cut glass at Ranny’s. I wonder if Uncle Paul gave my cousin Cubby his nick-name after Ranny’s dog? Cub’s formal name Francis, was never used — that was a family name from the Holtslag side (maternal grandmother).

  7. Michael E. Colella, MD says:

    I remember “Bobcat” Ranny living in the garage behind his son’s house on the corner of Lillian Avenue and Church Street in Endicott, New York after he moved back to civilization. According to his Grand-daughter Beatrice Ranny, a few years younger than me, his son bannished him to the garage. He was an odd looking man rarely seen outside the garage. He died the year I graduated from Union-Endicott High School. I only wish now that I had approached him to hear his stories.

    • Richard A MacKinnon says:

      The picture of Bobcat over the years is getting filled in nicely. We probably know more about this supposed hermit than we do of our next door neighbors–thanks to Phil Brown. Might someone know how he happened to be buried in Pennsylvania, not far from Endicott?

      • says:

        was “BOBCAT” not born in Athens or lived there as a child? Maybe his parents are buried there.

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