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Harrison County Iowa Genealogy

Harrison County Iowa History
The Hermit of Bigler's Grove

Council Bluffs, Iowa; Sunday Morning, February 22, 1925


--Aged Man Went Into "The Old Swimmin� Hole" with Whit
-- Now Recluse Trapper -- Philosopher Living With Dogs.

    Convinced that he has been singled out by the fates to be hurt, embittered against his fellow man because of many injustices in the past. Marshal E. Willis, graduate of Asbury University now De Pauw, a member of the Indiana Bar association, Hoosier poet and philosopher, has crept away to the woods northeast of Logan to live out the remainder of his life, alone.
    There, in a cave abode, which he has fashioned himself in the side of a small ravine in the forest, cut into the hard clay with spade and mattock, he has lived the life of hermit for four years or more.
    But mankind will not allow him the seclusion he seeks. he has become known as the "Hermit of Bigler�s Grove", curious townspeople from Woodbine and Logan seek out his retreat in the summertime. At all times, according to his own story and the evidence which he has secured, he is the victim of persecution at the hands of a few of the thoughtless residents of the country side in which he lives.
    But Marshal E. Willis, the bearded trapper, roamer of the Iowa hills, recluse and cave dweller has a rugged philosophy of his own.
    The instinct of the hunter is strong in him although he has reached his seventy-first year. Pointing to the beautiful pelt of some strange denizen of the woods or creeks which has trapped he says, "Yes it is beautiful, but the joy is all taken out of the thing in the skinning."
    Pressed further as he appears about to sink himself into one of the strange silences which holds him for minutes at a time he adds, "I mean there is more pleasure in pursuit than in possession."
    This, as Willis expressed it, may be applied to other walks of life besides those of the trapper and the hunter.

A Pal of James Whitcomb Riley

    Of the past Willis talks but little. He is proud of his birthplace, Greenville, Ind., and of his boyhood association with James Whitcomb Riley, whom he calls "Whit." He is more proud than ever of the fact, that as a boy, he and Whitcomb Riley plunged together into the "ole swimmin hole" which Riley afterwards made famous in his immortal poem.
    Willis has letters from James Whitcomb Riley, written up until the year of the famous Hoosier poet�s death. They recall old days, boyhood days and the disillusionment of age.
    But the Hermit of Bigler�s grove has disconnected himself from the old Hoosier days. For forty-five years he has roamed in Iowa and Kansas, never practicing the law he studied, but always working at one of the various trades he later acquired, including that of blacksmith, carpenter and bricklayer.

Speaks Little of the Past

    He talks little of the past. Indeed it is hard to induce him to mention direct incidents at all, but under the general run of his conversation there is a layer which gives an insight into the hurts which this man has felt.
    With all a poet�s sadness he yearns for the old Hoosier home, but one can guess why he never returned. He has not practiced the profession that he learned. To return to his old haunts would have meant admitting failure in the struggle with the world he set out to conquer more than forty years ago.
    Limping, his leg having been broken in three places several years ago in a fall from a ladder and never thoroughly healed, the old man ranges for miles among the Iowa hills which he has learned to love. He knows the crop history of every field, he knows the history of every settlement. In runways and dried water courses he reads the stories of the little wild folk. Atop straw stacks on hills overlooking beautiful fertile valleys and woodlands for miles, he sets his traps for the larger beasts, wolves and coyotes.
    Out from his cave, three of his four dogs at his heels, a bundle of traps slung over his shoulder, this old man hikes miles and miles every day, up hill and through valley, across level bottom land and through the timber, he ranges like a lone wolf, always restless, limping along at a gait that would tax the strength of a younger man to keep pace.
    Out from the habitations of men, beside one of the trap lines or on top of a hill where the undulating beauty of Iowa stretches for miles in every direction, the "Hermit of Bigler�s Grove" coves into his own. There is a light in his eyes that bespeaks love of his surroundings, love of the pure air and the sunshine.

Has a Sensitive Nature

    There is a sort of strained friendship between Marshall Willis and the one or two farmer residents of the vicinity with whom he will converse for short periods at a time. He meets his fellow man much the same as a wolf tamed and cowed by men would meet a stranger, not with hostile glances, but ready to be friendly or turn silently away towards his cave at some thoughtless word that has bitten deep into his sensibilities.
    A neighborhood farmer who has helped Willis plow the acre of land which he tills in the woodland clearing, and has hauled produce from town for the hermit from time to time, sums up the county man�s attitude toward the cave dweller. "All alone. It is strange that a man as well educated as he is should wish to live that way. But, he wishes no man ill, and would harm no one if left alone."
    As evidence of his persecution Willis mentions his first attempt to find solitude in the woods. He was hounded from his retreat and the wild bees which he had caused to hive in boxes near his cave were killed with cyanide of potassium and the hives wrecked.

He Finds a Recluse

    William Plumer, of this city, hearing of the old man�s plight, told him that forty acres of woodland on Plumer�s property, near Logan, was at his disposal. There Willis repaired four years ago, hewed logs to support the roof of his cave abode made a dugout stable and a hen house in addition to his own two roomed dwelling, and settled down.
    He possessed two western horses at that time which he used in working the acre of land which Plumer told him was his for the clearing, but both of these animals died suddenly. A veterinary in Logan, examined the dead horses, told the hermit that poison had been used. That night a charge of dynamite exploded on the roof of the dugout, he says. The roof was wrecked.
    Rather than haul water for more than a mile, from the farm of a friendly neighbor, Willis set about to sink a well. Another neighbor agreed to haul the tile when the shaft should be deep enough. The aged hermit found water. He walked through the woodland to tell the farmer that the tile could be used and when he returned half of a hog was in the bottom of the well shaft.
    He took out the carcass, sung the well three feet deeper and walked through the woods again to tell the farmer that the tile might be brought from town at any time. Upon his return, this time, he found a dozen dead chickens in the hole. Filling the dirt back on top of the carrion, Willis abandoned his well, told the farmer that he did not need the tile and has been hauling water for a mile and a half ever since.
    But there is a Russian wolf hound of no uncertain lineage among the dogs at Willis� habitation at present. When the trapper is away this dog is a staunch guardian of her master�s property. When Willis is at home she makes no unfriendly overtures toward strangers, except to bark and give the alarm at the approach of men.
    Asked shy he befriended the strange hermit when the hand of man seemed turned against him William Plumer says "Having read the Bible co believe that I am my brother�s keeper; Why should I not allow this old man the sanctuary of my woodland. He is a man, and a find old man despite the fact that a quirk in his nature sends him deep into the woods away from his fellow beings."

Has Wealthy Relatives

    Willis has not lost touch with his Hoosier relatives. His uncle Lorenzo F. Moore, is a wealthy resident of Greenville, IN; and writes at least once a month. He has two maiden aunts and a sister in the same town, all of whom write to him regularly, knowing of his present state of living.
    Willis has never married. Probably some blighted romantic of the past, was added to the other misfortunes in causing the mad to see the solitude he undoubtedly craves, but this may never be known. Willis will not reply, directly to questions concerning his grief, there has plenty in his life.
    In the windowless cave which he calls his home, with his dogs, sole companions at his feet, with the smudgy wood stove burning in a corner made by two dirt walls, the Hoosier recluse penned the following poem to his beloved home place:

My Old Hoosier Home
Is it now that the lilacs are blooming
And the violets purpling in the fell
The fire of the red but will be gleaming
Midst the green tangled vines in the dell
The blue birds and red birds will be calling
As they flit through the dogwood as dense snow
And the sunshine will be gilding the gray stone
Near the old home-my own long ago
My thoughts still flow back to the dear days
To that breeze swept home as you see,
Where a glory of home-.. and brightness
Filled the days with a rapture for me.
I think of the home of my mother
When I was a barefooted boy
And I know that the lilacs will be blooming
Since the glory of springtime is come
But the dear ones are gone and are parted
Since I left the old home the old home
The breath of the roses and lilacs
Floats in like the incense at eve
And bring back a flood of sweet memories
Which still to my heart fondly cleave
I think of these hills most like mountains
Where my feet when leg weary did rest
I think of those streams that have trout in
That flow near the home that I left.
But wherever my footsteps have wended
Or what sorrows or joys may have come
There are none like those of my childhood
In my old Hoosier home sweet home
Yet, still as I sit in the gloaming
And the spectre of years that are gone
Is borne in with the incense of roses
I�m thinking of home sweet home
		M.E. Willis

The Hermit of Bigler's Grove Contributed by Janette Lager

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