Remembering Henry Fisk, the Rice County hermit

Cannon River Wilderness Area Cannon River Wilderness Area Cannon River Wilderness Area
While snowshoeing at the east end of the Cannon River Wilderness Area last weekend, I pointed out to my niece the approximate spot where Henry Fisk, the Rice County hermit, lived.  Robbie and I happened upon his sparse living quarters when we first moved to Northfield in 1974 but I don’t remember if he was still living there.

Northfield News columnist Maggie Lee wrote several columns about Fisk (also spelled ‘Fiske’) back in 2006, and many people chimed in with letters-to-editor about him. (Do a search there on both spellings of his name.)

Anyone have memories of Henry?  Anyone have a photo of him?


Update 2/26, 9 am: Scout leader Clark Webster showed up at my office at GBM today with a photo of Henry Fisk, taken by Fran Hall circa 1960. Clark has donated the photo to the Boy Scout Troop 337 Scout House at Carleton College.

Clark Webster with Henry Fisk photo A photo of the Henry Fisk photo A photo of the back of the Henry Fisk photo

Update 2/28, 7 am: Clark Webster told me that it was Boy Scout Troop 337 (one of three Northfield area Boy Scout troops of the Rolling Hills Boy Scout District) who erected the footbridge over ‘Fiske Creek’ and put up a historical marker at the site of Henry’s cabin. Robbie and I visited yesterday and took these photos of the footbridge:

Footbridge over Fiske Creek, Cannon River Wilderness Area Footbridge over Fiske Creek, Cannon River Wilderness Area Footbridge over Fiske Creek, Cannon River Wilderness Area Footbridge over Fiske Creek, Cannon River Wilderness Area Footbridge over Fiske Creek, Cannon River Wilderness Area, Troop 337 FCRWA 2000

She spotted the historical marker, now slightly damaged by weather and animals. The text, authored by Paul Jenson “with editing and assistance from C. Umbanhowar Jr.” includes the gruesome story of the murder of Henry’s brother, August Fiske. I’m trying to get a fresh copy of the text from Clark.

Henry Fiske historical marker, Cannon River Wilderness Area Henry Fiske historical marker, Cannon River Wilderness Area Henry Fiske historical marker, Cannon River Wilderness Area Henry Fiske historical marker, Cannon River Wilderness Area Henry Fiske historical marker, Cannon River Wilderness Area

Update 6/18/2010: Clark Webster provided me with a 7 page printout of a document titled The Rice County Wilderness Area – A Concise History by Paul Jensen, with editing and assistance from C. Umbanhowar, Jr. – January 1966.

I scanned it into this PDF:

The kiosk has been updated. I’m not sure when it happened:

Henry Fisk kioske

9 thoughts on “Remembering Henry Fisk, the Rice County hermit”

  1. Speaking of snowshoeing, The Rice Creek Group (working on stream protection ordinance) plans to showshoe and hunt for springs along the creek (trout stream) Saturday morning. They meet at Decker Ave. at 9 am if anyone wants to join in.

    Snowshoes may be available from St. Olaf if you need them. Call Steve Albers. I have a couple of pair, but no experience using them.

  2. Bart, I’d love to see those!

    Clark Webster showed up at my office at GBM today with a photo of Henry Fisk, taken by Fran Hall circa 1960. Clark has donated the photo to the Boy Scout museum at Carleton College.

    I’ve added the photos to the blog post above.

  3. Scoutmaster Clark Webster told me that it was Boy Scout Troop 337 who erected the footbridge over ‘Fiske Creek’ and put up a historical marker at the site of Henry’s cabin. Robbie and I visited yesterday and took photos of the footbridge and the historical marker, now slightly damaged by weather and animals.

    The text, authored by Paul Jenson “with editing and assistance from C. Umbanhowar Jr.” includes the gruesome story of the murder of Henry’s brother, August Fiske.

    I’ve added the photos to the blog post above.

  4. Bart de Malignon wrote:

    Hi, Griff-

    I’m attaching Fran’s comments and pasting them below as well.  I’ve edited Fran’s comments into one piece and I think I’ve captured the essence of his writing.

    Now I’m going to dig out some photographs.  I’ll send an email when I’ve found them – shortly.

    Bart

    ============

    Hermit Henry Fiske, as recalled by Fran Hall

    I’m sure most of us have heard of a hermit, a man who lives alone, never marries, does his own cooking, buys or makes his own clothing, and rarely leaves his home area.  Henry Fiske was such a man. He lived his adult life on some sixty acres of mostly bog land along the Cannon River three miles upriver from Dundas, Minnesota.

    My introduction to Henry Fiske was through Harvey Stork, a Botany Professor at Carleton College. On various occasions, Harvey Stork took his Botany class on field trips around Northfield. During a field trip along the Canon River, Harvey and his class met Henry Fiske walking down a river valley country road in the Cannon City area. I had become interested in photography at the time and Harvey Stork suggested I meet Henry and take some pictures of him. I photographed Henry many times down through the years and we became well acquainted. I took my used clothes and shoes to him on my visits. I often took youngsters to meet Henry. They learned what it was like to live like a hermit, a big experience in their young lives!

    I learned that Henry was born on a farm on the Dutch Road west of Northfield, very close to where my mother was raised. Henry knew my mother and called her Addy, short for Adelaide.  Henry had a brother and a sister who lived in Dundas. The sister’s husband poisoned Henry’s brother with Paris Green, a toxic crystalline salt of copper and arsenic. The brother died and the brother-in-law paid the price!

    In the early 1930s, Henry’s 60-acre property included a small barn, a cow, a horse, chickens and geese. He had a large raspberry patch and at another time, a large strawberry patch, but he had difficulty selling the berries and the gardens failed and were eventually abandoned. Over the years, Henry gradually moved into a small shack in the woods near an ever-running water spring.

    Henry’s only serious illness was an attack of appendicitis. His appendix ruptured but he survived, although he was lame ever after as a result of the attack. In spite of this, he refused to leave his little farm. Henry’s last few years were spent in Faribault, Minnesota where he lived in a home which offered assisted living. At the time of my last visit, Henry was 93 years old and I know he lived for a couple of more years after that.

    Fran Hall

    Boulder, Colorado

    December 20, 2007

  5. Here’s the text of the Henry Fiske part of the RCWA history.  Warning: graphic description of a dead body.

    This is a story that has undergone many transformations. We spend time on Henry because anyone who visits the park is sure to get a garbled version of Henry’s story. Even so, we would like to skip his history except for one thing: he found his brother’s body behind a stump not far from his shack. The true story is our tale. It is based on newspaper stories, the proceedings of an inquest held in Northfield on May 15, 1917, and files in the Minnesota Historical Society Research Center, St Paul. The story is convoluted, a delight to the mystery story reader; but we refrain; we restrict ourselves to the bare bones. Henry worked and lived as a farm laborer a mile and a half east of his shack.

    Six miles to the north living in a shack on Old Dutch Road was the rest of the Fiske family consisting in 1914 of his brother August, and a sister Josephine. When the father had died, 1911, the farm was part willed to Henry Fiske and in part to his sister, Josephine, with the proviso that they take care of August Fiske the simple brother (notehe was a 175 pound, six-footer, sturdy if somewhat emaciate). Henry very likely also received some cash or sold his inheritance land. He is listed as owner of his 70 acres in the future park in the year 1914.

    Into this world came a German immigrant, August Ruther who entered the US in 1907, wandered from job to job, worked on farms, on boats on Lake Michigan, lived in Chicago doing all kinds of manual labor. He arrived in 1914 near Northfield where he worked on various farms, encountered, courted and wed Henry’s sister Josephine. Since much below is negative about Ruther, we note that he talked Josephine into mortgaging the property and then built a satisfactory house from timber on the farm for the three of them.

    Ruther was a tyrant often brutally beating, kicking and striking August Fiske sufficiently to disturb neighbors. In earlier years August Fiske also had been beaten by his father. He was a gentle, well liked, and thirty-eight years old and was said to have the mind of a five year old. He was known to be afraid of his brother-in-law as were also Henry and Josephine. August had good cause, for Ruther was heard to say, “I will get rid of him someday.” And, “If he ever goes against me, I will fix him.” Note that these and other quotations below were made at a time when anti-German feelings were at there height.

    On Thursday before August was allegedly murdered (Aug. 9, 1917), a drunken Ruther came back from Dundas with a sack of Quart bottles of beer (another sack Friday). Ruther, his wife, and August each drank one bottle. August Fiske and Josephine went to their bed, but some time later Ruther demanded that August come down for more beer. He came down. August Fiske was last seen crossing the bridge in Dundas late Friday evening (10:30), presumably on his way to Henry’s Fiske’s shack three miles south of Dundas. He was not seen again until Henry found his body Sunday morning, Aug. 9, 1917.

    Henry’s world changed forever on that morning. He hadn’t seen his brother in six months. He had come to his cabin 1 1/12 miles distant from Ross farm the day before, found his brother’s coat and hat, which he had given him, hanging on a hook in the stable. Someone had also been in the shack. He searched without success for August in his barn by lantern light. Next morning he arose, started to the barn and found his brother’s body lying behind a stump. The body was autopsied and the green guts were so odd that authorities sent them to the University for examination. They turned out to be loaded with arsenate of copper (Paris Green), and insecticide used to kill potato beetles. (How swallowed? Five miles with a gut full of Paris Green?)

    There was also a dropping of green fecal matter in the barn. August Fiske’s body had been dragged from the barn, forcing his trousers down. His scrotum was torn sufficiently to permit a probe to be inserted. A similar wound was found in the scalp. The Paris Green was in the charge of Josephine Ruther, five miles to the north, who had one large package, kept in a cupboard, which she said her simple brother would not have entered. One portion was missing. Paris Green (copper arsenate) is not soluble in beer (none was found in the beer bottles), will produce extreme pain within hours, and would be impossible to retain in the gut for any length of time. The victim would be dead within 24 hours.

    We have a quote from Ruther, “If Fiske is found to be killed or poisoned I’m the one who did it.” Either murder or accidental poisoning fits the words. He later recanted this remark. But the cupboard? Ruther was indicted on September 21, 1917. He was tried on February 8, 1918. Henry Fiske and his sister Josephine Ruther both testified, mainly hearsay or conclusions, against August Ruther. Ruther’s lawyer was nearly blind and suffering from a fatal disease. The jury found Ruther guilty of murder in fifteen minutes on the 15th of that month.

    Six months elapsed before he was sent to Stillwater prison. During this time the presiding judge was seeking a retrial from the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Chief Justice and the presiding Judge both died without any ruling. Ruther never got a retrial. W.W. Pye, a Northfield attorney, wrote urging a pardon to the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court who referred the matter to a Parole Agent.

    Of the jurors who convicted who convicted Ruther, ten wrote letters supporting a full pardon citing pressures and prejudices that produced their verdict. He received a pardon (commutation of sentence) on May 25, 1936 and was released to W.W. Pye who took him to Chicago. Pye noted that he was enchanted by the birds along the way, was astounded by the radio, and by elevators with attendants. Ruther sought a complete pardon claiming that his conviction was due to the anti-German sentiments of the wartime. He made his living in Chicago selling flowers on the streets where he died of a heart attack in 1942.

    Henry retreated to his shack in the 40’s

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