Storyteller or liar? William Herrick–the Hermit of Minnehaha Park–was some of each. And Herrick told such convincing, engaging tales that it’s hard to believe that his stories are not true, even 100 years after his death.
His artful storytelling included details that both impressed his audience and added verisimilitude. When he told the story of his Civil War career, he left out the part about never seeing combat. He was stationed in Kansas, there to build bridges and protect the mail trains. Instead he said (truthfully) that he was stationed “near the Blue Cut country where the famous Younger and James brothers held forth.” Except that he’d been mustered out and sent home before the first James gang robbery. Surely that detail is unimportant in the higher calling of telling a good story.
Facts are available now that would have been hard to find in the early 1900s, when his stories were recorded. Herrick joined the Union Army in March of 1865. He was a 17-year-old private in the 48th Wisconsin Infantry, stationed in Kansas. Though he claimed that this was true, it’s unlikely that he habitually wandered the countryside alone, miles from camp. Or that he once startled a group of Indians, who tied him to a tree and began to build a fire at his feet. It’s wildly unlikely that Herrick was saved from being burned alive by the sudden appearance of Kit Carson, who showed up alone and with guns a-blazing. After all, while Herrick was stationed in Kansas, Brigadier-General Carson was rampaging through New Mexico attempting to destroy the Navaho people. Sure, Herrick reported that the general had been back east and was on his way back to the frontier, but he would not have been traveling alone. No. That’s a tall tale, but one told with breathless, engaging excitement.
Having later become a fur trapper, it’s almost certain that William Herrick did not rescue Sitting Bull’s daughter from death by mountain lion attack. Nor is it likely that in gratitude Sitting Bull warned Herrick not to stay in the valley of the Little Bighorn River, just before the battle there that General Custer lost. Nor is it at all likely that Sitting Bull’s daughter “gave her life” a few years later while nursing Herrick during a fever he suffered in Saskatchewan. Herrick’s stories always leave out or explain away the lack of details that might disprove his case. Those parts of the story are just somehow and conveniently not available. His companions invariably are killed in catastrophies that Herrick miraculously and cunningly escapes. Probably, he started telling his wild tales after he became The Hermit of Minnehaha. Perhaps he created a whole persona for himself then.
Back in those days calling someone a “hermit” gave them a definite aura of stubborn independence and world-weariness, a craving for solitude. Today, it’s more likely that we would call such a person “homeless.” And indeed the earliest known “hermit” in the park, was a friend of William Herrick. They’d visit back and forth. James McKnight was barely hanging on, fishing for a living, making little souvenirs to sell, getting a small stipend from the city of Richfield. He died impoverished, and was buried in the Potter’s Field.
William W. Herrick was not impoverished. He collected his soldier’s pension–$12 a month–from the government as a Civil War veteran.
He was living up north in Becker County, near what is today Detroit Lakes, MN, when his pension came through in 1892. His disabilities qualified him for the pension: cystitis, rheumatism of lumbar region, and some problem with his left eye. Records report that these disabilities were contracted in 1889.
By 1895, he was living at the State Soldier’s Home at Minnehaha Park. He apparently quite liked it there, and felt well-cared-for. He said in January of 1896 that most people outside “don’t have one quarter the comforts that the Home provides.” In his satisfaction, he wrote to contradict another Soldier’s Home inmate in a letter to the editor of the St. Paul Globe newspaper. He noted that the procedures for dealing with pensions (an early Soldier’s Home controversy) were fair and satisfied him.
It’s anyone’s guess why he moved to Minneapolis from Becker County. His story exults his love of wide, open spaces and the freedom and solitude of the frontier. But he was living with his older brother George in 1885. Perhaps they had a falling out. But perhaps Herrick moved at the suggestion of a man he may have known in Detroit in 1885, a man who figures prominently in the story of Minnehaha Park: Adelbert L. Gardner. A. L. Gardner was in Detroit in 1885, and by 1896 was in Minnehaha Park. Just like William Herrick.
At any rate. No matter Herrick’s original delight in the comforts of the Soldier’s Home, it wasn’t long before he had a disagreement with the authorities there. The details of this disagreement are unknown today. But as early as 1898, he had left those comforts behind.
One of the newspaper stories said, “He applied for a discharge. This was granted him, and he immediately moved over to the other side of the river where he secured permission to build himself a hut. He is very comfortably situated now and has besides a full supply of household furniture and cooking utensils, three tons of coal which he picked up along the railroad tracks, and a quantity of wood for cooking purposes.”
The exact location of his little “soddy” is unknown. City directory entries on 1901 and 1902 say it was on Hiawatha Avenue at 51st Street. That would place it just south of the Soldier’s Home bridge today.
With his move to the sod house, Herrick became “a fixture of the resort at Minnehaha.” He was known to prefer his solitude. It was said that he never entertained. He lead his quiet life, reading and growing flowers. He wrote poetry, though only one example has come to light, a few patriotic stanzas about Memorial Day that he wrote at the Soldier’s Home. He was intensely patriotic. His flower gardens became extravagant things. In the fashion of the day, one flowerbed formed the eagle emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Another planting spelled out “How Kola” which he thought meant “How Are You Friend?” in an Indian language. Another bed copied a painting of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, and another formed a crucifixion. Visitors to the hermitage were often given bouquets.
Herrick’s life story and his frontier adventure stories—true or perhaps the tallest of tall tales—were told first to the newspapers, and later collected and embellished into a souvenir booklet called “The Hermit of Minnehaha Park.” It was this booklet that was published by Samuel Atherton Hatch.