Louisiana Road Trips
I was born fifteen years after Ben Lilly died, and I grew up on the Bonne Idee, east of Mer Rouge, only a few miles south of the old Lilly place. Ben Lilly’s life is chronicled in J. Frank Dobie’s The Ben Lilly Legend (1950), and the author interviewed many “old-timers” in Mer Rouge whom I remember from my childhood–most particularly Mr. T. Y. Harp, but also Mr. Joe Davenport, Mr. R. L. Norsworthy, Mr. Frank Rives, Mr. E. T. “Boley” White, and Mr. Doyle Wilson, among others. All those men are dead now, and I wish I’d had a chance to talk to them about their memories of Ben Lilly.
When Dobie first met Ben Lilly in 1928, the ancient hunter recalled his youth, telling the writer, “I never saw a man with his face shaved clean until I was a big boy. When I saw him I thought he was a dead man, a corpse walking about, and I was mighty scared. As I grew up I determined never to scare anybody into thinking I was a corpse. Ever since I could grow a beard I have had one.”
Lilly had produced two chapters of a proposed manuscript about his life, which were never published. A dozen years after his death, Dobie finally located copies of the ramblings, along with a copy of Ben Lilly’s diary for 1916. Meanwhile, as Dobie said, “Tom Harp was writing me the equivalent of a small book on Lilly’s career in Louisiana. On a trip I made to that state and to Mississippi, he guided me to various informants. I found that almost nobody referred to him as ‘Old Man Lilly’, as ‘Old Lilly,’ or otherwise than with marked respect. To most rememberers he was, and is, either Mister Lilly or plain Ben Lilly.”
Benjamin Vernon Lilly was born on New Year’s Eve, 1856, in Wilcox County, Alabama, but the family soon moved to Kemper County, Mississippi, just after he was born. His father Albert’s brother, Vernon Lilly, for whom Ben was named, was a well-to-do, bachelor planter in Morehouse Parish. When Ben was twelve, he ran away from home in Mississippi, and walked to his uncle’s home, sleeping in the woods at night. He hunted there for awhile, then either “went back” or “was taken back” to Mississippi. For a period of time thereafter, Ben Lilly seems to have been lost to his family, in a period he later referred to as “wild”. One day, while in Memphis, Vernon Lilly saw a sign over a blacksmith and machine shop–B. V. Lilly. He found his young namesake and told him that, if he would come to his Morehouse farm, settle down and marry, that he would will him all his property.
I thought I knew the location of the Lilly place, but checked the records at the courthouse to be sure. The Merton Bowe Road extends northward from the Mer Rouge-Oak Grove Highway (La. 2), east of the Bayou Bonne Idee, and eventually comes out at Bonita. The Son Olive Road runs eastward from Galion. Where these two roads intersect, at the place we used to call “Jinks’ Store”, a couple miles north of the old Bonne Idee (or “Harp”) Cemetery, is the Lilly Place. The farm had about three hundred cultivated acres, enclosed by rail fences, with the remainder a jumble of swamp, canebrake and woods along the Bonne Idee.
Here, on the land he eventually inherited, Ben Lilly grew to maturity, occasionally withdrawing into solitude, hunting bears and panthers, keeping the Sabbath, and cultivating eccentricities. He boasted that he could find his way through a pathless swamp in the dead of night. Someone once asked, “Were you never lost at all?” “No, but one time for about half a day I was considerably bothered.”
Although he depended upon his farm for a livelihood, he had no instinct for farm management, and no ambition to establish an estate. He let his stock run wild on the unfenced range, and decorated his barn walls with his paintings of cows, horses, alligators, and other animals. He maintained a farm blacksmith shop, where he did work for others, as well as for himself. Like his father and grandfather, he preferred making knives to sharpening plow points. Bowie-knife culture was a part of Ben Lilly’s inheritance, yet it seems to have become no part of him. He made and used the “Lilly knife”, fashioning them from old files, rasps, automobile springs, and the like. He never, so far as it is known, shot at or drew his knife on a man.
Ben Lilly was a strong man, described as about 5’9″, 180 pounds, and “all sinew”. Dobie says that “his strength became the pride and wonder of the land.” His most memorable physical feat, I think, took place on his famous hunt with President Roosevelt. On that occasion, past his fiftieth birthday, Ben Lilly was said to have stood in an empty barrel and jumped out of it without touching the rim. He couldn’t swim, however, but had no fear of water.
In the fall of 1880, he married Lelia, and soon his hunting trips became more extended, often accompanied by Tutt Alford, a black cook and hunting companion. He developed eccentricities of his own, sometimes refusing to change out of wet and muddy clothes. “It’s better for the health to let them dry on you,” he said. The classic Ben Lilly story is that, one day, his wife scolded him, saying, “You like to shoot so well, why don’t you get your gun and shoot that chicken hawk?” “All right.” He went outside. More than a year passed before he re-entered the house. “That hawk kept flying,” he explained. The only thing that kept him at home at all was a frail son, named Vernon, and called “Dick”, who died young. At the child’s death, he and his wife divorced.
His lack of enthusiasm for farming led him into cattle trading, eventually selling off pieces of farm land to pay off debts. In 1890, he married again, and bought a place for his family on the edge of Mer Rouge, but came in from the woods only once in a while.
He never shaved, though he usually kept his beard and hair groomed. On his extensive hunting trips, he often subsisted on nothing more than corn, plus whatever game he killed. He enjoyed rebuses, often signing his name with a picture of a bee and of a lily. One time he sent a letter, marked only with a picture of a goat and a bouquet, to Bonita. The postmaster delivered it to Billy Flowers.
Part of the stimulation of hunting lay in enduring severe weather. He never wore a coat or overcoat, but would wear three or four wool shirts, which he changed by pulling off the one next to his undershirt and putting it on over the one that had been on the outside. He felt that the elements will cleanse any garment exposed to them. Aside from bears and panthers, alligators interested him most. One year he hunted alligators for hides to sell.
He loved to fool with alligators. A large alligator, called “Old Lep” lived in a cypress brake, and Mr. Lilly became fond of him, so to speak. One day, he caught Old Lep on shore and lassoed him, whereupon Lep began rolling over and over, tangling Ben’s hand in the rope, and drawing him closer and closer to his gaping jaws. Lilly (supposedly) rammed the rifle barrel down his throat and fired, “killing the source of his amusement.”
In the 1890s, he drifted out of the cattle-trading business, and tried his hand at logging. He piled a yard full of logs against a railroad siding at Mer Rouge and another at Bonita. Most of the logs were black walnut. He didn’t know timber, and hauled in much that was (at the time) unmarketable, finally abandoning the great stocks of black walnut. T. Y. Harp told Dobie that the abandoned timber would be worth at least $100,000 (at 1950 prices), but for years the residents of Mer Rouge and Bonita cut the Ben Lilly black walnut into firewood and burned it.
According to one story, Mary Lilly finally told Ben that, if he ever left on another hunt, he could keep on going. Therefore, around the end of 1901, he transferred all his property, except $5.00, to her, called his three children together, kissed all four affectionately good-bye, took his dogs and headed for the Tensas River. He briefly entered the pig trade, made some money logging and sent it home, then drifted down into the Atchafalaya Swamps. He never stopped writing his children, and was still sending checks home from New Mexico thirty years later.
By 1904, Lilly had become an admirer of Ned Hollister, of the Biological Survey in Louisiana, and became engaged (at no pay) to send in specimens to the Survey. He learned to prepare skins and skeletons, and is today represented in the National Museum (of the Smithsonian in Washington) by specimens of otter, ivory-billed woodpecker, wolf, deer and bear. His biology work, however, did not convert him into a conservationist, although his observations on wild pigeons, Nelson’s grizzly, the Apache grizzly, wild turkey, and black bear entered the records of various naturalists.
Early in 1906, he entered the Big Thicket of Texas, near the Louisiana line, and was hunting his way west, when a telegram called him and his dogs back to Tensas Bayou, where he arrived in October 1907, to help guide the elaborate hunting expedition of President Theodore Roosevelt. Newspapermen, although lodged miles from camp, had no direct contact with the president, but that did not prevent them from sending out bulletins on the progress of the royal hunt, with the New Orleans Daily Picayune following the action on the front page for two weeks, sometimes giving “Chief Huntsman” Ben Lilly publicity second only to that of Teddy Roosevelt himself.
Ben Lilly, of course, made no moves remotely connected with hunting on Sunday. There were too many men, dogs, and too much hoopla, for the hunt to be successful. On Wednesday, Lilly’s dogs scared up a bear, but the president was not in the right position for a shot, although a man in camp reported heavier firing than when the Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill. After a week had passed, still no bear had been provided for the President of the United States. Dobie says that “Something seemed wrong with the management, and, on Saturday, Ben Lilly took charge of the hunt”, changing camp, as the fifty dogs in camp were a great disturbance.
On Tuesday, Teddy jumped into Bear Lake, despite the 40-degree weather, swam a hundred yards, rode his horse, and killed no bear. On Thursday, dogs ran a big bear through Bear Lake. It got away. Finally, on Friday, Roosevelt shot a lean she-bear, which he stood over, dancing and yelling and shaking hands with his entourage. Ben Lilly was off locating fresh bear sign, and two Mississippi planters got credit for the successful end of the chase. Somebody on the hunt (not Teddy, apparently) killed a bear cub. The Teddy bear fad was already popular. Now it became the American craze.
On Sunday, camp broke at noon, and all hunters set out for home “excepting Ben V. Lilly, who refused to break the Sabbath Day.” Roosevelt comprehended the surface of Ben Lilly, but the surface only, summing him up as a “religious fanatic.” Dobie agrees that he was a fanatic, but a hunting, not a religious one. He did not belong to any church, pray in public, nor give vocal thanks for bread. In an illustrated article on the hunt, Roosevelt declared, “I never met any other man so indifferent to fatigue and hardship.”
After the 1907 Presidential Hunt, Lilly went to the Texas border, crossed the Rio Grande in July 1908, and did not stop until he was in the Santa Rosa Mountains of Mexico. Few men roamed through his range, but the percentage of “odd fishes” among them was high. When he and another of the oddities met, each felt it was only courteous to put on some sort of demonstration for the benefit of the other. One American in Mexico saw Ben Lilly lather himself with soap after a bath and then dress. He explained that sweat mixing with the lather would keep him clean.
He continued to roam, into New Mexico, earning a living killing predatory animals, for the U.S. Forest Service, then began working off-and-on for four years for the U.S. Biological Survey, although he did not approve of the Survey’s ban against killing deer out of season.
From about 1912 to 1927, Ben Lilly lived the richest and most satisfying period of his life, never coming down to civilization to “hole up” during the winter months. In 1921, fourteen years after the Roosevelt hunt, Ben Lilly once again came out of solitude to guide the most elaborately planned hunt the west had known in recent years. The hunt, bankrolled by Oklahoma oilman W. H. McFadden, was to start on the Mexican border and hunt through the Rocky Mountains to Alaska. Dobie says that “there were enough guns and ammunition to start a revolution in Nicaragua” and the outfit had no limit on time or cost. Lilly located a grizzly trail, and, when McFadden left for the east on business, continued to shadow the bear the rest of the summer and into the fall, following the meandering trail over northern New Mexico and into Colorado, occasionally sending in reports.
In late fall, he suspended his tracking for a while, coming down from the mountains to hear some word from McFadden. When he heard nothing, the sixty-five-year-old shouldered a one-hundred-pound pack, and went up again. With winter came hibernation time, and McFadden was on a luxury liner in the Atlantic, headed for Europe. While the bear slept, Ben Lilly went to Taos to sit for the full-length portrait that McFadden had commissioned Herbert Dunton to paint. Lilly lived with him for twelve days and considered the portrait “true to life”–an opinion not universally shared. In the spring, the finished portrait was exhibited by the National Academy of Design in New York, afterwhich it hung in the New Orleans home of W. H. McFadden.
He returned to the high Rockies in the summer of 1922, primarily to train McFadden’s dogs. For years, he continued to write McFadden letters, still hoping, in the fall of 1925, to have an opportunity to get that “Taos bear.” The final hunt was never made, and another rich man paid him $300 a month to tree lions for himself and his wife to shoot.
Lilly was a voluminous letter-writer and diary-keeper, but his diaries were scattered and lost. It seems to have been in 1924 that he began writing “my book.” By that time, he had small amounts of money “laid up” in eleven or thirteen banks–he was unsure of the number–in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Most of them closed when all the western country went broke in the early 1920s.
By the time of his meeting with Dobie in 1928, he’d ceased to be very active. He was sure that the “rancid air” of a city hotel was responsible for giving him pneumonia in El Paso, and went to a little hospital, where the doctor had great difficulty in keeping him confined. He wouldn’t stay in bed. The doctor reported that “every morning when I rode up to the hospital, I would see Mr. Lilly hunkered under a cottonwood tree, bent over a little fire of horse manure. It was fixed in his mind that horse manure smoke would cure any respiratory trouble.”
By the 1930s, he declined to the point that he was unable to properly care for himself, until, he finally was transferred to the the public County Farm in Silver City, New Mexico. On December 17, 1936, he said, “I’ll be better off,” then died within two hours. A Methodist minister who had never seen him, and never heard of him until the day preceding, conducted the funeral. His daughters came for the service, and must have thought he looked very strange in his coffin. Somebody had shaved off his beard.
The Ben Lilly Legend lives, seventy years after his death. How many panthers and bears he killed is not important, although the claim that he killed “thousands” is foolish. Dobie says that to judge him on that level is like judging the intellectual level of a newspaper by how much it weighs. He was a unique man, I suppose, an uncommon common sort of fellow, who could be both competent and supremely incompetent in human relations. He was one of the last of the mountain men, living independently and eccentrically in a time that had passed by most of the others of his breed.
As a note of some interest, Ben Lilly’s daughter, Verna Lilly Dodd, died in 1985, and is buried near her mother in the Oak Ridge Baptist Cemetery. Mrs. Dodd bequeathed a sizable sum to the Mer Rouge Methodist Church, and her endowment helps to support the church, and to fund college scholarships.
In 1947, in the Gila National Forest, friends erected a bronze plaque to the memory of Ben V. Lilly. Embedded in a giant boulder of granite, the monument shows his head, flanked on one side by the head of a bear and on the other side by the head of a mountain lion. A couple of years ago, another tribute was installed in front of the post office on Davenport Avenue in Mer Rouge, the town of his youth and early manhood. A small statue, “Ben and the Boys”, depicts Ben Lilly surrounded by his dogs. No other humans appear in the sculpture. That’s probably as it should be.
J. Frank Dobie’s classic book is still in print, and is available, in a paperback edition, from the Mer Rouge Lions Club. Call Tommy Rankin, at (318) 647-5735.