- Historic Sites
WHEN JOSEPH KNOWLES STRIPPED TO THE BUFF AND SLIPPED INTO THE MAINE WOODS IN 1913, HE HOPED TO LEAD THE NATION BACK TO NATURE.
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
Post circulation zoomed as the world learned how Knowles had run down a deer and dispatched it with his bare hands, how he killed a black bear with a club in a bear pit of his own design and manufacture, and how he had found a new spiritual life among his furred and feathered neighbors.
Sunday after Sunday Knowles, who was growing a beard and acquiring a heavy, dark tan, shared his reverential thoughts with his readers as he got to know Mother Nature better. “Today is my birthday,” one birch-bark bulletin reported. “It is a holiday for me. I hear the voices of my woodland neighbors and feel the presence of my mother.” With proper piety, he called his wild haunts “the church of the forest.”
While the new Adam progressed from bark sandals to deer-hide moccasins, bear steaks, and a fur cloak, the other Boston papers were strangely silent on the subject of modern man’s triumphant conquest of the wilderness. But perhaps the lack of interest was not strange. Joe was, after all, the Post’s own private Thoreau. Yet everybody in the Boston area seemed to be following the story which showed, the Post pointed out, “the wonderful value of publicity in the Boston Post.”
Then trouble came to Arcadia...triple trouble. First, the Maine Fish and Game Commission began to take a professional interest in primitivism practiced on its feral wards without a hunting license. The game wardens were out in force, and Joe had to move. Furthermore, a reporter from William Randolph Hearst’s Boston American started digging into what Joe said and what he did based upon the premise that the fur-clad forest man was a fake. And finally a nosy trapper named Allie Deming appeared at the door of McKeogh’s cabin to ask abruptly, “Where’s Joe?” And to make his point absolutely clear, he added significantly, “I been watching around here for three days.” His vigil, he made clear, had yielded regular glimpses of Joe slipping into McKeogh’s cabin at mealtimes. Deming was quickly put on the payroll at $2.50 a day, and when he suggested that his services were worth twice that amount, he got his raise without difficulty. Meanwhile the regular guide was discharged. But he was able to put the matter of his former confidential relationship in such a light that his pay was continued although his duties ceased. This enabled him to retire to his home in Farmington, Maine. Normally loquacious, he maintained a no-comment posture when the topic of Knowles and his Superman exploits was introduced.
The original plan was for Knowles to emerge from the wilderness at the same point where he had entered, but, with Maine’s game wardens scouring the woods for him, it was decided that it would be more prudent for him to head for Canada, specifically the town of Megantic, Quebec. An Indian guide was hired to take him there. About ten miles from Megantic the guide dropped off, assuming that a woodsman who knew that the moss always grows most luxuriantly on the north side of a tree could cover the last few miles by himself. But no; Knowles struck the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks about fourteen miles south of Megantic, looking half-man, half-bear, with his matted hair, skin dark as an Indian’s, fur-lined chaps, and bearskin cloak. His first contact was with a little French girl at a small settlement along the tracks, and he must have given her a fright. But a friendly conductor whose train stopped at the settlement recognized him, welcomed him aboard, and paid his fare. Joe rode into Megantic on plush cushions.
Knowles was a man of shifting and uncertain moods. Sometimes he was up, sometimes down, sometimes so lethargic, so indifferent to the important things in life, such as money and the potential rewards of his cave-man stunt, that McKeogh was frequently almost out of his mind as he tried to buck Joe up and keep control of him. But at Megantic Joe’s spirits soared as he became reacquainted with beds, fried salt pork, potatoes, and mugs of hot tea. There, at the hotel, he enjoyed his first cigarette since plunging into the wilds, and there he learned that he would be meeting loving crowds on his trip home.
At Augusta, Maine’s capital, the Post paid Joe’s debt to the state for building fires in the forest and killing game animals out of season and without revenue for the Game Commission. Lewiston and Portland were next, with banquets and receptions. Schools had been dismissed so that the children might have a unique educational experience. Next, Saco and Biddeford. On October 9 eight to ten thousand people gathered at railroad stations along the route, giving voice to their enthusiasm as they gaped at the first “modern primitive man” they had ever seen or were likely ever to see again.