His name is Joe Root. To some he ranked as the King of Presque Isle; others just called him that loony old hermit out on the park. Hermit, ventriloquist, or sometimes naturalist – – nearly 100 years after his death, Joe’s legend still looms large. Like most legends, the background and knowledge on Joe varies depending on your resource. For example, diverse sources show he could have been born either in 1880 or 1858; no one is sure. The 1858 date seems more logical since almost all documentation and stories about Joe begin about 1880.
Little is known about his childhood. Most people at the time believed that he lived among circus people originally from Dayton, Ohio. One story has his mother, a circus person named “Froney Goodbye”, who wintered with the circus in Girard. Some people believe this is true because of Joe’s skills as a ventriloquist and his stories about animals and the circus. When he was with children, he would carry on conversations with a hollow tree or maybe just talk into his hat, which, to the delight of the children, would answer him back.
Still, another story has him the son of Susan Root, who lived much of her life in the county poorhouse. Again, this story has its origins in the circus, as the unknown father was rumored to have been involved in a traveling show which was part of the circus. For the first part of his life, Susan and Joe were said to live with Susan’s mother in a small outbuilding along the towpath of the Erie Extension Canal. However, like most tales about Joe’s early years, no one can be sure if this is true or not. One thing that is known is that at some point Joe did live for a while near the canal.
Still another story about Joe’s early life show him moving, as a young child of nine, out to Fairview to work with Gilson Johnson where he learned to be a fisherman. When he reached his teens, he stayed with the widow Mary Johnson in her home near one of the canal locks near 12th and Poplar. He helped Mary around the house in return for room and board. However, as he became a young man, he got wanderlust and began to spend more and more time on Presque Isle.
Over time, he learned to become a full-blown fisherman’s apprentice and later, for a short time, a self-employed fisherman. Most of his fishing now took place on and around Presque Isle. He mainly fished in the Presque Isle Bay and the interior waters of the peninsula. Many tales have said that he would catch fish with his bare hands to show off for visitors to Presque Isle. Lake fishing at the time was considered very dangerous without larger boats.
When the widow Johnson died in 1897, Joe became homeless and moved out onto the park. He would live there from mid-March until the cold weather drove him off the peninsula just to survive. He would make a move to town and become a regular winter resident of the county poorhouse where he could get a warm bed and hot meal. When spring arrived, he would leave his room at the poorhouse and move back to Presque Isle.
Joe Root’s allure and legend are extensive and varied; nevertheless, one aspect is constant in all the stories. It seems he would have at least four shacks built from driftwood, packing crates, and anything else he could get his hands on, hidden away in the woods of the Park. He would move from one shack to another so no one would know where to find him. Most people believe he did this to keep out of the weather, yet the local lawman, Constable Siebel, was sure it was to keep one step ahead of the long reach of the law. The constable had an intense distrust of Joe and watched him carefully whenever he came into town. Joe would usually move closer to the lake or bay in warm weather and move inland as storms and cold approached.
Joe always had a pattern of coming up with irrational moneymaking propositions. Of course, most of his ideas involved investment of someone else’s money. For example, at a downtown drinking establishment in early 1900, he talked to the many patrons about one of his newest ideas. He felt confident that if someone, not him, would string a thick cable from Crystal Point on Presque Isle to the Public Dock, he could train the park’s raccoons to walk the cable while pushing rabbits across it in a baby carriage. He made it clear that only the carriage would be attached to the cable and his animals would be well trained. His idea was to charge a fee to watch this feat from both shore and aboard boats in the bay. He was sure a fortune could be made. Needless to say, he found no investors.
A diminutive and bearded man who at times walked with a limp, his appearance sometimes appeared odd. Many days he wore four or five pairs of pants at the same time. They were usually bib overalls. He did this even on the hottest summer days. Although asked many times, few people ever received an answer explaining why he did this. In fact, he did this to have the various pairs of pants cover the many holes in them. He would arrange the holes so that most were covered by one or more pant legs.
Most of the time, Joe wore an old felt hat and some sort of vest. With Joe, a shirt was always optional. He would wear one on the hottest summer days and leave it off on cold autumn days. Some stories included Joe wearing a tall black top hat. This hat would at times blow off his head in the Presque Isle wind, and he would chase it down the beach to the delight of the children playing nearby. When people spread their blankets on the beach for a summer picnic, many found Joe an uninvited visitor to the party. Of course, the children loved this.
Over his entire life on the peninsula, Joe had contact and discussions with the little people he said lived in the woods of the park. He called them the “Jeebies.” According to him, they would only talk to him and helped him predict the weather and would tell him where the fish were biting. To the delight of the children, he would rap on a log, and the “Jeebies” would answer him, but only if there were no adults present. Joe would pick a bunch of the park’s wildflowers and trade them for a beer or sandwich whenever he could.
Joe’s over-all rumpled look disturbed many parents whose children were park visitors. First of all, he had buck teeth and spoke in a high and squeaky voice. To top this off, he had long scraggly unkempt hair, a bushy mustache with an extensive curly beard. Joe was an oddball, but he did know a great deal about Presque Isle and loved the park. I am constantly looking for more information about Joe, so if you have any, or know anyone who might have pictures or information about Joe, please let me know.
See you on the park!!
This post was written by admin