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Remembering Hermit Jim, Bellevue's social recluse who made his home near Fontenelle Forest

Remembering Hermit Jim, Bellevue's social recluse who made his home near Fontenelle Forest

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Editor's note: This piece originally was published on April 23, 2006, as part of David Harding's "Everyday History" column in The World-Herald.

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Jim Baldwin was interested in the outside world. He just didn't want to have much to do with it.

After his experience as an infantryman in World War I, Baldwin decided to keep his distance from civilization. Around 1920, he retreated to the wooded hills next to Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue. He lived in a small cabin with his father and brother for a few years, then his father died and his brother moved away.

For the next 35 years, Baldwin lived alone in the woods. He canned food from his garden and welcomed the occasional sack of groceries from Bellevue friends. He was a voracious reader, so Burlington railroad workers regularly dropped a stack of newspapers and magazines by the tracks below his camp.

At first, he socialized with members of the Omaha Walking Club and canoed the Missouri River. But as the years went on, he kept to the forest. Baldwin dug in, living in a series of caves and makeshift huts. Former Fontenelle Forest director Jim Malkowski recalls visiting one of the hermit's hideouts.

"It wasn't much more than a couple of beams holding up a few boards. You had to crawl through an entry into a small room with a dirt floor. He had gathered books and magazines of all kinds, and after he read them he packed them against the walls. It reminded me of a mouse's nest, " said Malkowski.

For a hermit, Baldwin was pretty friendly and outgoing. Boy Scout groups often sought him out to hear stories – some true and some fanciful – about animals he encountered in the woods.

"Hermit Jim! Hermit Jim!" they called as they wandered through the forest, until they found him and gathered around. He told them about the hoop snake, which had a curious way of escaping from predators. This snake swallowed its tail end and kept on swallowing until it disappeared.

Hermit Jim assured young visitors that he had seen a hoop snake do this. He had then hidden behind a tree and watched until the snake opened its mouth and stuck its head out. Seeing the coast was clear, it slithered out of its mouth and away into the underbrush.

In 1959, two teenagers sneaked away from their Boy Scout troop at nearby Camp Wakonda and decided to rob Hermit Jim. When they found him, they asked for advice on building an Indian-style fire. As he demonstrated, one of the youths hit him over the head with a club. The force of the blow knocked one of his eyes out of its socket.

The boys were horrified. They told their scoutmaster, while Baldwin crawled to the edge of the woods and found help. He spent a month in the hospital and lost the eye.

When Hermit Jim came out of the hospital, the community of Bellevue was ready. A chauffeured limousine delivered him to a welcome home party in the town center, presided over by Bellevue's mayor and accompanied by members of the Strategic Air Command band.

Most of those celebrating his return were kids, whom he entertained with stories until a helicopter arrived to whisk him back to his forest digs.

It was a surreal conclusion to a strange episode in his life. But the experience didn't sour him on teenagers or visitors to his forest hideaway.

"I'm not mad at nobody, " he said.

Hermit Jim went back to his barefoot lifestyle in the forest. A cold spell during the winter of 1961 sent some acquaintances to check on him. They found him huddled in his hut with frostbitten feet. The Boy Scouts carried him out of the woods.

Baldwin moved in with his sister in Omaha, where he lived until his death in 1966 at age 78.

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