Biloxi has never been short on colorful characters. The most intriguing of them all may have been John R. Guilhot (or Jean Guillot), known as "The Hermit of Deer Island." While technically not a resident of Point Cadet, Guilhot was well-known to Point residents. For years, local children were fascinated by -- and terrified of -- the grizzled eccentric.
He is such a legend that it is hard to separate myth from reality. It seems he cultivated much of his legend himself.
This much is known. Guilhot, a native of France, moved just off shore to Deer Island in the 1920s. A former barber, he was, according to my uncle and Internet research, at one time a businessman who grew oysters and owned and operated a small oyster plant on the island. After his wife died, and his house was destroyed by the hurricane of '47 he preferred to live alone with his dogs in a small shelter on the island. And thus the legend of "the hermit" was born. *
It is also fact that local tour boat operator Capt. Louis Gorenflo delivered Guilhot's groceries to him on his Sail Fish tour boat and left his mail and newspaper tied to a pine tree "mailbox" out in the water. This mutually beneficial arrangement was a matter of convenience for Guilhot and a promotional opportunity for Gorenflo's tour boat business.
Gorenflo featured "the hermit" as an attraction on his boat tours and even featured Guilhot's hairy, wild-eyed likeness in his advertising. As a bonus, when the ship went by Deer Island, sometimes Guilhot poled his skiff out and serenaded the tourists onboard with French folk songs. Often they threw money down to him. Eventually, Guilhot didn't want to be bothered anymore and rigged up a cup and pulley system to the tree for his mail and newspaper and just waved to the boat from the safe distance of the island.
While the tour spiel -- and the media -- made much of his "Robinson Crusoe" existence, Guilhot, though decidedly eccentric, was not a true hermit. Those who knew him, said that in company he could be gregarious and witty.
My mother recalled that he often came to town. A gaggle of children always followed behind-- giggling and whispering from a safe distance. They screamed and scattered when he so much as looked their way.
That said, Guilhot was fiercely protective of his solitary lifestyle. When the Hurricane of '47 threatened, he refused all attempts to bring him to shelter. He rode out the storm -- and survived it --- high up in a tree on the island.
His crusty, tattered appearance notwithstanding, the hermit was reputed to be a ladies' man with some alleged 4, 6 or 8 wives in his past, depending on which account you choose to believe. My uncle never recalled him having a girlfriend, but my mom said Guilhot was sweet on their older sister Marie who was young enough to be his granddaughter. Who knows if that is true? In her youth, Aunt Marie possessed the curvy figure, beestung lips and big brown eyes that turned lots of heads.
As he grew older, Guilhot often seemed impatient with the attention he received, but there is no denying that he also courted it. He is mentioned in a 1954 radio segment of the show "Down South Magazine of the Air." The show's recently discovered 23 segments were the subject of a two-hour documentary on WKFK Digital TV. You can download the individual segments here. http://www.wkfk.com/. Guilhot was also profiled in this 1955 article in the Milwaukee Journal.
Guilhot passed away in 1959, aged 81. Nearly 10 years later Hurricane Camille destroyed the remaining homes on the island, and the island has not been inhabited since. Over the years, casinos and condo developers have eyed Deer Island for development. However, the State of Mississippi acquired the land in 2002 and now maintains it as a nature preserve.
The hermit would probably like that.
* Part of what makes The Hermit's story so interesting, is you often run into conflicting versions of his history. The conventional story is that the hermit became The Hermit when he lost his house in the hurricane and chose to live in a shack on the island. Other people who knew him say that he had no choice but to stay on the island after his house burned down and his wife left him, taking the insurance money with her.
Finding a recipe for this post was a challenge. According to an interview the garrulous Capt. Gorenflo gave in 1954, the hermit was a vegetarian with a penchant for rye whiskey though my uncle recalls Guilhot raised hogs on the island which tends to make me question the vegetarian part.
In his honor, however, please enjoy this old-fashioned recipe for hermit cookies. These are spicy. If you like gingerbread, you'll probably like these.
1 stick butter
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup milk
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup chopped raisins
Preheat oven to 400, Beat butter until fluffy. Beat in vanilla and salt Beat in sugar gradually.Add egg and beat until mixture is light and creamy.
Sift together flour, soda, cream of tartar and spices. Add alternately with milk into butter mixture. Add raisins and mix well. Drop by spoonfuls onto greased baking sheets. Bake for 10-12 minutes .
Makes 4-5 dozen cookies