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Aug. 1, 1897: Minnetonka's up-to-date hermit

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Minnesota Parks Updated: May 2, 2012 - 6:44 AM
 
Frank Halsted, a New Jersey native, settled on Lake Minnetonka in 1855. He served in the Navy during the Civil War, commanding a Union gunboat on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers in 1863-65. After the war, he returned to Lake Minnetonka and built a cabin that came to be known as the Hermitage. Some years later he went into debt to build a steamboat, but the stress of owing money apparently was too much for this “man of erratic habits,” as the Tribune described him upon his death. In July 1876, a few days after he was last seen at his cabin, a fishing party found his body floating in the lake, a stone-filled sack tied around his neck. The coroner ruled it a suicide. Abiding by his will, the citizens of Excelsior buried him on his property, not far from the cabin.
 
Which brings us to his brother, George Halsted, who is profiled in the Minneapolis Tribune story below. The elder Halsted traveled from New Jersey to Minnesota to take care of his brother’s affairs. George Halsted apparently found Minnetonka much to his liking. He moved into his brother’s cabin and assumed his brother’s title, the Hermit. But George wasn’t a recluse. He welcomed paying guests who came by steamboat to tour the curio-filled cabin and chat with its well-read and well-spoken occupant. By the 1890s, thousands were visiting the Hermitage every summer.
 
You will notice an extra "a" -- Halstead -- in one of the subheads atop this 1897 profile. It’s a common misspelling, or perhaps even the correct spelling. In story after story published after the brothers arrived in Minnesota, the Tribune alternated between the two spellings. Google searches produce similar results today. But Halsted seems to be the dominant spelling, despite the extra vowel in the Lake Minnetonka bay named for the two men.
 
George Halsted died four years after this story was published. A fire consumed the Hermitage, with him inside, in 1901.
 
George Halsted at home at the Hermitage in about 1890. The cigarette in his mouth and plenty of flammable clutter suggest possible causes of the fire that took his life. (Image courtesy mnhs.org)

 

AN UP TO DATE HERMIT


Upper Lake Minnetonka Has a Star Attraction in the Hermitage.
 
Maj. George B. Halstead Has Led a Solitary Life There for 21 Years.
 
Some of His Peculiarities as Well as Good Qualities.
 
Standing conspicuously forth among the multitude of attractions strewn by nature with lavish hand about the shores of Lake Minnetonka, imparting an endearing charm, are two real curiosities, the Hermitage and Crane Island. Apart from the magic spell of their names, each is vested with talismanic powers, and acquaintance rebukes the unromantic, under the spell of a subtle enchantment. Few people go to Minnetonka without visiting the upper lake where these interesting objects are situated.
 
Of these two, by far the largest share of attention falls to the Hermitage, with its bright, hospitable occupant known as the hermit. The door is never locked, and every visitor is welcome. Unlike the nominal characters of fiction, the solitary inmate of the curious old structure evinces a fondness for company, and is personally known by those who have seen him, as a conversational entertainer of exceptional ability.
 
These and other attractions have stifled the aversion commonly met with in the popular mind for those of his kin, and Maj. George Blight Halsted has secured respect from the thousands who have visited his home. He does not object to being called the hermit, in fact rather likes the distinction, and none need fear of offending him by speaking of his cozy little dwelling on the extreme upper shore of Lake Minnetonka as the Hermitage, even though the owner and occupant is within hearing. By his companionable qualities he has improved the “order of hermit,” so to speak, bringing it strictly up to date, but even with these traits considered he may rightly be considered an unusual man with eccentricities sufficiently pronounced to give him an added interest.
 
Secret influences have wrought a change in the life of Major Halsted. It was the death of his brother at Minnetonka, for who he entertained such strong affection, that attracted him to this section of the West, but there may have been a love affair back of that. He is thought to be about 80 years of age. The supposition is reasonable in view of the fact that he graduated from Princeton in 1839. He always says he is 48 years old. Lineally, he deserves attention as he comes from a family of lawyers, politicians and fighters. His father was chief chancellor of the state of New Jersey. The major earned his title in the late rebellion; he is a linguist of enviable attainment, and a frequent contributor to magazines of the day.
 
It was in 1876 that Maj. Halsted came to Minnetonka. His mission was to bury the remains of his brother, Frank Halsted, whose sudden demise followed his completion of the steamer “Mary.” Frank was laid to rest in a plot of earth near the Hermitage. The spot is marked by the American colors, and each evening when at home the major sits in sorrow beside the place.
 
The Hermitage is a small, unpretentious frame building with picturesque surroundings, situated near the water’s surroundings, situated near the water’s edge, about a mile above Zumbra Heights. Visitors have been largely responsible for making the place what it is, for inside and outside it is literally a gathering of curiosities. No one thinks of making a call without leaving a card, and the fashionable thing at the Hermitage is to imprint one’s name with a knife in the walls of the dwelling. Within are to be seen relics and antiquities of all descriptions.
 
If Maj. Halsted intends keeping up his life of a hermit he will soon have to secure additional accommodations. The present one is almost used up, between the cutting of names on the walls and the fullness of the rooms with curios. In the latter there is little space to turn around. Lately visitors have taken to writing their names on pieces of paper which are pinned to the window curtains, and anything else that will yield to a pin. Once there they are almost sure to remain, for the hermit never seems to disturb anything, although he cares for the house himself. Visitors are so impressed with the confidences he reposes in them that they are governed by an appreciative regard and leave things as they find them.

“I never lock my doors day or night, whether I am at home or away,” said Major Halsted. “I think it is safer to leave them open and I am not afraid of people stealing things.” It is possible that if his home was nearer Minneapolis it would not require a score of years for him to have a less firm confidence in human nature. As it is though, tramps stole a rifle from his house last year.
 
With a true gentlemanly instinct, the hermit is always polite and obliging to the ladies. Indeed, his gallantry became well-known when as captain of the “Mary,” after his arrival here, he drew upon his head praise from those members of the fair sex who engaged transportation on his boat. By some means a feeling other than friendly sprang up against him in the circles of competing lines, and one time he was run down in the Narrows by a lake captain in charge of the Belle of Minnetonka, when he was in a small boat. He barely escaped drowning. For that act he never forgave the company, and to this day refuses to allow their boats to land at his dock, the loss to the company being in the thousands of dollars. Once, when a boat persisted in approaching contrary to the orders of the major the latter stood at the dock with a shot gun, threatening to shoot the first man who stepped ashore, and stating the next would go through the captain. There was little doubt he meant what he said.
 
The gentleness of his nature is shown in the affection with which he welcomes birds, which are so tame about his place that they stand on his knee. He never kills snakes and considers them perfectly harmless. He can tell the cry of a frog when caught by a snake, and at once saves the former from its enemy. He is a capital story teller, and discourses with interest on current topics, or entertaining reminiscences. He earns some money by hauling wood in the winter, and draws a pension. When eating at a restaurant he displays partiality to puddings, usually ordering the complete menu list. It is his wish that his home and property be given to the widows and orphans of old soldiers. 
 
The Hermitage drew big crowds during the summer. Here, Minneapolis members of the Ohio Association lounged on the grass outside the cabin in 1898, listening to a speech. (Courtesy of Hennepin County Library's Minneapolis Photo Collection)

 

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