Make the McKenzie Connection!

For 'Hermit of the Craggies,' prison was like a luxury spa resort

Robert Franz came to the Illinois River Valley in 1921 for his health. Suffering from a degenerative lung disease — probably tuberculosis — he had been advised that moving into the Oregon wilderness, with its clean air and healthy climate, was his best shot at staying alive.

That didn’t turn out to be true. To be fair, that wasn’t the climate’s fault — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Robert and his wife, Annanette Bruun Fantz, bought a big 72-acre piece of land on a natural terrace overlooking the river, way out in the middle of nowhere, deep in what today is the Rogue River Wilderness Area. The Fantzes planned to run cattle on the land, mostly composed of a huge sun-soaked meadow and a large but primitive cabin and barn.

Fantz got the place for a great price; he purchased it at a sheriff’s sale in Grants Pass after the original owner, who had homesteaded it in 1909 and perfected title in 1916, stopped paying taxes on it. He paid just $950 — the equivalent of about $16,500 in modern money.

Though beautiful and productive, the Fantz family’s new home was remote. The nearest settlement was Agness, an unincorporated jumping-off place that sprang up at the end of the Rogue River mailboat line; its population was just a few dozen. Most shopping and trade had to be done at Gold Beach, several dozen miles away at the mouth of the Rogue. And the nearest neighbor — an old trapper who lived right across the river — was not entirely sane.

To be fair, old Hugo Mayer probably was not yet crazy when the Fantzes first arrived. And he and Robert got along very well at first.

Hugo Mayer was born in Suhl, Germany, in 1884. He came to the U.S. when he was 20 years old, and, with a partner, promptly plunged into the woods to do some prospecting for gold.

Deep in the wildest and most remote part of the Coast Range, the mountains known as the Craggies alongside the Rogue River, he and his pal hunted for “color.”

They didn’t find any, or if they did there wasn’t enough to keep them going. But in 1908 Hugo did find something else: A beautiful 72-acre sun-soaked meadow tucked into a natural terrace above the Illinois River. Hugo decided to give up hunting for gold and settle down on a land claim there. So he and his partner parted ways, and Hugo came out of the wilderness into Crescent City to work for a summer, putting together the money for the filing fee.

Unfortunately, when he returned to his meadow, he found a cabin on it. Someone else had discovered it and filed a claim while he was gone.

Disappointed but still liking the country, Hugo staked his claim on the other side of the river from the meadow, where a prospector had already built and abandoned a little riverside shack.

Hugo moved in and cleared a little garden next to the shack, and there he lived for the next 25 years.

He was a clever man, and a resourceful one. He actually invented a technique for crossing the river that was kind of like a cross between a zipline and a pogo stick. Here’s how it worked:

He secured a cable across the river, very tight and secured at each end to something very solid. Then he took a beefy plank and cut a J-shaped channel in one end, so that it would securely hook over the cable; and he secured a cross-piece through the other end. With the top hooked over the cable, Hugo would stand on the crosspiece and, holding the plank near its top, would sort of hop forward, throwing his weight ahead so that the plank would bounce along the cable. Basically, he’d hop across the river.

Hugo had three of these cable crossings rigged to enable him to get around his claim and the surrounding wilderness where he hunted and trapped.

By the time the Fantzes arrived, Hugo was well settled into his solitary life in the wilderness, and he didn’t grudge Bob Fantz the beautiful meadow he’d once coveted. He now earned his living almost entirely by running a trapline — taking bear, panther, martin, mink, ringtail cat, raccoon, fox, and even skunk.

He’d go into town about once a year, usually trekking down the river to Gold Beach to shop and trade furs, and hiking back with a backpack full of flour and coffee. For everything else, he was utterly self-reliant. Of course, he ate most of the animals he shot or trapped (with the likely exception of the skunks!) so his diet was relatively rich in proteins. In addition, he dug camas root, ground and leached the tannins out of acorns to stretch his store-bought flour, and grew a few vegetables in his cabinside garden. He also had a homemade pipe, in which he smoked laurel-tree (or maybe Pacific Madrone) bark.

It wasn’t the lap of luxury, but it was a life, and Hugo must have enjoyed it because he could have left any time he wanted to, and taken a job in Gold Beach or Crescent City like a regular guy.

But then, in 1924, just a few years after the Fantzes moved in next door, came the incident that would transform Eccentric Trapper Hugo into the man all the neighbors would soon refer to as “Crazy Hugo.”

The Forest Service was working on a suspension bridge across the river at Agness, where the Illinois River runs into the Rogue. Hugo hired onto the work crew to make a little extra money.

And he was working there one day when one of his co-workers, directly over his head in the rigging above, fumbled and dropped a wrench. In those pre-OSHA days, no one wore hard hats; so when the wrench bounced off Hugo’s head, it did enough damage to require that his skull be reinforced with a steel plate.

And after that, Hugo was never quite the same man.

Over the years, suspicion started to darken Hugo’s mind. His paranoid suspicions centered around Bob Fantz, whom he became increasingly convinced was trying to get rid of him so he could run his cattle on both sides of the river.

By 1933 it had gotten bad enough that Hugo was actually afraid to leave his shack for more than a day or two at a time — he’d convinced himself that Bob Fantz would, as soon as he figured out Hugo was gone, sneak across the river and burn him out.

Something, he told himself, had to be done.

So one November day that year, Hugo lurked along the trail with his ratty old .22 Special rifle. (.22 Special, a.k.a. .22 WRF, fires the same size bullet as a regular .22 LR but the cartridge is longer and contains more gunpowder.)

When Robert came into view, Hugo stood up and ordered him to stop. Later, Mayer told the cops he had planned to march Robert across the river, execute him, and bury his body there.

But Robert, who by now knew very well that he was dealing with a dangerous lunatic, put the spurs to his horse and galloped for his life.

He wasn’t fast enough, though. Hugo chased him down the trail with several shots, the last of which hit him square in the back; shot through his lung, Robert fell out of the saddle and died.

Then Hugo hurried back to his cabin. The winter trapping season was just getting started, and he had things to do.

Still utterly convinced that his killing of Robert had been just, necessary, and morally defensible, Hugo hadn’t bothered to cover up the crime scene in any way. He left his empty brass cartridge cases where they lay, and he’d also forgotten his homemade pipe at the scene.

Less than an hour later, Robert’s horse came home without him, and Annanette, fearing the worst, went out looking for him. She soon found him, lying in the trail with blood trickling from his mouth. Because of his lung disease, she immediately assumed he’d died of a naturally occurring lung hemorrhage.

So, with appropriate grief and sadness but without any particular hurry, she started making the final arrangements for him. The body was taken up and brought down the river to Gold Beach and placed in the charge of a funeral director.

And it was that funeral director who, while preparing the body for the funeral ceremony, made the startling discovery of a bullet hole near the center of Robert Fantz’s back.

Naturally, after learning about this development, Curry County Sheriff’s deputies wasted very little time getting out to Crazy Hugo’s cabin to ask him a pointed question or two about his relationship with his neighbor. Unfortunately, when they arrived, they found his cabin empty. Crazy Hugo, finally rid of his dreaded enemy, was making up for lost time on his trapline. And he didn’t come back home again for weeks and weeks.

Throughout that time, everyone in the Agness area was on edge. Many of them took to packing pistols with them everywhere they went, just in case Crazy Hugo should suddenly get into a homicidal mood and start a rampage.

It was a bit of an anticlimax when Mayer did reappear at his cabin, animal pelts in hand, to find police waiting there to talk to him. Calmly he told them the whole story, still with absolute confidence that he had done the right thing and that anyone would have done the same.

When they asked him to accompany them back to the sheriff’s office, he went with them cheerfully, fully expecting that after his explanation was given, he’d be sent on his way with a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.

The ensuing criminal trial, of course, was quite a sensation. The newspapers called him “The Hermit of the Craggies” and “The Old Man of the Mountains,” and with his wild and tangled beard he definitely looked the part.

But even after he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in the penitentiary, Hugo remained convinced that the governor, as soon as he heard the story, would pardon him.

The guv, of course, did nothing of the kind. But if he had, would Crazy Hugo have been glad about it? Maybe not. If he was pardoned, he’d have to go back to his life in the woods. He was now 50 years old, and the hermit-trapper’s life was more or less the only life he knew.

But, did he really want to go back to that life? To go back to leaching ground acorns in the river to make a few gritty, unleavened biscuits to dip in his raccoon stew? To sleeping on the hard ground in the corner of his unheated, windowless dirt-floored shack, cushioned only by a few dried-out fern fronds gathered the previous summer? To answer a late-night Call of Nature shivering in the pouring rain squatting over a hastily dug hole a dozen feet from his cabin in the pitch-blackness of a moonless forest night? To live that life again, all the while thinking longingly about the delicious, plentiful food and soft, luxurious bunks he’d enjoyed during his time in the Josephine County Jail?

That’s right: Crazy Hugo loved the jail. It was like a spa resort compared with the crude accommodations he’d left behind in his little riverside shack.

Before being sent off to the penitentiary in Salem in early 1934, Crazy Hugo thanked the community for giving him the best Christmas of his life. So much delicious food, as much as he cared to eat! Such a soft and comfortable bed, such refined bathing and toilet facilities! It would be hard, he allowed, to go back to eating acorns and squirrels and using thimbleberry leaves for toilet paper.

But, of course, he never had to. Crazy Hugo spent the rest of his life in Salem, in the state penitentiary. He died 26 years into his sentence, in 1961, at the age of 77. He seems to have been happy in the penitentiary and never caused any trouble; after a few years, he was given charge of the prison’s pigs.

You can still see the remains of Crazy Hugo’s shack, by the way, across the river from the Fantz Ranch. Both are now part of the Rogue River Wilderness Area, and you can reach them on the Illinois River Trail.

(Sources: “Biography: Hugo Mayer,” an un-by-lined article published on the Curry Historical Society’s Website at curryhistory.com; Hiking the Bigfoot County, a book by John Hart published in 1975 by the Sierra Club; archives of the Grants Pass Daily Courier; “Lower Illinois River Watershed Analysis,” a report published in 2000 by the USDA; and correspondence with Vivian Henderson)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His most recent book, Bad Ideas and Horrible People of Old Oregon, published by Ouragan House early this year. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

 

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