We'll be straying a bit from the Genesee River today, but not too far as we delve into the life of James L. Blodget, the Hermit of Hermitage. Much has been written about Mr. Blodget, who became a legend during his lifetime. I think it's always interesting to explore a person's beginnings, which helps give some context to his or her adult life. Our formative years are indeed imprinted on us our entire lives—like it or not.
Lewis Blodget, James' father, was one of the early pioneers who settled in Hermitage, New York. Born in 1790 in Massachusetts, Lewis migrated to Vermont and then on to Western New York with many others who sought cheap, fertile land. He was single when he arrived in Hermitage, but not for long. He met Betsy Cravath, the only child of James Cravath. The Cravath family arrived in Hermitage in 1809. Betsy married Lewis in 1816, and the couple settled in to build the village into a thriving community. Both Lewis and his father-in-law were ambitious men who built many of the first businesses in Hermitage. They acquired land for farming, established a gristmill, a tannery, and other enterprises. The Blodget's had three children born to them: Horace in 1817, James in 1822, and a daughter, Lozana, in 1831.
Lewis was a mechanical expert of the era's technology. He made the gearing for the gristmill and cut the grinding stones for the mill. He was known as a forceful man, both physically and mentally, but he was also generous and sympathetic, according to Beer's 1880 History of Wyoming County. Lewis built the Hermitage Hotel without knowing who would run it, taking a risk on the growing town. Although not a churchgoer, he gave money to the Baptist Church for its bell in 1837. His business acumen brought success in a short time, and when his father-in-law died unexpectedly in 1826, Lewis gained that estate through his wife's inheritance. He was a successful farmer and operated a profitable lumber business.
James' Early Life
Education was an essential component of James' upbringing. Lewis recognized both of his sons' quick minds sending Horace to Wyoming Academy and Lima Seminary. It's uncertain where James received his early education; however, he was an exceptional student, accepted at Yale University when he was 26. James graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1849 at the top of his class. He agreed to take a teaching post at Yale that was immediately offered to him when he graduated. He had an extraordinary mind for mathematics and seemed poised for a career in civil engineering. James taught for only a year, returning to Hermitage in 1851. Working side-by-side with his father, he not only increased his father's wealth but began building his own.
The turning point in James Blodget's life is the stuff of speculation, although something indeed affected him sometime during the 1850s. It was so traumatic that it changed the course of his life. As long tradition tells us, his heart was captured by Elizabeth Page, a neighbor who was 17 years his junior. A courtship blossomed, and it was reported the couple became engaged. Blodget began construction on a home for his intended bride that would be the pride of Hermitage. The modest mansion was situated to the west of the village on a low hill with beautiful views. Windows and doors had been installed; the lath was nailed to the walls. It was at this point in construction that Elizabeth and a friend went to inspect the house. There are a couple of different versions (perhaps more) about what happened that evening. One story is that Elizabeth went alone and talked to a carpenter still working, and the other is that a friend accompanied her. The most popular is that Elizabeth's friend, properly impressed with the fine house, remarked how lucky she was to have such a home built for her and gain a rich husband to boot. The purported fatal statement from Elizabeth was, "Oh, I'll make his money fly after we're married."
Unbeknownst to the women, James Blodget was on the property and overheard the conversation. He angrily confronted his fiancée and broke off the engagement, or so the storytellers say. The day after the ugly scene, all work ceased on the house. Unused materials remained inside, as well as lumber on a wagon in the yard. The house was locked and abandoned, eventually collapsing into the cellar many years later.
Neither party ever spoke about what exactly occurred, which fed the gossip mill. While Miss Page was able to get on with her life, Blodget was not. Elizabeth married Homer Hart in 1868 and moved to Wisconsin, where the couple had five children. She passed away in 1921. Elizabeth visited Hermitage over the years and remained cordial with the Blodget family. Her family flatly denied the confrontation but gave no other details. One of her daughters wrote a strong letter to The Castilian in 1934 declaring her mother wasn't even engaged to Blodget. Many believed the entire tale was constructed by a Rochester journalist to sell papers. Blodget, for whatever reason, deserted his quest for romance and focused his full attention on accumulating wealth from that day forward.
James continued to work with his father and brother in the various Blodget businesses, acquired more property, gave mortgages, and generally increased his assets in short order. He was appointed the Hermitage postmaster in 1861, a position he held for many years until he was removed due to complaints. A keen croquet player, Mr. Blodget enjoyed the pastime to the detriment of his postal duties. Residents finally got fed up, and James lost the position.
His father died in 1870 after an accident with a team of oxen hauling a wagon. Blodget lived with his mother until she died in 1880. Up to that time, he dressed and dined well. He was known for doing all his own work—shingling rooves, chopping wood, doing laundry, cooking, making any repairs to his properties. He enjoyed physical labor and enjoyed showing it off.
Miserly tendencies were evident in his objection to the railroad, which had plans to run through Hermitage. Blodget blocked the move, fearing that the railroad would bring in tramps who would rob him. His objections were effective since he owned the majority of land that the railroad needed as a right-of-way. State Line Railroad (later B & O) changed the route to Hardys and Bliss, eliminating Hermitage's opportunity to become a railroad town. Public schools were also unpopular with Blodget. He strenuously objected to the expansion of Hermitage School and believed parents should pay for their children's educations. As the village's largest taxpayer, he wasn't about to pay a penny more. In desperation to improve the school, residents finally met in secret to formulate plans and built a larger schoolhouse. To further demonstrate his stinginess, he made deals with the county to work off his road tax and avoided using the roads as much as possible to pinch pennies.
Despite his fear-filled objections to progress, Blodget was known for fair dealings, leniency with late repayment of mortgages, and precise bookkeeping. Several accounts tell of him allowing mortgages to go unpaid due to farmers' crop failures or other extenuating circumstances. However, public notices abound in the newspapers of him foreclosing mortgages.
Blodget operated a private bank with a safe in his house, tempting gangs of robbers which roamed the Western New York countryside in the late 19th century. The first robbery was in 1875 when his mother was still alive. Robbers broke into the house in the night, tying up James and terrifying his elderly mother. They were able to abscond with a reported $12,000 in cash. One of the outlaws was caught a year later in Mt. Morris when someone squealed to authorities. The robber received a 20-year sentence at Auburn State Prison.
In 1899, Blodget discovered robbers in his bank office one night, where he now kept the time-locked safe. Blodget chased them off, bludgeoning one with a club, and a posse pursued them to the bridge before James called off the chase. The thieves got away with their lives intact but no cash. On July 4, 1904, three men broke into Blodget's residence in the night. Bandits beat the 82-year-old man and took his watch along with about $175. Four months later, more sophisticated criminals blew open the hermit's safe after bludgeoning the elderly man into unconsciousness. It was reported that perhaps up to $22,000 in cash and bonds was stolen that night.
Not only did James experience frightening robberies, but his brother Horace did as well. Horace had married and moved to Pike after their father's death in 1870. Quite successful, he was well respected for his ethics and work for the community as town justice and treasurer in the 1870s. He also ran a drug store, grocery store and became a private banker. Like his brother, Horace became a target. His safe was blown to smithereens early one morning in 1878, waking the entire village of Pike. The thieves anticipated reward of greenbacks vaporized in the blast due to the overzealous application of dynamite. However, the three bank robbers managed to get away from a vigilante committee at Griffiths Corners with about $1,500 in cash and bonds.
After his mother Betsy's death in 1880, James became more of a recluse, dressing shabbily, allowing his property to deteriorate, and keeping contact with people to a minimum. He avoided conversation in general, and if you had business with him, you'd best state it quickly. The Hermit of Hermitage was a curiosity, and stories were rampant about the extent of his wealth and why he behaved so oddly. It was hard to separate fact from fiction—as it still is, but Blodget never explained himself, never confided in anyone.
Lozana, the youngest of the Blodget children, had married Isaac Allen of Wethersfield. The couple had four children. Lozana died in 1893. Horace was adjudicated mentally incompetent in 1890 because of dementia. Horace's daughter, Frances, and her husband, Dr. George Blackmer of Silver Springs, cared for him and the estate until his death in 1899.
A Sad Ending
On December 5, 1905, a fire broke out at James Blodget's residence. Just before midnight, neighbors noticed the smoke and flames, but it was already too late by the time help was organized. The house was a total loss, and everyone feared that the mysterious hermit was gone. In the morning, as ashes cooled, the remains were located and taken to the Dolph home. Frances and George Blackmer rushed from Silver Springs when the news reached them and had Uncle James buried in the Hermitage Cemetery.
There are stories that people rushed into the house, plucking gold coins from the ashes, and that Dr. Blackmer shamed the people into dropping the loot into a bucket. A good story, but not true. Some Mexican coins were found in the house, but not much else. It was all pretty much incinerated. Tales of foul play—another robbery perhaps or a murderous villain were swiftly replaced with a more likely version. Blodget was careless with a woodstove, possibly getting it too hot on the wintery night. Neighbors had pulled the old man out of the house the previous year when a fire broke out because of the stove. It was the most plausible of the theories.
No will was found for James Blodget, which meant the estate was administered according to New York State law. Frances became the sole heir of her uncle's estate, although I found that two of Lozana's children were still living at the time. I've been unable to determine why they weren't listed. However, this was a heavy burden for Frances. James and Horace had never settled their father's estate, and she now had two complex estates to unravel and liquidate. The estimations of Blodget's wealth were between $1 and $3 million, but that is speculation. No accounting of the estate was made public, and mortgages were a significant portion of his portfolio.
No matter how wealthy the Hermit of Hermitage was, his money never bought him happiness, friendship, or the truly valuable things in life. I can't help but be reminded of the movie It's a Wonderful Life. The richest man in town wasn't the conniving banker, Mr. Potter, but George Bailey, who had incredible wealth in the love of his family and friends. It seems to me that James Blodget's life is a cautionary tale to be careful of what we set our hearts on, lest we miss the best of life.
Resources: Beer's 1880 History of Wyoming County
The Castilian, October 4, 1934
The Buffalo Commercial, November 1904
Democrat & Chronicle, November 1899
Historical Wyoming, September 1950
Perry Record, December 14, 1905
Buffalo Evening News, May 11, 1932
Buffalo Courier, May 20, 1903
Wyoming County Times, December 1897
The Selma Times, March 21, 1878