Posted with permission of Wayne E. Reilly
'Hermit king' gave lost park to public
Monday, December 06, 2004 - Bangor Daily News
By Wayne E. Reilly
A century ago today, the body of the old man called the "hermit king of Moose Island" by the newspapers was recovered from under the icy waters of Moosehead Lake.
John Cusack had died a terrible death late on the afternoon of the day before. Restricted by the shafts of the sled he was hauling, he had been unable to bend over and release the bindings on his snowshoes as he sank through the ice of the narrows between Harford Point and his island kingdom just north of Greenville.
His little dog stood loyally by the hole in the ice all night until someone on the shore noticed his peculiar behavior the next morning. Cusack was found standing up, the top of his head above water.
At least that's one version of the story. It's hard to separate fact from fiction when writing about John Cusack.
During his life and after his death the stories piled up, told around dinner tables and campfires. Natives whose families have long roots in the area grew up hearing these stories.
Some made their way into print, as in the old Bangor newspapers where I found them. Others were provided to me by the Moosehead Historical Museum.
But not one deals with the public park - the park that disappeared - that Cusack tried to establish on the tip of his 400-acre island. To learn about the park, I had to talk to Ruby Cusack of Saint John, New Brunswick, whose husband, Harold, is descended from the hermit's brother.
Ruby writes a genealogy column for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal. She and Harold have made several trips to the Greenville area during the past 30 years. They talked to local people. They dug into the records at the Piscataquis County Courthouse in Dover-Foxcroft. That's where they found out about the park that's disappeared. Today the island remains privately owned, and Cusack's intention is still waiting to be honored.
But first, who was John Cusack? Based on her research, Ruby Cusack has concluded that he was born in 1827 in Ireland and came to New Brunswick in 1834 with his parents, Thomas and Margaret, and several siblings. Thomas was a school teacher.
That's about the end of the hard knowledge until Cusack started buying pieces of Moose Island in 1864. He listed his address at that time as Readfield.
A common story is that he was well-educated - or "well born, well bred and well educated" as the Bangor Daily Commercial put it on Dec. 17, 1904. He went to Kents Hill in Readfield or to Bowdoin College, according to various published reports. Makes sense, given the fact his father was a teacher. But I called both institutions, and spokesmen could find no record of his attendance.
"Disappointed in love early in life, he retired to Moose Island ...," the NEWS claimed the day after his body was found.
But the Commercial piece 10 days later flatly contradicted its rival, saying Cusack had denied that story many times and, in fact, had said, "I could have had the prettiest girls in Readfield ... I was a dandy in those days with my fine clothes and horses, but I did not want them. ... A man always wants to keep at least a foot away from the women, and then he is sure to be safe."
The Commercial claimed Cusack had moved to Moose Island to hunt for buried treasure after another hermit, Asa Kenniston, told him that he had buried $20,000 in a safe there. Cusack, it was alleged, spent the rest of his life obsessively digging for the treasure after Kenniston's death.
In fact, the U.S. Census verifies that in 1870, Cusack and Kenniston, identified as a hermit, age 80, lived in the same township on Moosehead Lake.
By 1885, Cusack was a celebrity mentioned in at least one guidebook. He ran a large farm on Moose Island, according to "Farrar's Illustrated Guide Book to Moosehead Lake and Vicinity." He was by turns a guide, farmer and lumberman.
The Bangor Daily Commercial described him as an extraordinarily skilled river driver. The paper quoted him saying he had been offered $100 a week if he would go to New York City and perform log rolling tricks in theaters, "but I would rather stay here and eat a dozen fresh eggs a day and talk to the lambs and old Frank [his horse]."
When Cusack died on Dec. 5, 1904, probate records now on file at the Piscataquis County Courthouse indicate his estate included sheep, pigs, geese, cows, and a large amount of hay. He also owned a fine horse, which he was known to take with him on the train when he visited his relatives in Saint John.
The NEWS reported Cusack had chiseled an elaborate tomb out of a large boulder on his island and that was where he would be buried. But Ruby and Harold Cusack found the truth to be quite different. They found the man who had been known as Uncle Johnnie to local people buried in an unmarked grave in Lot 59 in the Greenville Cemetery.
During his 40-year tenure in the Greenville area, John Cusack was popular, respected and civic-minded.
When the Cusacks visited Greenville, Darralyn Gauvin gave them a saddle that had belonged to their ancestor. It had been acquired by her grandmother. Cusack had shopped at D. T. Sanders, the Greenville store that was in her family for generations.
On the saddle is a plaque that says, "John Cusack, Squaw Mt., Oct. 8, 1880." Underneath are listed the names of 12 people, including 11 women, who gave the saddle to him for unspecified reasons. Under their names is the word "pioneers."
The Cusacks' most remarkable discovery, however, was an entry dated Aug. 18, 1885, in Vol. 89 on Page 480 of a ledger at the Registry of Deeds at the Piscataquis County Courthouse. It deeds to "the public" a 2.5-acre park, to be called Cusack Park, "being the southerly point of Moose Island."
The transaction was witnessed by A.M. Robinson, justice of the peace, and entered by Harrison M. Warren, the register. A large map showing the area is tucked into the ledger.
In an effort to understand the fate of this vanished park, I read Cusack's probate records and some of the deed transactions involving his land that occurred after his death. The park is mentioned in the inventory of his estate. Its value estimated at $100, it appears it was sold along with other land in a complex multitude of transactions that would require the skills of a lawyer to dissect. Cusack had 18 heirs, and there were financial claims on the estate.
Suffice it to say that at some point John Cusack's intentions were lost in the shuffle, and if things were made right today, the creation of such a park would serve as a fitting memorial to him.
In the meantime, the Cusacks of Saint John, New Brunswick would like to hear from anyone who can cast further light on their ancestor's life and the possibility that he had family connections in the Gardiner-Readfield area. Ruby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wayne E. Reilly has edited two books of Civil War era diaries and letters including "The Diaries of Sarah Jane and Emma Ann Foster: A Year in Maine During the Civil War." He can be reached at email@example.com.
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