And Now You Know: Walking the roads as the Cow Bayou Hermit
Before Interstate 10 was built, the main highway through Orange was U.S. Highway 90. Heading west out of Orange it was only a two lane road. Occasionally, in the area where the highway crossed Cow Bayou, a man would be seen walking the roadside with a burlap sack slung across one shoulder. He had a rather unkempt appearance; he was bald with a heavy black beard, and small in stature weighing only about 100 pounds. The little man always paid more attention to what was lying on the ground than the cars and trucks passing by on the road.
Some area residents knew about him and where he lived, but few had actually seen him. Only those living close to the area he lived knew his name, Justin Baker. He was originally from Lansing, Michigan, he had worked as a house and sign painter, for a railroad for 13 years, then one day, he decided to start “walking the roads.” The roads brought him to Orange County, to the banks of Cow Bayou, about two miles south of Highway 90. Justin Baker became known as “The Cow Bayou Hermit.”
His “humble abode” was a lean-to made from thatched palmetto palms. At the open end was a small fire that was used for cooking and for heat in cool weather. His lean-to had a stack of burlap bags on the dirt floor that was used as a bed, a skillet blackened from being over a fire many times, a small pot, and a can he used to boil coffee in, whenever he had coffee. He had a small jar for sugar, a can of baking powder, and at times a bag of flour. Sometimes he had tobacco and rolled cigarettes for smoking.
The Hermit was very opinionated about his lifestyle. In an interview conducted in 1959 by Joe Parsley, a reporter for the Orange Leader, he expounded on his view of life: “If all the money was burned, we’d have a better place to live in. Men are slaves to gadgets and worry themselves into early graves; they destroy their health trying to get ahead. Most men die with more debts than assets, but not me; I don’t owe a crying dime to anyone. My only expense is about a dime a month for fuel for my lantern. Most people probably spend more in a month than I spend in 10 years, my needs are few and I don’t complicate my life by creating false needs”
His life was simple, he had trotlines in the bayou and if he caught a surplus of catfish, he bartered with his neighbors. If they had surplus food, they often shared with him. The closest neighbor, about a quarter mile distant, let him use his well for drinking and cooking water. He walked the roadside and found bottles and other scrap he could sell for what little money he needed.
The Hermit did not hunt the game that lived around him. “They are my neighbors and I enjoy watching them.” He did; however, appreciate it when one of his human friends shared coon meat with him. “I think coon is the best meat there is”, he said. He would not use vegetable shortening for cooking; he only used the fat from whatever kind of meat he had cooked. He felt that the more meat you ate, the better off you were and using animal fat was like eating meat.
He had lived on the bayou for about 10 years at the time of the interview. The lean-to was the second one he had built in those years. During the flood in 1953, water had risen over the mound of dirt he had built the lean-to on, and he had to camp in the open for a while. When he rebuilt, after the flood, he made the mound rectangular and about two feel high with straight sides. “Armadillos can’t climb straight walls, and this keeps them out”, he said.
He was not bothered with flies, but mosquitoes often were a problem. “I don’t have no seed ticks. You have ticks where you have cattle and dogs. I would sooner have a panther than a dog, they are just a lot of trouble”, he said.
In 1961, Highway 90 was being constructed into Interstate 10. Some of the crossings were being rerouted to feeder roads and sections of the new interstate were being opened to connect the new sections. School busses had to go across some of these new sections and by the time the busses got out toward Cow Bayou there were only a few students left on the bus. The bus that ran on the south feeder road from McLewis had the Norwood and Lawrence families students left on the bus. They would occasionally see the man they called “Bottle Charlie” walking the roadside and looking for bottles.
They saw him as far east as Oswald’s Grocery across from the Christian Truck Stop that eventually closed as I-10 took traffic from “Old 90.” There was a story that “Charlie” had been banned from the Rockfront Café at the corner of Old 90 and Tulane Road. “Charlie” often sold bottles to Bobby Oswald and at Kennedy’s Grocery a couple of yards east of Cow Bayou. Kennedy’s later became Spec’s Grocery. Rumor had it that Mrs. Spec told Mr. Spec that she wanted him to deal with “Charlie” because of the bad body odor.
Another rumor was that every year or so someone from his family would go down Lawrence Lane and have someone go down the bayou and try to get “Charlie” to return home, but he always refused.
There were a few people who met and became friends with the little man on the bayou. One young man, possibly Jug Norwood, said that “Charlie” had been educated as an engineer and that “Charlie” had helped him pass Mr. Chandler’s algebra class at Orangefield High School.
Justin Baker, the Cow Bayou Hermit, had to have been one of the most unique people to have lived in Orange County. He may also have been the most content.
“And now you know.”