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Coast Chronicles: Deer Island: Of Hermits, farms, pirates and such

L.J. 'JOE' SCHOLTES COLLECTION/SOUTHERN POSSUM TALES ARCHIVESJean Guilhot was known as The Hermit of Deer Island for his appearance and eccentricities. The French native lived on the island in the mid-1900s, farming oysters. This rare photograph was collected by the late Colleen and Joe Scholtes of Biloxi, who archived local history and who knew Guilhot.
L.J. 'JOE' SCHOLTES COLLECTION/SOUTHERN POSSUM TALES ARCHIVESJean Guilhot was known as The Hermit of Deer Island for his appearance and eccentricities. The French native lived on the island in the mid-1900s, farming oysters. This rare photograph was collected by the late Colleen and Joe Scholtes of Biloxi, who archived local history and who knew Guilhot.

A proposed nudist camp, a short-lived amusement park attacked by mosquitoes, a hermit and a bone-rattling ghost are all part of Deer Island's history and lore, which is as fascinating as its natural abundance.

For hundreds of years, sports and commercial fishermen, pirates, farming families, beachcombers, campers and relic hunters have been lured by the beauty and potential of the island just off the mainlands of Biloxi and Ocean Springs.

The island, practically a stone's throw from the shore, was important to Native Americans and European settlers, and it continues to entice the 21st century denizens of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The state, which now owns a large chunk of Deer, is building a new pier on the north side of the island across from Biloxi's Point Cadet, and will oversee boat charters that will ferry island visitors. That should be great news for Coast tourists and locals who don't have their own boats to explore the beaches, dunes, woods and wildlife.

Pier placement

When I first wrote about this, I mistakenly placed the new pier on the mainland, a conclusion drawn from misinterpreted reports. I remember thinking people would have to wade from the ferry -- few boats can land on the island's dry sand -- but my knowledge of local history quelled further investigation.

After all, when President Theodore Roosevelt came to Deer Island for a fish fry, he had to get his feet wet. According to an October 1915 report in this newspaper, "After wading ashore from the cruiser West Virginia the chief executive will be given a demonstration of how the Biloxi Bacon is captured with the 'life preserve' [cast-net]."

So, if the president must wade, why not 21st century folks? I thought at the time. Now, I've been corrected and can report that you won't have to wade to the island, Roosevelt-style, from the ferry. The new pier will negate that.

History of another ferry

This won't be the first pier on the island, and it won't be the first ferry, but it is the first time the state is creating the island transit. In 1915 a ferry service operated by Capt. Frank J. Barry included boats every 30 minutes from Biloxi and Ocean Springs for 5 cents each way, about $1.80 in today's money.

The ferry impetus then was the Deer Island Improvement Company, which sold shares and land to the public who believed promoter statements that Deer would become "The Coney Island of the South."

Amusement rides, a place to dance the night away, sunbathing, fishing and the offerings of local seafood were expected to lure locals and tourists to the island. The Deer Island Arcade sold: "Ice cold oysters on half shell at all times, 10 cents a dozen. Lunches. Live shrimp for bait day or night, 50 cents a hundred."

There were bathing suits for rent and showers to rinse off, but warned promoters, "No Intoxicants Allowed." Advertisements stated "All these concessions will be operated on the Very Highest Moral Plain." Such statements seem odd given the region's traditional "nod, nod, wink, wink" attitude toward moralistic dictates.

Entertainment

Entertainment included a merry-go-round, shooting gallery, penny arcade, photograph gallery, brass band and other concessions called Aunt Dinah, doll rack and paddle wheel.

The timing was bad. For unexplained reasons, 1915 had an unusual influx of mosquitoes that kept construction workers and visitors swatting. They burned cow dung in hopes the scented smoke would keep the skeeters away. But the final death knell of the amusement park is often cited as a destructive October hurricane, although modern researchers find conflicting evidence.

Centenarians

Later attempts to tame the island for development also went unfulfilled, with such proposals as a casino, hotels, condos and resort housing. Happily, the island remains in a mostly natural state with its worst enemy being storms and erosion.

For more than 100 years, the Aiken and Baker families quietly lived there, farming and fishing for a livelihood. One matriarch, Harriet Aiken, died on the island at 100 years in March 1940, having reared 17 children and recounting such memories as the Civil War days when Federal troops occupied Ship Island. She was a true island resident, having lived on Horn Island before settling on Deer for 78 years.

Hermit of Deer Island

In the mid-20th century another character known as The Hermit of Deer Island, Jean Guilhot, who lived in a shack there. Tourist shops sold postcards with his image, a craggy face and long-beard that bespoke eccentricity. Yet, he could be charming and had numerous friends.

This French world traveler who started an island oyster farm became a main attraction for the Sailfish tours of Capt. Louis Gorenflo. Guilhot also was living there after World War II, when Deer Island was proposed as a site for a nudist colony. We don't know Guilhot's opinion of the 1947 proposal by a military private, but if the colony was ever realized, this newspaper didn't report on it.

Guilhot and the Aiken/Baker families also would have experienced the era of "booze pirates" who used the islands to stash illegal liquor during Prohibition. They would also have heard much earlier pirate stories from the era when the Spanish flag flew over the Coast. One of the best Deer Island ghost stories comes from that pirating era, and that story will be told next week.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535-4567.

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