Harrison County

Life on Deer Island: His family lived ‘off the grid’ for decades until Camille hit

It was a simple life. Fruits and vegetables were homegrown. Hunting, fishing and livestock provided meat, and the only air conditioning was the breeze from the Mississippi Sound. It was a life like few today can imagine, and it took place on Deer Island.

“We had all kinds of fruit trees,” said Ronald Baker of Biloxi. “We had pecan trees and fig trees.

“My aunt had a heck of a garden. You could grow anything in that black dirt. She’d grow green beans, potatoes, tomatoes — just about everything. My mama canned everything. We had hogs and cattle. We’d butcher hogs in the cold months.”

Baker, 76, was born on Deer Island in 1943. He is the youngest of five boys born to Arthur and Eva Baker and the fourth generation of Bakers living on the island dating back to the 1850s.

Today, the island, which is located a few hundred yards south of Biloxi, is uninhabited. Baker’s family left after Hurricane Camille destroyed their home.

But when Baker was growing up, it was a busy place for him, his family and friends that came to visit.

“Everybody wanted to come to the island,” Baker said. “There was always a bunch of people over there.

“In the summer we’d swim and in the winter we hunted. We had the whole island to ourselves. We didn’t think anything of it. Now that I think back on it, not many people had that opportunity.”

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Ronald Baker looks through scrapbooks and photo albums detailing his family’s history living on Deer Island. Brian Broom Clarion Ledger

They lived off the grid on Deer Island

Sundays were typical of the day and family came for dinner, but how it was cooked was unconventional at that time.

“In the summer, Mama would cook on a kerosene stove,” Baker said. “In the winter she’d cook on a wood stove because it served double-duty as a heater.”

And the stoves weren’t the only unusual things in the kitchen.

“Our refrigerator ran on kerosene,” Baker said. “Every house on the island had a kerosene refrigerator.”

The family lived off the grid, but they did have limited electricity. Baker said lights were powered by a 32-volt bank of batteries which were recharged when needed by a generator. That eventually led to modern entertainment.

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Arthur Baker (right) drops off his sons Alvin (left) and Ronald on a pier near Deer Island as they make their way to school in Biloxi. Courtesy Clarion Ledger

Hurricane and a hermit shape Deer Island

The Bakers weren’t the only residents of the island. Baker said his father told him at one time there were 13 homes there, but many were destroyed by the Hurricane of 1947. When Baker was growing up, he had an aunt that lived there, and another aunt had a summer home with a summer home on the island as did a potter from New Orleans.

And there was another resident who lived in a shack and became a local legend — Jean R. Guilhot, a Frenchman known as the Hermit of Deer Island.

“He wasn’t really a hermit,” Baker said. “They just called him that.

“He’d pop in at supper time a lot of times. He had a deep voice. We’d be sitting around the table and he’d break into singing. He’d be singing up a storm, some French song. He’d sing to the excursion boat and they’d (tourists) throw money in his skiff. He’d make a pretty good haul some times. He stayed like 38 years on the island.”

Baker said Guilhot became ill in the late 1950s, left the island and died in 1959.

Swimming, fishing, hunting and beach combing were a big part of life on the island when Baker was young, but like other kids, there was also school. However, getting there wasn’t as simple as walking to a bus stop. He and his brothers had to boat to the mainland.

“We rowed across most of the time,” Baker said. “If the weather was bad or Daddy was home, he’d take us in the big boat.”

Living on an also island made communication different for the Bakers than most families. Their mail was delivered to a grocery store in Biloxi, and they did not have a telephone. When people needed to see them quickly they parked their cars near the shore in Biloxi facing Baker’s house and flashed their headlights.

“When we saw the headlights we knew someone was trying to get a hold of us,” Baker said.

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