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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

“Hermit of the Craggies” went from acorns and roots to prison food

Convinced his only neighbor was out to get him, solitary trapper and paranoid former prospector “Crazy Hugo” ambushed him with a rifle; the state prison became his retirement home.

Old Agness bridge across Rogue River. "Crazy Hugo" Mayer was hit on the head with a wrench while helping build this bridge.
This old postcard image shows the suspension bridge across the Rogue
River at Agness, which "Crazy Hugo" Mayer was working on when he
was struck on the head by a falling wrench. [Larger image: 1200 x 755]

Robert Fantz had come to the Illinois River prepared to die. Which he did — but not quite the way he'd thought he might.

Fantz had a degenerative lung disease — probably tuberculosis. So in the early 1930s he and his wife bought a meadowland farm, deep in the heart of what today is the Rogue River Wilderness Area, from the man who homesteaded it several dozen years before, and settled in, hoping that the clean Southwest Oregon air would help him beat the illness.

The Fantzes' new home, the Fantz Ranch, was very remote. The nearest community was Agness, an unincorporated jumping-off place that had sprung up to mark the end of the Rogue River mailboat line, with a population of just a few dozen. The nearest neighbor — an old trapper who lived right across the river — was not entirely sane.

The crazy neighbor

Really, it wasn't old Hugo Mayer's fault he was nuts. In the early 1920s, the government had started building a bridge across the Rogue in Agness, where the Illinois River runs into the Rogue. Mayer was working on the bridge job one day when another worker dropped a wrench, and it hit Mayer on the head, doing enough damage to require that his skull be reinforced with a steel plate. After that, he was never quite the same.

A typical early-autumn scene on the wild and scenic Rogue River, depicted on a picture postcard from the 1960s.
This postcard image, a photograph by Steven Astillero, shows a typical
Rogue River scene in early autumn . [Larger image: 1200 x 812]

Hugo Mayer was born in Germany in 1884 and came to America when he was 20 years old. Within a couple years of his arrival, he was on the West Coast and prospecting for gold. With a partner he delved deep into the wildest and most remote part of Oregon, the mountains along the Rogue River known as the Craggies, in search of "color."

In 1906, he decided to settle down on a homestead. So he emerged from the wilderness and spent a summer working in Crescent City, Calif., putting together enough money for the filing fee, then plunged back into the Craggies and set up housekeeping beside the Illinois river, where a prospector had already built and abandoned a little shack. He moved in and cleared a little garden next to the shack. And there he lived for 27 years.

Living off the land, by his wits


A Google map of the Illinois River, where it flows into the Rogue at
Agness . [View larger map]

Mayer was a sharp fellow. He invented a technique for crossing the river that was like a cross between a zipline and a pogo stick. Here's how it worked: He secured a cable across the river, good and tight, secured to something very solid. Then he took a beefy plank and cut a channel in one end so it would hook over the cable, and secured a cross-piece through the bottom. Standing on the crosspiece and holding the plank near the top, he would throw his weight forward (well, sideways really — but forward in a sense of "forward across the river") — bouncing on the cable and essentially hopping across the river.

He'd go into town about once a year, usually trekking down the river to Gold Beach. He'd buy flour and coffee; for everything else, he was utterly self-reliant. To raise money, he trapped and shot animals — bear, wildcat, cougar, fox, and whatever else might make him some money. His yearly income was in the $50 to $100 range.

Of course, he ate most of the animals he shot, so his diet was pretty rich in meat. In addition, he dug camas root, ground and leached acorn flour and grew a few vegetables. He also had a homemade pipe, in which he smoked laurel-tree bark.

It wasn't the lap of luxury, but it was a life, and Mayer must have enjoyed it because he always came back.

Then came that accident at the Agness bridge.

Paranoia grows in Hugo's mind

Rafters tackle the Class V rapids at the legendary "Green Wall" on the Illinois River, not far from the area in which "Crazy Hugo" trapped and hunted.
A rafter shoots the legendary "Green Wall" rapids on the Illinois River
in 2005. This whitewater stretch is located near "Crazy Hugo" Mayer's
old stomping grounds. (Image: Mark Reed) [Larger image: 1800 x 1350]

It was some time later that the Fantzes moved in, right across the river from him. Mayer got along great with his new neighbors, at first. But paranoid suspicions soon darkened his mind.

As time went by, Mayer became increasingly convinced Bob Fantz was trying to get rid of him. He made only $27 in all of the 1933 trapping season because he was afraid to leave his shack — he'd convinced himself Fantz was planning to sneak across the river and light it on fire while he was out. Something, he told himself, had to be done.

So one November day that year, he lurked along the trail with his ratty old .22 Winchester Rimfire rifle. When Fantz came into view, Mayer ordered him to stop.

A gunshot — and a riderless horse gallops off

Mayer later told authorities he'd planned to march Fantz across the river, execute him and bury his body there. But Fantz wasn't cooperating. Instead, he wisely put the spurs to his horse and galloped away as fast as he could.

It wasn't fast enough, though. Mayer shot him off his horse and left him there, dead.

When the horse returned without him, Fantz's wife came and found him where he'd fallen. Because of his lung disease, she immediately assumed he'd died of a naturally occurring lung hemorrhage. It was only after the mortician discovered a bullet hole in his back that they figured out he'd actually been murdered.

Mayer, convinced his shooting of Fantz had been just, necessary and morally defensible, hadn't taken any great pains to cover the crime up. Investigators found shell casings at the scene, along with his homemade pipe, which he'd left in his hiding spot.

“Where's Crazy Hugo?”

A 1920s picture of the Oregon State Penitentiary, from a hand-tinted postcard.
This postcard image from the 1920s shows the entrance to the Oregon
State Penitentiary, which became Crazy Hugo's home for the rest of his
life . [Larger image: 1200 x 756]

But when police came to his cabin to arrest him, they found it empty. Mayer, finally rid of his dreaded enemy, was making up for lost time on his trapline. He was gone for weeks, during which time everyone in the Agness area took to packing pistols everywhere they went in case "Crazy Hugo" should appear.

When Mayer did return to his cabin, police were waiting, and he went with them cheerfully. The newspapers, when he was brought into Grants Pass for trial, called him "The Hermit of the Craggies" and "The Old Man of the Mountains."

Even after he was tried and convicted of first-degree murder, he remained convinced that the governor, as soon as he heard the story, would pardon him.

Convicted. But did he really want to go back?

Another view of the Oregon State Pen, this one in black and white.
Another old postcard image showing the state penitentiary, from a
different viewpoint . [Larger image: 1200 x 725]

But then, if he were pardoned, he'd have to go back to his life in the woods. It wasn't entirely clear he wanted to do that — to go back to leaching ground acorns in the river to make a few pancakes to eat with his raccoon-and-camas-root stew, all the time thinking longingly about the delicious food they served in the Josephine County Jail.

That's right: Crazy Hugo loved the jail. It was like a spa resort compared with the crude life he'd left behind in his little riverside shack.

Before being shipped off to the penitentiary at Salem in early 1934, he thanked the community for giving him the best Christmas of his life. So much delicious food, such a soft and comfortable bed, such refined bathing and toilet facilities! It would be hard to go back to eating acorns and squirrels, and using thimbleberry leaves for toilet paper.

But, of course, he didn't have to. Crazy Hugo spent the rest of his life in Salem, in the state pen. He died in 1961. You can still see the remains of his shack, across the river from Fantz Ranch — both are now part of the Rogue River Wilderness Area.

(Sources: Curry County Historical Society, www.curryhistory.com; Hart, John. Hiking the Bigfoot Country. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1975; Grants Pass Daily Courier. Thanks to Mrs. Vivian Henderson for suggesting this topic.)