Ozark Journey... Harry Kinman, The hermit of Ozark County
William Hardin Kinman, known to all as “Harry” or “Bluff,” was born in Illinois on Feb. 4, 1841. His father was an officer serving there at the time and would go on to earn a place in history serving with the Union Army during the Civil War.
Lt. Col. William Kinman was leading the 115th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers on Snodgrass Hill on Sept. 20, 1863, when he was killed on the third and final day of the bloody battle at Chickamauga, Georgia. He is buried beneath an impressive monument at the Diamond Grove Cemetery in Jacksonville, Illinois.
Harry, the sixth of 13 children, was a tender 22 years of age at the time of his father’s death. He was immediately and unexpectedly thrust into the role of provider and caretaker of younger siblings in a world of widespread chaos. It was not an easy life. Just a year and a half later, Harry’s brother, Pvt. Newton B. Kinman, died at Huntsville, Alabama.
In 1871, Harry, then 30, married Mary Celia “Molly” Kinman in Illinois. They were apparently “shirt tail” relatives. In 1878, for reasons unknown, they married again—this time in Vernon County, Missouri. During the next seven years they had five children.
Then, in 1890, tragedy knocked on Harry’s door again. His mother died in Illinois, and his wife Molly died in Johnson County, Missouri. Harry was left with five school-age children to raise; the oldest, Lola Mae, was only 11 years old. Harry’s life went on hold once more.
Kinman’s arrival in Ozark County
Near the turn of the century, Harry filed a Homestead Exemption application for a 160-acre grant in Ozark County. The land included the NE1/4, NE1/4 Section 34; NW1/4, NW1/4 Section 35; SW1/4, SW1/4 Section 26 and SE1/4, SE1/4 Section 27 of T-23N, R-14W. The notice of intention to make final proof of improvements before Judge James P. Gaulding was published in the Ozark County News on Nov. 26, 1903. Able York, William E. Young, William V. Rickel and Jonathan Graham were cited as witnesses.
In 1904, Harry gathered up a group of horses he had transported by the “Frisco Train” to West Plains and drove them overland to their new home north of Gainesville. There they essentially became wild and ranged free on his homestead, where Harry had created barriers of fallen timber and brush.
The land that Harry settled was located on the west side of what is now Highway 5 about 3 miles north of Gainesville. The site appears today on topographical maps as “Kinman Knob” and on recent Plat Maps as parts of the Basil Chisam property, along with others. His nearest neighbor at the time was Thomas Capehart. The 1920 census lists his “street address” as Thornfield Road. Of course, that old road has all but vanished today.
An article in the Weekly Kansas City Star dated Oct. 11, 1933, described the setting as a “snug dugout” excavated into the side of a steep hill and roofed with logs covered with dirt. The story reported, “Here Kinman leads a simple life raising stock for a livelihood and spending his spare time reading many volumes of history and biography which line the walls of his dugout. He prefers the life of a hermit.” His diet, according to the article, consisted “solely of rice, oatmeal and soda crackers.”
Harry did venture into Gainesville on occasion, usually with a dirty old sack over his shoulder and sometimes leading two or three head of cattle or horses. His appearance was always noted, especially by the young children who were afraid of him. When he came to town, they all disappeared.
The focus of folk legends
The folk legends persist to this day with references to him as an eccentric hermit and caveman. He generally walked to town and carried a shotgun with modified barrel and stock. His dress and appearance were disheveled, seemingly with only a single shirt and pants that were never changed or laundered.
At home, he wore only the pants and sometimes less. A group of Gainesville women picking berries near his property claimed to have seen him swinging on a rope through the trees, completely naked, in Tarzan fashion. In town, Harry sold or traded garden produce or livestock for the staples of life that he could not provide himself. His desire for social interaction was lacking in most cases, but when engaged in conversation he could impress anyone with his knowledge.
Hugh Tan Harlin, in his book The Harlins of Ozark County, dedicated a chapter to Harry Kinman. In it he mentioned that there was an unconfirmed rumor that Harry had been a faculty member at an Illinois university. Judy Ford Lyons shared her memories with John Harlin, including the fact that her dad, the late Walton Ford, said Harry was a music teacher with a PhD at a St. Louis university.
The Ozark Hermit apparently just preferred to be a recluse and live without the pressures of society. In his book, H.T. Harlin mentioned that Kinman “never referred to his family.”
During his stay of more than 30 years in the dugout, Kinman apparently received only two visits from family members. His daughter Kate, with two young children, showed up in 1911. She stayed just one night. The other visit was from one of his sons, who stayed a short time as well.
In December 2011 edition of the Old Mill Run, John Harlin shared a wealth of information about “Old Harry” in an article titled “The Curious life of Harry Kinman.” The late Linnie Ingram also mentioned Kinman several times in her various columns reminiscing about life in the Ozarks “back then.”
Run-ins with the law
Harry did have a few run-ins with the law. In July 1908, he was arrested for working on Sunday, and a month later for disturbing the peace. In both cases he was fined one dollar. The June 16, 1911, edition of the Ozark County Times reported Sheriff Conkin’s arrest of Harry for burning a fence belonging to his neighbor, Mr. Capehart. That incident turned out to be far more serious than expected. The Aug. 18, 1911, edition of the Times reported Kinman being found guilty of arson and malicious trespass. He was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary. The verdict was appealed but was eventually upheld.
In March 1914, Sheriff Amyx transported Harry to the penitentiary. He served 19 months and was released in October 1915. An article in the Dec. 16, 1915, edition of the Journal Gazette revealed the situation he returned to: “He found his home devastated, his flocks scattered and the place in ruins. He received a job in a livery barn at Gainesville and is now making his home in town.”
Ironically, the livery barn in Gainesville at that time was next to the county jail, on the same spot where the Gainesville’s City Hall would be erected in 1935. The building still stands today at what is now Harlin Drive and Fourth Street and houses the 416th Bomb Group Archive.
Losing his home
With mounting financial problems, Harry ended up losing his homestead in a civil forfeiture. It was purchased at a courthouse sale by Arthur Luna, who allowed Harry to continue living on his former homestead for many years. Ironically, in 1921, one of Harry’s sisters deposited in the Gainesville bank $1,100 that was to be delivered to him after her death—which occurred shortly thereafter.
In the fall of 1936, his health was failing, and it was determined that Harry was of unsound mind. He was taken to the insane asylum at Nevada, Vernon County, Missouri where he passed away on Dec. 10, 1936, at the age of 95. He is buried in Nevada State Hospital #3 cemetery.