|Birth: ||Mar. 25, 1857|
|Death: ||Dec. 13, 1945|
From the book EARLY SETTLERS Of CHAMPAIGN COUNTY AND SURROUNDING AREAS Vol III 2004
The Hermit Of Mad River
An Educated, Cultured Non-Conformist
By Zella Vee Baker
He wasn't a myth, nor a figment of someone's imagination.
He didn't live in distant lands. He wasn't an 18th or 19th century character.
David Orin Steinberger was a hermit. He lived in Champaign County and died here only 22 years ago.
His home for over 14 years was a combination tree house and cabin built at the base of a tall oak tree, along the banks of Mad River.
The years preceding Steinberger's life of hermitage were spent for the most part at his parents' farm on Route 68, a mile south of the Champaign County line.
He was born in Clark County on March 25, 1857, the son of George and Elizabeth Funk Steinberger.
Relatives who have described Steinberger's youth point out that he was somewhat of a genius but was more or less a non-conformist—he didn't believe in eating, sleeping or working by a clock.
An educated and cultured man, Steinberger received his formal education at the National Academy of Design and Art League Schools in New York City, New York.
In September, 1894, at the age of 37, he joined the Wittenberg College faculty as an instructor of modeling in clay and pen drawing for illustrations. He is pictured and named in the Wittenberg College semi-centennial souvenir book, published in 1895.
At the close of the 1895-96 school term, Steinberger resigned from the faculty. Some reports say he quit teaching because he had tuberculosis, but those who were close to the Steinberger family say it was Orin's independent spirit and his inability to adjust to
a regular schedule which brought about his resignation.
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1808, Steinberger became a correspondent for the New York "Literary Digest," but became so impressed with the work of the American National Red Cross that he devoted all of his time to painting the famous allegorical picture "Accolade."
Steinberger donated this work of art to the Red Cross and with it a plan to raise a million dollars for the Cuban Relief Committee of the Red Cross. No one has been able to determine the exact amount brought in by the sale of copies of "The Accolade" but people all over United States were asked to purchase these copies for $1.
Men from all walks of life were quoted on their opinions of the picture and the plan to raise the needed money, but perhaps the words of Noah Davis, former judge of New York Supreme Court, were most fitting in describing the plan:
"Your undertaking to raise a million dollars for the work of the Red Cross Society is a godlike Charity. Every purchaser of the "Accolade"—The picture you send forth— will get more than the money value he pays for the picture itself and will have the joy of knowing that his dollar is wholly a contribution to the truest Christian charity not known to the world. "The Accolade" is the name of the kiss that was given as the final ceremony in the bestowment of knighthood upon the worthy heroes of the age of chivalry. It was the token of love for noble deeds done in the cause of virtue. It is well then that in this hour of her awful agony, America should clasp to her bosom the wretched and unhappy Cuba and vie to her "The Accolade"—the kiss of charity and love—and the token of hope for peace and happiness, bestowed by a mighty people in the name of God and Liberty."
After the war, Steinberger returned to his parents' farm and designed the home where he was to live for the next 22 years. Steinberger's artistic ability is still visible today in the home now owned by Mr. and Mrs. George Ohmart. White and red stones were used in the foundation in designing lilies of the valley and rose petals. The
Steinberger family tree can be found etched to the cement floor of the corn crib.
In 1900, Steinberger settled down to the type of life he had always desired, eating, sleeping and working when he wanted to. The following year he was told he had tuberculosis and could not survive unless he moved to a different climate.
Undaunted by the news, Steinberger built a platform in a tree top in his father's beech grove where he lived night and day both winter and summer for the next several years. Even when doctors told him he was cured, Steinbergr continued to live in his "Campaloft," as he affectionately named his tree home.
On May 16, 1908, Steinberger's sister, Mary E. Holman was married to Jacob McKee. The wedding ceremony was held in the campaloft, built 34 feet above the ground. The bride, groom, minister and four guests were drawn to the platform by a pulley system Steinbergr had invented.
These years were happy ones for Orin. It was not unusual for him to ride his horse, Prince, all over the countryside at night. A great reader, as well as a painter, Steinberger quoted from the Bible at length.
Steinberger. With the use of live models, did the illustrations in a book written by Harry E. Rice, entitled, "Eve and the Evangelist," a romance of A.D. 2108, published in 1908. There are two copies of this book in the Dayton Public Library, according to John T. Thackery Jr., librarian.
Steinberger also did illustrations for the "Literary Digest" and "The Youth's Companion " although many of the illustrations were never sent because he was a perfectionist and only when a piece of art was perfect in every way did he let go of it.
In 1917, Steinberger's father died and on June 26, 1918, his mother died.
Steinberger, tried to keep the family home, but it was all in vain—although he had spent most of his life on the farm he knew nothing of the basic fundamentals in farming and in 1922 he lost everything.
With a few clothes on his back and bare necessities in a sack, Steinberger, at the age of 65, made his way to the banks of Mad River.
Hermit Welcomed Companionship Of Others
In 1922, after David Orin Steinberger had lost his family farm on Route 68 he packed his meager belongings in a knapsack and headed for the Mad River area. Thus began the second phase of Steinbergers's life.
The area along Mad River was not unfamiliar to Steinberger. He had roamed the banks of this stream many times.
Steinberger went to the home of the late Joe Thackery, southwest of Urbana, and was granted permission to build a loft in a tall oak tree located on the Thackery farm near the River's edge.
Using old timber and branches, Steinberger built his new campaloft in the lower branches of the tall oak tree approximately 80 feet from the ground. Access to and from his tree home was by a rope and pulley arrangement similar to the one used at his campaloft on Route 68.
After the first winter, with the help of neighbors in the vicinity, Steinberger built a shack at the base of the big elm where he could take refuge in the coldest part of the year. A crudely—built fireplace provided light, heat and a place to cook his food. There were no windows nor floor—but as Steinberger often pointed out—it and the campaloft served his needs for the next 13 years.
With no means of support, Steinberger's food was supplied by the neighboring farmers and what he could obtain from the woods and river.
Visitors were many during his years of hermitage and on Saturdays, and Sunday's people would come from miles around to see if the hermit of Mad River actually existed. Access to the woods was from Old Troy Pike.
Those who saw him were more than surprised of the picturesque man of the woods. His long beard and hair were snow white and he always wore a coat—even though it was worn and patched.
Steinberger welcomed the companionship of others and was usually quite cordial to all who came to see him He was a natural conversationalist and could talk for hours on almost any subject. It took only a few minutes to learn that this man neither liked to be questioned nor did he want his picture taken.
On several occasions during his retirement from society, Steinberger was forced to go to his campaloft when the waters of Mad River overflowed the banks and flooded his hut.
The years went by and Steinberger continued with the carefree life, which kept him close in contact with all creatures of nature. But Father Time has a way of catching up with everyone and this gentleman of the woods was no exception, so in 1935, at the age of 78, the anchorite was persuaded to leave his Mad River home and live with the
John Hartsock family in West Lafayette, Ohio.
After a winter of confinement in the Hartsock home, Steinberger took to the woods in West Lafayette and in October 1936, he returned to Champaign County to resume his life along Mad River.
When he reached the oak tree, Steinberger found that his former home had vanished, but determined to remain free; he found refuge at the home of Jason Bair.
Years earlier Steinberger had saved Mrs. Bair's life when she was attacked by a bull.
The Bair land adjoined the Thackery farm so Steinberger found another oak tree and began planning a new campaloft. But the old man now was past 80 and winter was approaching fast so he accepted the Bair's offer to live in their home.
Still unable to adjust to a room with four walls, Steinberger began sleeping in the barn and would roam the banks of Mad River for hours at a time. The Mad River Township Trustees, afraid that he could not survive the rigors of another cold winter, brought a charge of vagrancy against Steinberger and on January 14,1937, he was brought to the Champaign County Jail by Sheriff Jay McKeever.
Mad River Hermit Died A Pauper But Experienced Lifetime of Riches
Fearful for the health of David Orin Steinberger, the Mad River Township Trustees had him committed to the Champaign County Jail on January 14, 1937 on a vagrancy charge. The white—haired old man was taken to the jail by Sheriff Jay McKeever.
The hermit remained in jail for almost a week and constantly paced the floor begging to be turned loose. Officials tried every possible method to get him to consent to go to the county infirmary but the old man who loved the great outdoors only refused.
McKeever was fully aware of the problems facing the officials—Steinberger was too old to be turned loose and left to roam the area again, but he was still alert and loved freedom to much to be confined in the county infirmary for the rest of his life.
The officials were at a complete loss for a happy solution when Charles Richey, a former Champaign County Engineer who now owned Zane Caverns agreed to let Steinberger live in the Simon Kenton Memorial Home at the caverns.
When Steinberger was told he was going to be free again to roam the caverns and 45 acres of woodland surrounding them he smiled—for the first time in almost a week. He also agreed to apply for an old age pension—something he had refused to do for several years because he didn't want charity.
The cabin was not exactly what Steinberger envisioned it would be -it had electric lights and a cement floor—but the walls had a number of holes and this was to his liking. He refused Richey's offer to fill in the holes with remark that "too much heat isn't good for any man, I like fresh air."
Steinberger settled down for the winter and began drawing again. He had plenty of models now because there was a CCC Camp within a five-minute walk from his cabin. These men would sit and listen to the old man of the woods for hours. They admired and respected him.
On one occasion he expressed a desire for fresh water so the men from camp dragged half a hollow beech log to his cabin to serve as a tank to catch rain water from the cabin roof.
Every Sunday visitors would beat a path to Steinberger's door to visit with him. According to Herbert Richey, Charles' son, he had a guest book for persons to sign and the name of Charles (Boss) Kettering of Dayton appeared many times.
On one of Steinberger's many trips through the surrounding hills and land at the caverns he found an old chicken house, which was a little more to his liking than the Simon Kenton home. The shack was made habitable for him and this became his summer home.
In the fall of 1942, when Steinberger was 85, the Richey's sold the caverns and the hermit returned to the Bair home. The years had taken their toll on the old man but he was still very independent and insisted on caring for himself and sleeping in the barn.
It was around this time that he made his final visit to the home of his youth. Mrs. George Ohmart, who now lives there, said it was dusk when he arrived and asked if he might take one last look around the farm. This was the second time he had been to the home since the Ohmarts purchased it in 1938. "I could tell he had aged a lot because he was very lucid when he first visited us but this time he had a rambling incoherent manner," Mrs. Ohmart recalled. He spent the night there before returning to the Bair home.
In 1943 Steinberger finally decided to go to the county infirmary but stayed only a short while before returning to the Bair home and the banks of the Mad River, which he loved so well. Here he remained until he became very ill and had to be taken to the Champaign County Hospital where he died December 13,1945, three months before his 89th birthday. He was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Springfield.
The hermit of Mad River has been dead for almost 22 years but it will be a long time before he is forgotten by the residents of the Mad River area.
Many persons have said many things about David Orin Steinberger but all agree that even though this man died a pauper he had a lifetime of riches.
George Smith Steinberger (1830 - 1916)
Barbara Elizabeth Funk Steinberger (____ - 1918)
David Orrin Steinberger (1857 - 1945)
Mary E Steinberger McKee (1860 - 1941)*
John Burt Steinberger (1862 - 1938)*
George Christian Steinberger (1873 - 1895)*
Jacob Edward Steinberger (1878 - 1879)*
Created by: Robert "Rob" Weller
Record added: Jan 09, 2011
Find A Grave Memorial# 63944200
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