Captain Best, 'The Hermit of Wigwam Cove'

By: Richard Palmer

Volume 15, Issue 11, November 2020

One of the most interesting characters who once lived in a small cabin at the edge of Lake Ontario on Sandy Pond was Captain George Best, commonly known as the "Hermit of Wigwam Cove." When he died there on February 9, 1925, at the age of 98, his only companions were his faithful dog, "Curly,” and a dozen cats who roamed as they pleased.

Captain George Best with his faithful dog “Curly” near his home on Sandy Pond.‌‌ [Photo courtesy of the late Charlene Cole, Sandy Creek Town Historian]


Born in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, on Narragansett Bay, of  his Scotch-Irish father, Stephen, of Dutch descent, young George Best inherited a love for the water from his ancestors. The father at one time owned and operated a hotel near Sandy Pond and died in November of 1890 at the age of 86. George made his first cruise at the age of 16 - an adventure filled whaling voyage that lasted nearly four years, sailing to the Pacific Ocean via Cape Horn. Still echoing in his memory were “Belay, you lubber” and “thar she blows!” His strong arm drove home many a harpoon that brought back the bone and oil in the days when whaling cruises were marked by months and years.

Into the far north he went on sealing and whaling expeditions. He learned his trade in the 'school of hard knocks.’ Finally, at the close of the Civil War, he dropped anchor in Lake Ontario with his parents. Soon, he was accepted into the "Old Guard" of Oswego sailboat owners. He spent his free time hunting and fishing and  “quarrying” at the old Outlet House until he established his own place. ("Quarrying" was in reference to "The Quarry House", one of several boarding houses where one could rent a room and perhaps even get meals.)

In Oswego, he befriended Captain Nelson Stone, proprietor of a ship's chandlery and grocery store on East First Street. Stone owned a yacht called the Ella, which had the reputation of being a speedy sailer. As the years rolled by, Best became one of the most well-known yachting skippers on Lake Ontario.

Starting in 1879, he started sailing the Ella in races sponsored by the Lake Ontario Racing Association, at Oswego and Charlotte in New York State, and in Kingston and Toronto in Ontario, winning victory after victory. Probably the greatest race was between the Ella and the Katy Gray, which was owned by Commodore John P. Phelps of Oswego. It is written:

"Came the day of the race, the day when Captain Best laid his hand on the tiller of the restive Ella and brought her across the line - a winner. Then and there was it established her unquestioned position as the speediest lake sailing craft of her time. "Captain Stone's cup of happiness was filled to overflowing when Skipper Best brought Ella across the line as the winner of one of the greatest of the association races of the period."

Eventually the "Old Guard" passed away and "Captain George," as he was affectionally known, was left alone with his memories and his faithful dog.

Memories such as that fateful stormy day of October 11, 1894 when he was asked to assist the Lifesaving Service crew from Big Sandy in the rescue of survivors of the schooner Hartford, in which eight people lost their lives. [see Shipwrecks Wash Shore on Lake Ontario's Mexico Bay]

Having lived near Lake Ontario much of his life, Captain Best was a natural when it came to predicting the weather. Looking out over Lake Ontario one day, he told a visitor “a big storm is coming and it will be here before morning.” Sure enough. It arrived right on time, and with a vengeance.

Through balmy summers and rigorous winters, Captain Best tended to the homely tasks of his simple household, in the cabin that he'd built on Seber Shore on North Pond.

Spring was always a busy time at Wigwam Cove, for that was the season when the old-timer devoted his time to catching fish and systematically salted them down for winter use. Summer brought its sociable campers who stopped to "chew the fat" at the old man's shack. The fall brought the duck hunters. During the winter he was by himself with his four-legged companions - the dog and 14 cats. No hard-gotten food was wasted.

As he became older and older, friends tried to persuade the old salt to move to more comfortable quarters for the winter, fearful he could no longer withstand its hardships. This he indignantly refused to do. Had he not "weathered the winter storms" for many years, in his small cottage surrounded by his pets? "Why should I move now?" he would say. His home consisted of a combination kitchen, dining room, sitting room, and “cat observatory.”  His only known relative was a nephew. who Captain Best thought lived in San Diego, California.

So, the hermit continued to live the rugged life of a frontiersman, subsisting on a simple diet of salt fish and pancakes made from a mixture of corn meal and wheat flour with a dash of buckwheat. His liquid diet consisted only of black tea. A wisp of smoke from the chimney was the daily sign all was well at Wigwam Cove. The sailor that he was, Best was a creature of habit.

Then, came a morning when no smoke curled upward through the bare branches of the surrounding oak and chestnut trees. Captain Best died just as he desired, in his cabin where he had resided for nearly 50 years with his pets. His lonely life in later years was in direct contrast to the old days when he'd been a central figure in yachting circles. He could not weather life's last storm at his beloved abode he called "Castle Best."


Endnotes

• "The Hermit of Sandy Pond has Lived Thirty of His Ninety Years By Himself",  By Arthur V. Brewster, Syracuse Post-Standard, October 14, 1917
• "Man, 96, Lives With 14 Cats and One Dog",  Watertown Daily Standard, January 12, 1922
• "Captain Best, Weather Prophet", Oswego Daily Palladium, June 28, 1923
• "Captain George Best is Near End of His Career", Oswego Palladium, August 1, 1924
• "Famous Hermit of Wigwam Cove is Dead at 9", Oswego Daily Times, February 10, 1925
• "Sailor Hermit Weathers  98 Years on Sparse Diet",  New York Times, May 17, 1925

By Richard Palmer

Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor and reporter, and was well known for his weekly historical columns for the “Oswego Palladium-Times”, called "On the Waterfront." His first article for TI Life was written in January 2015 and since then, he has written a dozen-plus others.  He is a voracious researcher, and TI Life readers benefit from his interesting findings. Click here to see some of Richard Palmer’s TI Life Articles.

Posted in: Volume 15, Issue 11, November 2020, History, People, Places, Current



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