The legend of Joe Root is one both of fact and fiction. Despite his humble appearance he was a king in his own right. In the place of a bejeweled cloak were tattered trousers and in the place of a crown was a ragged hat. His kingdom was the Peninsula, and his treasure was the nature on her shores. Joe feasted on raw fish and berries in his castle of a wooden crate. Images such as this conjure a larger-than-life folk figure that we romanticize today. Fueled by the obscurity of who Joe root was and where he came from further fire the lore. Surprisingly enough there is truth in the mystery that was Presque Isle’s hermit.
Joe Root was born in 1858 at the Erie County Poorhouse near what is now west 26th Street and Pittsburgh Avenue. His mother Susan toiled as a fisherwoman on the banks of the old canal at West 12th and Poplar Streets. Circus organizers and showmen used the canal to move their shows around the area. It is speculated that here Joe learned the art of ventriloquism which became a signature trick of his. Joe soon took up fishing and as a boy worked for Gilson Johnson near Fairview. Still in his teens and for unknown reasons Joe dropped out of society and took up residency on Presque Isle. At the time the Peninsula was desolate and wild which may have enticed the young Root. Not much else is known about his youth and there are no records of him until his mid-thirties.
Throughout the 1890s, Erieites frequently brought back stories of Joe after returning from the Peninsula. Fred Ralph recalled one winter when him and his friend became stranded on the ice during a snowstorm. Joe found the boys and gave them quarter in one of his “townhouses”. He fed them fish and entertained them with tales of the wilderness. A similar story saw the daughter of a wealthy family skate across the bay during the dead of winter. When she did not return a search party was sent and she was found warm and dry in Joe’s shack.
More lighthearted tales speak of Joe teaching children how to fish and catch turtles. He could often be found on the outskirts of a picnic on a summers day. Herbert Spencer recalled, “The afternoon sun was declining towards the coolness of evening. The shadows of the big oaks lengthened towards the east, and we trudged into the grove, walking on a hushed path of pine needles and last year’s oak leaves. Just as the heavy picnic baskets were placed strategically about, ready for a sudden assault, the bushes parted and without a sound Joe Root stepped into our group. His clothes and mediaeval hat, quietly soft spoken, with a smile that all children loved, and their elders envied. His exit was equally dramatic, he simply vanished without a sound, usually after accepting all the food he could carry. Between entrance and exit, Joe the born clown, entertained his audience. All children loved Joe. As we walked to the appointed grove, we looked carefully behind each bush in the hope of surprising him We never did. But always, after the baskets were arranged and a dinner began to be thought of, and after we had peeked behind every tree and bush, suddenly there was Joe, hesitant to intrude until invited; then with his soft shy smile he would step in, to be surrounded immediately by all the children”.