Welcome to Offbeat Oregon History, a public-history resource for the state we love. Here's what you'll find here:
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Offbeat Oregon is a division of Pulp-Lit Productions, a boutique publishing house that specializes in classics from the pulp-magazine era — roughly 1910 to 1941. For more information or to check out our catalog, please see pulp-lit.com.
Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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But America wouldn’t have to just wonder about this. Because now that Joe’s experiment in the Maine woods was over, William Randolph Hearst, his new employer, was ready to sponsor a second experiment. Joe would plunge naked into a wilderness a continent away from his friends and their suspicious stocks of beer. There would be third-party observers in the form of well known university professors. Joe would prove his bona fides once and for all, and silence the critics.
Hearst’s entire newspaper empire was at the ready. “WILD BEASTS ROAR INVITATION TO JOE KNOWLES,” howled a banner headline in the San Francisco Examiner. Other newspapers — such as the Portland Morning Oregonian — carried the news on their front pages under more conventional headlines: “NATURE MAN STARTS TUESDAY,” for instance.
Into the woods went Joe, and immediately made the single biggest mistake of his career as a public woodsman.
“Joe Knowles’ first action in going to the woods is to pick up a sharp stone,” explained Prof. T.T. Waterman of the University of California, one of the professors who was monitoring the experiment. “The second is to hack through the bark of a white cedar, pull loose a long strip of bark and extract the fiber. As he presses forward into the forests he twists this fiber into string as he walks. Before he has gone five miles he will have this fiber twisted into sandals.”
The problem was, by the time Joe had walked five miles, it would be too late to put on sandals. Because throughout this little barefoot meander, Joe was apparently making his way through fields of small woody plants with glossy oak-shaped leaves clustered in groups of three. He didn’t recognize them; why should he? Poison Oak doesn’t grow in the north Maine woods.
Now, a really bad case of poison oak is bad enough. But when it’s all over the feet, that’s quite a bit worse. A miner who came across him halfway through his month told reporters he couldn’t believe Joe hadn’t contracted blood poisoning from it.
Joe had hoped to emerge from the woods on this attempt wearing another bearskin, or even — his fondest hope — leading a bear cub that he’d befriended. With his feet in the condition they were in, though, he quickly found himself subsisting on fish and huckleberries. These got the job done, but not much more than that.
Then, a little over a week into the ordeal, a second blow fell, and it would be this one that would essentially end Joe’s bid for enduring national fame:
Half a world away, the particularly arrogant and thick-headed hereditary ruler of Germany sent his army over the border into Belgium on an ill-fated quest to take France by surprise. The First World War was under way.
With a story like that unfolding in real time, there was no room on the front pages of America’s newspapers for the woodland adventures of some naked guy beating through the bushes of Southern Oregon.
The Morning Oregonian kept a steady flow of news coverage going, but it was no longer on the front page. And when the 30th day came along, and Joe had completed what he’d committed to, he abandoned his plan to extend his sojourn, and came in.
Other than the Portland and San Francisco papers, hardly anyone noticed. Joe Knowles was just no longer news.
With Hearst’s help, Knowles tried again in 1916, in the Adirondacks of upstate New York; this time, he served as a wilderness-survival trainer for two “Dawn Girls” who were going to plunge into the wilderness naked (under the supervision of a chaperone, of course); at the same time, several miles away, Knowles would be making a third demonstration of his own. But one of the Dawn Girls dropped the project before it even started, and the other lasted only a week or two before throwing in the towel — she couldn’t stand the mosquitos. And when she quit, so did almost all of the media coverage.
For several years after this last stunt, Joe made regular personal appearances at talks and lectures as “The Famous Nature Man” at theaters and halls. But when Stewart Holbrook found him, a couple decades after his woodcraft demonstrations, he was living with his wife on the coast of Washington just north of Cape Disappointment, in a funny little cabin built with driftwood and bits of wrecked ships, and working as a freelance commercial artist, specializing in wildlife and Western art.
To the end of his days, he maintained that his demonstration of woodsmanship in Maine was the real thing. And he told Holbrook that he had just two regrets: First, that he didn’t manage to befriend a bear cub; and second — that stupid war.