We associate mountain men with the fur-trapping era of the 1800s. Sylvan Hart, who became known as “Buckskin Bill,” turned into a man of the mountains nearly a century later in 1932. He started his adventure as a way to ride out the depression. He stayed for the rest of his life.
Hart believed in education. He attended four colleges, getting a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. It was for his continuing education that he became a hermit living on the banks of the Salmon River. In Cort Conley’s excellent book, Idaho Loners, he quotes Hart as saying, “I wasn’t trying to run away from anything. I was Just a natural born student, and I could study there, investigate for myself, and I could experiment with different things. I’m not going to give up on education. I doesn’t pay to stop. Once you get really dumb, there’s no redemption for you.”
Hart, along with his father, Artie, picked a spot on Five Mile Bar to live off the land. Artie eventually had enough of the Salmon River Country and moved into town. Sylvan stayed on, winter after long winter, spending six months at a time without seeing a soul.
“Buckskin Bill” tended a large garden, hunted, and panned a little gold for his living. He got his name from Don Oberbillig, who lived at Mackay Bar three miles down the river. Buckskin was what Hart wore. Where “Bill” came from is not exactly clear. Alliteration probably played a part.
Hermits are famously drop-outs from society. Hart ran against type in that respect. When he heard about Pearl Harbor, a few months after the event, he hiked out to Grangeville to join the Army. They wouldn’t have him because of an enlarged heart and because at 35, he was a little old for the front lines.
Hart still wanted to help in the war effort. He got himself to Wichita, Kansas where he took a job as a toolmaker with Boeing.
In 1942, with the war roaring, the Army lowered its standards for inductees. They inducted Sylvan Hart and posted him to Amchitka in the Aleutian Islands. The Japanese had taken over the remote territory. Hart’s group was meant to oust them, but they left before he saw any action. Oddly, the FBI had been looking for him, thinking he was a draft dodger.
The Army sent Hart to Colorado, where he helped develop a top-secret bombsight.
Shortly after the war ended, he drifted back to his home in Idaho. Back to gardening, hunting, fishing, and making. He made everything he used, from kitchen utensils to guns. His flintlock rifles, which took a year to make, were hand-rifled and hand-bored, with elaborately carved wooden stocks.
Buckskin Bill’s brush with the FBI was a mistake. His brush with the IRS was purposeful bureaucracy. He didn’t care much for money. Many of his checks from his Army days went uncashed so long that they expired. He didn’t feel an obligation to pay taxes since, by his estimation, he didn’t make $500 a year. The IRS had a different math. They sent him threatening letters because of his lack of filings. So, Sylvan Hart turned himself in, arriving in Boise in full “Buckskin Bill” regalia.
Hart set up camp in the IRS office. He rolled out his sleeping bag on the floor and brewed a pot of tea. A supervisor was summoned. Bill offered him a cup of tea. He explained to the IRS that he was ready to go to prison, if need be. He had brought along a supply of pemmican for his stay. Recognizing that this wasn’t your average tax scofflaw, IRS officials sent him back to Five Mile Bar and never bothered him again.
But the world wouldn’t leave Buckskin Bill alone. In 1966, a writer for Sports Illustrated showed up on his doorstep. The resulting article, titled, “The Last of the Mountain Men,” assured that Buckskin Bill would never be anonymous again. An expanded version of the story came out in book form a few years later.
This new-found fame didn’t bother Sylvan Hart, the sometimes hermit. He loved to regale rafters and hikers with stories about his life in the Salmon River Country. Buckskin Bill became a celebrity of the backcountry, enjoying his solitude and fame in equal measures.
In 1980, Buckskin Bill passed away, making it just shy of 74 years. Friends conducted his funeral in Grangeville, then flew his body to Mackay Bar to be hauled upriver by boat. He was interred on his Five Mile Bar property, which remains a popular spot for rafters to visit today.