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Henry and his dog Rex showing the smoke­house he lived in for five years. Courtesy Morgan Mor­rison

“The dog’s been too busy to chase cars — now he just takes their license plate numbers.”

We stand and watch as Henry’s pup, a black and white border collie, runs across the dirt road and bounds through the soy­beans. 

Rex lives a por­tentous life, I gather. When he’s not pes­tering steers or inves­ti­gating tractors, he lies on Henry’s stoop to gather his energy and con­tem­plates what nasty thing he will stick his nose into next.

 

Henry Packer of Litch­field Township lives without elec­tricity or running water — he has lived this way for over 30 years. The farm property looks well-worn and tidy. Cords of firewood mark off the veg­etable garden where turnip greens lie in rows. A large oak at the corner gives shade to the Ply­mouth hens during the summer and com­ple­ments the house’s unpainted bister siding. The screened-in porch has chairs and a hutch where Henry and his friends sit and talk and Rex eats his food. 

“Chickens are good company. Robert E. Lee had a pet chicken,” Henry says. In addition to the dappled hens, his small farm has several beef steers and a feral cat, which he nick­named “arctic cat” after it sought shelter in the barn during the polar vortex last winter. 

Inside the farm­house sun­light courses through the windows; heat from the cook­stove radiates from room to room; rain­water sits in a large sooty barrel. There are no amenities to fill the house with noise, like a humming furnace or a flushing toilet. The silence goes pleas­antly unno­ticed.

 

Reading is Henry’s main source of enter­tainment. Lately, he’s been on a Civil War kick; before that, it was Robert Frost and Thomas Paine. Books line the walls of the rooms upstairs. 

Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road sits on his book­shelf, a defining story of the mid-century American coun­ter­culture. I ask Henry what he thought of the Beat gen­er­ation and the Hippies. After all, he grew up during the era of Kerouac — an age of moral lib­er­ation for young people who rejected the con­ser­v­ative con­sumerism of their parents’ gen­er­ation and took great journeys to find the “soul” of America. He expe­ri­enced it firsthand. According to Henry, however, his generation’s search for expe­rience resulted in sadness and con­fusion.

Henry grew up on a dairy farm near Jonesville in the 1960s, but left his family in high school and drove south with a girl. They ended up in Georgia where he found work at an Otis ele­vator factory. At the same time, he began attending Southern Baptist revival ser­vices.

He explains, “I dis­covered sex and religion at the same time — and either one can drive you nuts. But both together will cer­tainly do it.”

Then the girl left him. 

“I hated my life,” he remembers. “Oh, I don’t know what I had — but I didn’t think I could live without her — is that the way to put it? So anyway I just gave up — quit eating. I think I went eleven days — waited for death to come.”

A doctor, fore­seeing that Henry would soon catch pneu­monia and die, called his parents who drove down to Georgia and brought him back to Michigan. Henry then spent most of his time in psy­chi­atric hos­pitals. Once he escaped through a window, walking 50 miles in hos­pital slippers toward home. 

Then Henry decided to live off the grid. “I says to my dad, ‘take the backhoe and bring the smoke­house down into the woods. I’m going to stay down in the woods.’ So that’s what I did. And my dad says, ‘Okay, goodbye.’” 

So at age 19 Henry lived in the small red smoke­house. It had no insu­lation for the winter or windows for the hot summer. At about fifteen square feet, it was half the size of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond — and Henry lived in his cabin for twice as long. He lived by exper­i­men­tation and tried to get by with $20 during his first year. 

“I had a sneaking sus­picion that I didn’t need all this stuff,” Henry recalls. “And I was right.” 

He mostly lived in seclusion, occa­sionally walking into town to buy food at the store, mainly rice and potatoes, which were made tol­erable with mar­garine. 

Some nights, Henry would visit a friend who he remembers as “quite an intel­lectual.” They would watch tele­vision and talk. Henry credits his friend with giving him the cure to his depression. 

“‘Oh you’re sup­posed to be depressed,’ my friend told me — which makes sense, because if you sit around for long enough, some idea will come to you.” 

Even­tually, Henry moved from the smoke­house into the farm­house (though he held onto the former and cur­rently uses it as a tool shed). He reflects on his youth with humored sto­icism: “The ’60s were a con­fusing time to grow up in. We thought things would be dif­ferent — and, boy, they were.”

 

“Oh,” Henry remembers, “let me show you some­thing.” He walks to the back porch where two deer car­casses are hanging. He hopes that the weather will stay cold enough to keep them hanging until the spring. A large part of his diet is the venison that local hunters give to him in exchange for allowing them to hunt on his land. Lacking refrig­er­ation, Henry pre­serves most of the meat in canning jars and prays the other will not spoil by the time he eats it.

This year, however, he ran into trouble with state game wardens. He was charged with lending a deer tag, which could cost him up to $500 in fines and 90 days in jail. He wants to fight the charge in court, which was the original idea for this article. “I need pub­licity,” he told me.

“You can title it ‘Land of the free and home of the brave,’” he jokes. “The sub­title will be ‘Where the deer and the antelope play.’” 

According to Henry, the story goes like this: in November, he bought a tag and gave it to the men who hunt his property, thinking he would save them the trouble and cost of buying one them­selves. The same day the men shot a deer and gave it to Henry. He wonders why it matters to the DNR who buys the tag  in a county where hun­dreds of deer are killed by vehicles each year. Why does it matter who does the shooting if the DNR gets its money in the end? 

Henry believes that it was a simple case of gov­ernment over­reach. “It’s like Robin Hood,” he says. “The king thought he owned the deer — now the State of Michigan thinks it owns the deer.” 

At Henry’s first court hearing — The People of the State of Michigan vs. Henry Packer — he rep­re­sented himself. Judge Sara Lisznyai offered Henry a plea deal: if you don’t get in trouble for six months, all charges will be dropped. He turned down the deal and asked Judge Lisznyai to dismiss the case instead, so his case was post­poned until the new year. He hopes that by taking his case to a jury trial he can set a precedent. 

“Some­thing has got to be done about this,” he says. “We didn’t elect those people, the DNR. Bureau­cracies shouldn’t make laws.” 

If appealed, the case would go to the circuit court, which could then decide whether or not the law is con­sti­tu­tional. 

His new court date is January 12. He plans to rep­resent himself again and remains opti­mistic about winning a dis­missal. “This is Hillsdale County after all.” But if he loses the court battle, he will not let it dis­courage him. Whatever the outcome Henry will probably laugh and take it in stride.

“I’ve been on a roll lately,” he says. “But maybe I’m like George Custer, who thought he was invin­cible. I guess you never know when the curtain will fall.”

 

On nice weekends, Henry’s porch is the local hang-out. A neighbor might drive by, see a few people on the porch, and decide to stop in for a visit.  That is how I first met Henry. The con­ver­sation is usually light­hearted. Henry’s hunting citation has been their favorite gibe, lately.

A few years ago Natalie Taylor ’19 came along to visit Henry’s porch. Coin­ci­den­tally, she rec­og­nized Henry’s face. In 2009, Hillsdale Pro­fessor of Art Sam Knecht was driving through the country in search of inspi­ration. He saw Henry splitting wood and asked if he could paint his por­trait. The por­trait, entitled “The Wood­cutter,” appears on the first page of Knecht’s online studio. It ended up in the per­sonal col­lection of the former Chairman of the Board at Hillsdale College, Bill Brodbeck, which Taylor saw during a wine tasting event, and which had fixed itself in her memory.

Likely hun­dreds of people from the college have seen Henry’s por­trait, yet might never meet the man behind the painting. In fact, most of the people on the porch, including Henry, rarely interact with folks from the college. They might have met a pro­fessor or worked con­struction on campus years ago, but beyond this, to them, the college does not seem to be par­tic­u­larly active in the county com­munity.

One jokes, “I took one look at that big new chapel and the copper down­spouts on it and said, ‘Good thing they didn’t build this in Detroit.’” 

There are times, however, when the two worlds meet. Through Henry, I met Jim Cole, a farmer from Cambria Township who owns a 160-year-old lith­o­graph of the college’s old Central Hall. Jim’s ancestor, John Cole, received the picture for his donation to the college endowment in 1855. The antique has been in the Cole family for all of those years.

 

The most astounding story I heard on Henry’s porch comes from 1988, when Henry decided to ditch his car and ride a team of horses instead. He bought a wagon and a couple of draft horses from an Amish farmer, without knowing a thing about horses. He learned quickly, though, and soon he was riding all over Litch­field Township. 

One night, a pickup truck hit his wagon at full speed. Henry never installed lights or reflectors on his wagon; and the driver of the truck, noticeably intox­i­cated, mistook Henry’s horses for deer and swerved to kill them since it was during deer season. Henry flew twenty feet from his wagon and had to be hos­pi­talized for several weeks.

“Hillsdale. It’s the people,” quips Henry after a pause. Everyone laughs. 

 

When it is just Henry and Rex on the porch, the farm is quieter. Most days Henry works around the property — what he calls “pid­dling.” Last month he patched the siding on the barn, hoisting long, ancient boards up a ladder and nailing them to fill the holes. A few years ago, he planted young willow trees around the muddy bank of the pond; he hopes they will shade the water and allow the fish to grow big enough to catch and eat (that is, if he ever gets around to patching the bullet hole in the canoe).

Other days, Henry does work in the farm­house. He sits at a table and writes or reads by the sun­light. The room is quite beau­tiful — it is bright blue, like the color of hydrangeas, with white flecks that look like wispy clouds. According to Henry, the interior design came about unin­ten­tionally. Years ago, he bought large buckets of paint from the county sale that had been used to stripe handicap spaces in parking lots. The marking paint made the room so bright that Henry’s girl­friend at the time said it burned her eyes. So she used a sponge to paint white flecks. The pastel color suits Henry better. 

“It needed a fem­inine touch,” he says. “It’s the only good thing she ever done for me,” he adds with a smile.

Almost everyone who visits Henry for the first time com­pli­ments the blue room. Each time, Henry grins and laughs and says that the house suits him well. It is a fitting thing, that the beauty of a home reflects the soul of its maker.