“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.