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Ben Lilly

August 11, 2019

 

Bayou-Diversity (11 August 2019)  At the turn of the 20th century, Louisiana's vast natural resources in the form of virgin forests and teeming wildlife were besieged by commercial interests and others lacking environmental mores.  In this state of diminishing wilderness Ben Lilly emerged from the swamps of northeastern Louisiana to become a folk hero.  His reputation as the best hunter of his day evolved as a result of his obsessive compulsion to kill bears and cougars.  President Theodore Roosevelt hired him as his chief guide during his noted Louisiana bear hunt.  Ironically, Lilly's successful efforts in Louisiana and later out West contributed to the loss of a life style that he cherished.

 

Benjamin Vernon Lilly was born in Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1856.  As a young man he settled on his uncle's Morehouse Parish farm near Mer Rouge.  He hated farming, and dabbled in the cattle and timber businesses. None of these occupations were satisfying.  He discovered his passion in the local swamps of Bonne Idee and Boeuf after killing a bear with a knife.  From that point forward his life centered on the pursuit of large predators.  Accordingly, in 1901 he transferred his property to his wife and children and walked out of their lives.

 

Lilly soon learned that he could make a living as a hunter and became good at it.  The U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey hired him to collect for the national museum.  Over the years he sold them many skulls and skins.  From Louisiana he shipped a cougar, five black bears, seven red wolves, and two rare ivory-billed woodpeckers.  In 1906 Lilly decided to seek greener pastures and left Louisiana for the Big Thicket of east Texas.  There he was successful in killing a number of bears and his reputation spread.  He drifted into Mexico and spent many years in Arizona and New Mexico conducting predator control for ranchers and the government. 

 

Lilly's legendary status was due in part to his peculiar looks and habits.  President Roosevelt wrote of him:   

           

"He has a wild, gentle face, with blue eyes and full beard; he is a religious fanatic and is as hardy as a bear or elk, literally caring nothing for fatigue and exposure which we couldn't stand at all . . often he would be on the trail of his quarry for days at a time, lying down to sleep wherever night overtook him."

 

Lilly would not raise a hand to work on Sunday.  He never cursed, smoked, or drank alcohol or coffee.  He was known to subsist for days in the wilderness with only a sack of corn meal.  Ben preferred to sleep and eat outdoors even when amenities were available.  Laden with bearskins and live cougar kittens, his brief and infrequent visits to towns only enhanced his enigmatic aura.  Given the opportunity in a crowd, he was known to promote his own heroic folklore.

 

Lilly died in Grant County, New Mexico in 1936, about 80 years old.  His epitaph in the Old Silver City Cemetery reads, "Ben Lilly – Lover of the Great Outdoors."  By modern standards, the inscription would contradict his lifestyle of the relentless pursuit of apex predators.  He was, by any standard, cast of a different metal.

 

Monuments to Ben Lilly have been erected in Mer Rouge and in New Mexico's Gila National Forest.  Recently, the Ben Lilly Conservation Area was established in Morehouse Parish along Bayou Bartholomew.   (adapted from: Ouchley, Kelby. "Ben Lilly." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. Dave Johnson. La. Endowment for the Humanities, 23 July 2013.)

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