Bruce Teeple | The real story behind ‘Hairy John’

The grave of “Hairy John” Voneda, who lived a hermit’s life until his death in 1878, stands in the Madisonburg Lutheran and Reformed Church cemetery.
The grave of “Hairy John” Voneda, who lived a hermit’s life until his death in 1878, stands in the Madisonburg Lutheran and Reformed Church cemetery. CDT photo

Tall tales and urban legends have their place, but we need to see them for what they are and not take them seriously.

As the decades tick away, every culture and generation likes to fabricate a suitable “fakelore” to satisfy the political, psychological or commercial needs of the moment.

Our image of monks and hermits, for example, certainly generates enough interest around the world. These people remove themselves from society for reasons ranging from the religious to the illegal. Romantic notions about “mountain men,” in particular, have a unique hold on the American imagination.

Entering Centre County from the east, you’ll notice a large sign with an unusual name: Hairy John’s State Park.

So who was this Hairy John? What was his story?

The vast, dark forests surrounding Woodward have always provided perfect hiding places. Years before the Civil War, there had been stories about some runaway slaves living in these rugged mountains.

John Voneda’s circumstances, though, were slightly different. Despite latter-day portrayals of him as half-Yeti, half-yahoo, he was nothing of the sort.

He was born in1802 at the foot of Winkelblech Mountain, or what folks in east Penns Valley call Roundtop.

Voneda (one of over a dozen spellings of this surname) first married a Madisonburg girl, Susanna Hoy, with whom he had several children. Unending gossip about his wife’s unfortunate death, however, reportedly led Voneda to avoid the wagging tongues and remove himself for the next dozen years to a cabin in the Woodward Narrows.

But Voneda wasn’t completely cut off from people. Travelers and teamsters on the old turnpike frequently spotted the elderly hermit foraging along the road. Stranded hunters commented on his hospitality and two-meal limit.

Voneda also conducted a free, unofficial post office, with passers-by tacking messages to his cabin door. From there, he carried the notes throughout the mountains.

Rather than getting supplies in town, he preferred picking them up at his brother’s place on the old homestead. Appreciating his good work, and knowing the difficulties of living in the remote region, neighbors frequently dropped off additional provisions.

Despite what we may think, Hairy John’s appearance wasn’t exactly unkempt. In a 1953 Centre Daily Times interview , Ida Hosterman Motz talked about the mysterious figure from her childhood:

“I saw him twice … the first time when I was about ten years old and had gone with my father to the home of Henry Voneida, John’s brother … He came out of the house, looked at us shyly and disappeared around the back of the house … He was a little, thin man with two long, blond braids and a full beard, neat in general appearance.”

The 76-year-old Voneda died at his daughter’s home and was buried in Madisonburg’s Lutheran cemetery.

Forty years later, a state forester honored his memory by creating a picnic grove at the site of Hairy John’s cabin.

Thanks to the diligent research conducted by members of Voneda’s extended family, we can brush aside the fantasies, ignore the convenient mythology and appreciate the truth about this man.