- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

STAFFORD COUNTY, Kan. (AP) - It might have been more than 80 years ago, but 91-year-old Bob Fisher hasn’t forgotten the old hermit who lived by the edge of the Big Salt Marsh.

On a mild December morning, Fisher stared out across the pristine wetland of his youth, now known as Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, The Hutchinson News (bit.ly/1Ph2y3h) reports.

This is where he learned to drive a team of horses and the very spot where Fisher’s home once stood. As he glanced east, he points to the path Elias Pelton walked up to his family’s kitchen door.

Fisher remembers how Pelton, more commonly known as “Pelican Pete,” would surprise his family when he appeared at the door.

“This was always home,” Fisher said. “As a kid, the marsh was covered in white salt. Just across the flat area, about two miles, that’s where Pelican Pete lived. “

Fisher - and most everyone in Putnum Township - knew of the hermit who would walk up to kitchen doors and was given eggs, or whatever other food people had.

Hunters on the marsh learned to lock up their food when they went to the blinds. The Ellinwood Leader, on May 17, 1945, just after Pelton’s death wrote, “If they did not lock up, Pelican Pete was apt to consume it in a few hours, even though there was enough food to last the party several days.”

Sometimes he would eat with a family and then go outside and throw up the food. Then he would return to the table with a robust appetite and eat more. Legend has it one farmer gave Pelican Pete a dozen hard-boiled eggs, a big bowl of potatoes and a generous portion of fat meat for breakfast. The farmer swore Pelican carefully peeled the eggs, saved the shells, polished off the huge breakfast and then ate the shells for dessert.

“If you knew what he ate,” Fisher said laughing. “He lived on shorts, which was a wheat by-product. It’s a mealy mixture that people feed hogs.

“He looked like a character. He never showered or shaved and he was bedraggled in ragged old clothes.”

Pelican Pete wasn’t one for small talk. When he came calling, Fisher said he never spoke to anyone except his mother.

Back in those days as a township trustee, Fisher’s dad, Paul, had to assess people’s property in the township and got acquainted with Pelton that way.

His shack was on the mud flats. For several years he had neither a roof nor a floor to cover the earth. His cookstove would sink in the mud. Then he would have to jack it back up. Fisher said his dad came back from a visit to the shack and reported, “Words couldn’t explain it.”

Facts and folklore

Elias Pelton lived like the shorebirds that migrate through Quivira, scurrying along the water’s edge probing the mud in search of a bit of food. The only difference was he went in search of his food from his neighbors.

It was about 1911 when Pelton sold his share of his father’s estate and came to Stafford County from Medicine Lodge. His worldly goods included $1,500 in cash, six horses and a typewriter. According to the Ellinwood Leader, the horses died on the place without ever doing any work. Pelton’s shack had no roof or floor. Later he moved a prefabricated chicken house to his property and called it home.

Like everyone else, Fisher can only guess how Pelican Pete got his name.

“Out here on the salt marsh, we did have a lot of pelicans,” Fisher said. “It was one of the migratory birds, long-legged and long-necked with a pouch.”

It was the pouch that reminded some of Pelton. According to the Ellinwood Leader, “The name ‘Pelican Pete’ seemed inevitable. He was a good-sized man and had a fiery red beard, but there was something in his attitude, when he appeared at a feast, that reminded hunters of a pelican, and his capacity for food made the name more appropriate.”

“He haunted the marshes and had a wraith-like ability to appear out of nowhere. Perhaps he had an unusually sensitive awareness of good cooking, brought on by years of eating his own cooking,” the Leader reported.” Hunters four miles from his shack would see nothing of him until the steaks started to broil, and there he would be in the doorway.”

Pelican Pete’s family

Pelton’s great niece, Betty O’Hara, of Sharon, recalled meeting her Uncle Elias several times when she was a young girl. She spent a lot of time with her grandparents in Medicine Lodge. Her grandfather, Harvey Pelton, was Elias’ brother.

“I remember visiting him after he was taken to Larned,” O’Hara said.

At some point when he was unable to care for himself, he voluntarily committed himself to Larned State Hospital. But according to the Ellinwood Leader, he checked himself out when spring came, eager to be back on the marsh.

In 1941, neighbors hadn’t seen Pelican Pete for some time and went to check on him. They found him between the house and the pump, and he had been there for several days. According to the Leader, he was too weak to shade his face from the sun and was blinded by the light and in bad shape. Again he was sent to Larned for proper care.

Friends who visited hardly recognized him, according to the Leader, “the uncouth hermit was clean-shaven, neat and a fine-looking gentleman.”

Pelican Pete could quote Scripture with the most-learned Bible students. He could work complex mathematical problems in his head and could quote Shakespeare. But for some strange reason, he chose to live as a recluse on the salt marsh.

“I was young and didn’t know a lot,” O’Hara said. “Later, I recalled my dad talked about him being a math genius. He had knowledge of so many things. He was college-educated, but I don’t know where.

“He wasn’t somebody we routinely went to visit or saw. To the best of my knowledge, he was in a class by himself. There might have been other individuals who lived a slightly different lifestyle. He was the only one of this caliber.”

Pelton was born on June 1, 1873 at Gracit County, Michigan, and passed away on May 13, 1945, at Larned at the age of 71. A veteran of the Spanish-American War, he was buried in Sharon Cemetery, according to information on the back of a photo at the Stafford County Historical Museum.

For several years, the city of Stafford celebrated this local character during an event called the “Pelican Pete Pig-Out,” which was a community fundraiser.

For years O’Hara only knew her relative as Elias Pelton. Several years ago she heard someone talk about Pelican Pete and knew it had to be her Uncle Elias.

“He existed; he was not folklore,” O’Hara said. “He was a unique individual.”

Fisher also knows Pelican Pete was more than a local legend.

“He would come right up this lane,” Fisher said pointing toward a row of trees, with the Big Salt Marsh in the distance. “He’d knock on the door and Mom knew what he wanted.”

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