Legend, Lore & Legacy: Ben Lilly
Next to Davy Crockett himself, Ben Lilly may have been the most legendary outdoorsman Texas has known.
By Herman W. Brune
The Ben Lilly legend is a story best told at a campfire in the deep East Texas woods, where dim trails lead to sudden adventure and the screech of an owl raises your hair — for this was the lair of Ben Lilly.
As the rural South grew through the cane breaks, swamps and thickets, his exploits exemplified the spirit of early frontiersmen. The tales, the regional customs and the eccentricities of the man mingle reality and myth.
Benjamin Vernon Lilly was born Dec. 31, 1856, in Wilcox County, Ala., the oldest of seven children. His mother, Margaret Anna McKay, was Scottish and graduated from Nicholson Female College in Mississippi. His parents believed in education. He had a sister who became a teacher at Davidson College and another who was a pipe organist and music teacher.
His family also understood steel. His father, Albert Lilly, was a wheelwright and blacksmith. During the Civil War, he forged horseshoes and the 18-inch, double-edged blades that were carried by General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s hell-for-leather cavalry.
Ben Lilly’s grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Lilly, fought in the War of 1812 and built guns famous for their accuracy. His great-grandfather, William Lilly, came from England. He lived in the most remote area of North Carolina among the Indians.
A kinsman, John Lilly, built guns during the Revolutionary War. He was called “Pegleg” for obvious reasons, and was noted for bracing three British soldiers at once with his sword.
Ben Lilly’s first vocation was blacksmithing. He enjoyed making his Lilly knives and knew how to temper steel. Nevertheless, he inherited a farm and tried to become a farmer. Neighbors reported seeing Lilly running behind his plowhorse, tearing furrows in the earth at full gallop, laughing and guiding the plow handles.
He was an extraordinary specimen of pure strength. Lilly stood 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 180 pounds. He could sink his hooks into a 500-pound cotton bale, heft it onto his back and carry it off. One of his favorite tricks was to walk into the blacksmith shop, grab the anvil by the horn with one hand, lift it straight out in front of him, then grab it two-handed and pitch it over his shoulder.
His running skill was unequalled. He once bet a local athlete he could outrun him around a baseball diamond, and Lilly would run on all fours. Lilly crossed homeplate with the challenged loser still halfway back to third base.
He was also a great prankster. He loved to play horse. He’d saddle himself and invite an unsuspecting youth to try to ride him. Then he’d buck and pitch, tearing up a half-acre of ground, and then jump off a creek bank into deep water.
Despite his exposure to harsh weather, Lilly was seldom sick. The only lingering malady he suffered was a loss of hearing in one ear. He claimed it came from sleeping on wet ground. There is a story he once had malaria. Doctors had a hard time keeping him in the hospital, and finally one day saw him outside rolling in the mud. He believed sweetened water and Mother Earth could cure his ailments.
Lilly was well-known for his eccentricities. He would stick an ear of corn in his pocket, take his blanket and a piece of canvas and disappear into the woods for weeks. His wife once complained about a hawk getting their chickens and pointed to it perched in a tree. The hawk flew just as Lilly picked up his rifle. So he followed it into the woods. More than a year later he came home and reported, “That hawk just kept flying.”
Lilly always wore a beard. He said he was a big boy the first time he saw a man with a clean-shaven face, and it scared him terribly. He thought the man was dead. Never wanting to scare anyone, he vowed to always wear a beard.
He refused to work on Sundays. Even on a hot track, at the stroke of midnight he shut business down. If his dogs treed a mountain lion on Saturday night, they would have to stay with the cat until Monday morning.
Ben Lilly worked hard, lived hard and played hard; but he was a gentle and soft-spoken man. He used good English and enjoyed telling stories. His face was described as fresh and open as the prairie after a spring rain. To know him and to listen to him was to trust him and believe him. He considered owning property to be a hindrance. His heart was in the wild lands, and he never doubted he was born to hunt. To him, bears and mountain lions were all potential stock killers. Various government agencies and stock associations paid bounties on predators. He saw it as his duty to hunt them and educate others about the animals’ habits.
Practically single-handedly, Lilly exterminated bears from Mississippi and Louisiana. Then he moved to the Texas Big Thicket. When he left, he reported that fewer than a dozen bears remained. This was not gluttony. The growing country welcomed him. The pioneers knew they were part of the wilderness food chain, and wanted to establish themselves at the top.
Lilly filled a void between Davy Crockett and the more modern-day outdoorsmen Jack O’Connor and Elmer Keith. He survived from the American frontier to the Industrial Revolution. He guided Theodore Roosevelt on hunts and, though not a conservationist, was one of the first hunters to provide scientific evidence to the U.S. Biological Survey. Many naturalists and biologists of the early 20th century quote him in their books.
In a conversation with J. Frank Dobie, Lilly summarized his feelings: “When I am around babies, I always tote them out on my arm in the evening and let them look at the stars and feel the wind. They sleep better for that. They would sleep better still if they had their pallets on the ground. I always sleep better on the ground. Something agreeable to my system seeps into it from the ground. Every man and woman ought to get out and be alone with the elements a while every day….”