The Hermit of Mount Clara

All Olaf Magnus Svenson really wanted was a home, food, water, a garden and peace and quiet. To achieve this, he decided to set himself up far away from civilisation; over 50km away from the nearest town; on a remote mountain near the Yellowdine Nature Reserve.

Mount Clara
Mount Clara. Courtesy of Google Earth.

Described as a “bare granite rock” and a “waterless, hungry spot“, Mount Clara (nearly an hour away from Southern Cross and close to the Karalee Rocks) would not have been the most hospitable place in Western Australia. To his credit, Olaf made it work.

Often described as German, he was actually Swedish and was born to parents, Sven Olsen and Christina Nilson,  in approximately 1854. In Sweden he married Anna Swenham at age 30 (1884) and had three children. He was a sailor which could explain how he ended up in Australia, spending two years in Victoria and two years in Tasmania. By the 1890s (perhaps coinciding with the goldrush) he arrived in Western Australia and in 1896 he was located east of Southern Cross, having decided that the area at Mount Clara would do nicely for a home.

On 6 April 1896 at age 42, he made an application for 300 acres of agricultural land near Hunts Dam in Yilgarn (Mount Clara). A form was posted to him requesting payment of the year’s rent but Olaf did not respond immediately. Notes on file show that there was some confusion with officials believing that the lack of response indicated that Olaf had abandoned the land. The Under Secretary for Lands initially deemed the application void but then, two years later, they received payment from Olaf which had been sent to the Mine’s Department. The land had been granted under the Mineral Lands Act.

While there was toing and froing within Government Departments, Olaf immediately got to work on the essentials. A large ravine ran down the side of the mountain and, at the base of it, he constructed a dam to catch the water that flowed down it. With his water supply sorted, he got to work on his food supply.

One settler has selected 300 acres at Karalee and has made a large dam at a granite rock, and intends to grow vegetables by irrigation. ~ 11 August 1897

So that the area could be irrigated, he converted several acres of land close to the dam into a garden and began growing an abundance of fruit and vegetables such as melons, tomatoes and pumpkins. For meat, he was known to trap birds. Not satisfied with simply subsisting on a diet of meat and vegetables, he took to clearing 20 acres of adjoining scrub and planted a crop of wheat.

With his wheat fenced, he built a mill-like device (which he supposedly threatened to patent) so that he could grind his grain into flour and make his own bread.

… – and good bread the old fellow makes too.

While I am unsure as to what 20 acres cleared would look like, a search on Google Earth certainly seems to indicate that a large amount of land surrounding Mount Clara was indeed cleared (whether in the past or more recently). A bird-eye-view of the area shows a stark rectangle of red dirt bordered on all sides by scrub.

When his grain was ready to harvest, Olaf was said to have harvested it in a rather old fashioned way.

When his crop ripened he cut it with an old butcher’s cleaver, flayed it in the old primitive method with two sticks, patiently carried the wheat to his mill, and there ground his year’s supply of flour.

There was always something to be done and, even if it appeared he had all he needed, he went about constructing something else. He dug out another dam which was said to hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, built a house for himself (supposedly out of ant-heaps) and a store room for his grain. Mount Clara and the area surrounding it was transformed into an oasis in the desert.

He had an abundance of water and food and such was the success with his vegetable garden that he often had too much. Stories about what he did with the food tended to differ. One article indicated that when he needed supplies (usually seeds) he walked to Southern Cross with the vegetables in a wheelbarrow and sold them to storekeepers. Another however paints a rather grim picture. Instead of giving the food away or selling it at a market, he was said to have preferred to leave it where it was, rotting in the sun. Asked why he did not sell his food he responded, “I vould sooner see dem rot dan gif dem to de deceitful huThe Westmanity. I vould soon gif dem to de pigs.

The truth may be found somewhere in the middle. Olaf may have initially sold the food at market in his earlier years but later on decided not to, perhaps because he struggled to make the trip. A much later article in The West Australian (left) certainly paints a more balanced picture. Yes, he preferred to keep to himself but when other people needed water or food, he was not purposely mean and allowed them to partake from his land.

If reports of his harsh comments towards his fellow human beings were correct, according to the newspapers, they seemed to have developed in part from an earlier time when he was spurned by love.

Spurned

Again, I am unsure as to the truth with this statement. As mentioned earlier, he was married in 1884 but later records (dated 1906) state that he was widowed. This may have been a lie on his part or he simply didn’t know what happened to his wife. On the other hand, perhaps he was widowed and his choice to remain on his own did not arise out of a need for revenge but stemmed from grief.

Olaf lived undisturbed on a diet of vegetables, bread and the occasional meat for years and with everything he required around him, there was no need for him to leave his home on a regular basis. Indeed a writer for The West Australian painted a rather romantic view of him working hard during the day and at night time playing his cornet while looking up at the stars.

When he did go to Southern Cross there is no doubt the eccentric visitor would have raised eyebrows and attracted a few stares in town.

His wearing apparel consisted of sacks, and with long flowing locks of tangled hair and a formidable bowie-knife in a belt of plaited grass, he looked like some wild monster of the dark ages.

He was also the source of amusement at Karalee (over 2 km from Mount Clara) when he wrote the following strange religious-themed letter to the railway station master requesting that all bicycles keep away.

Letter

Olaf did not own the land he lived on but was required to pay a rent to the Government. According to The Southern Cross Times, he did not pay his rent regularly and thus the land was forfeited.

Official documents indicate that the rent was paid up until 1899 with the Warden for the Yilgarn Goldfields stating, “Svenson has made great improvements on the property.” In 1900 he struggled to make payment and requested respite for a couple of months. It was granted but this respite appears to have lasted for several years.

By 1902 Government officials were still going backwards and forwards with regards to the Mount Clara land. Rent was owed to the Lands Department but the lease had been granted under the Mineral Lands Act with the money sent to the Mine’s Department. No rent however had been paid since 1899. Further complicating matters, no one knew if Olaf was still occupying the land (he refused to respond to letters) thus, in 1903, the Under Secretary for Lands sent a memo to the Commissioner of Police.

A man named O. M. Swenson was granted a block of land for agricultural purposes near Hunt’s Damn, Yilgarn, and he has paid rent on this for one or two years, but it appears he never had a formal lease on the land.

2. Lately both this Department and the Mines have been trying to find his whereabouts but without success, and I shall therefore be obliged if you could inform me whether he still occupies the land.

Constable Fitzgerald was sent to Mount Clara on 5 September 1902 and found Olaf still at Mount Clara and still occupying the land.

To bring the land back under the Lands Department, the Under Secretary for Lands suggested that Olaf forfeit his lease and then reapply for it under a Miner’s Homestead Lease. He refused stating, “It will be to bring authority under subjection.” Another indication of his religious leanings.

In 1903 Olaf finally wrote a letter, addressing it to the Under Secretary for Mines.

Olaf's Letter

It was forwarded to the Under Secretary for Lands who noted Olaf’s response and the lack of rent paid and wrote back stating that unless he applied for a Miner’s Homestead Lease, the land would be forfeited. In spite of this letter, Olaf remained on the land.

Rabbits arrived in Western Australia in 1896 and in ten years progressed further west from Eucla to the Southern Cross area. In March 1906 it was reported that the rabbits had made a home at Mount Clara and had eaten Olaf’s crops and garden. Half starved, he was discovered by a group of curious visitors and was quickly taken to the Southern Cross Hospital for care.

In writing his story The Southern Cross Times hoped that, while he was there, a few pounds could be raised and rabbit proof netting could be purchased to give Olaf a better chance at protecting his land from the rabbits. It’s not known if anything came of this generous suggestion.

Having recovered, it was reported on 7 April 1906 that Olaf finally returned home to Mount Clara, with the Warden ordering Police to provide him with rations. He was there for less than two weeks. Some time after his release from hospital, Olaf was sent (perhaps by train) to Perth and, on 17 April 1906 at age 52, he was admitted into the Claremont Old Men’s Home (today known as the old Sunset Hospital).

He continued in his hermitage until his old age and weakened condition drew the notice and compassion of the Government. Perhaps he misunderstood: certainly he protested, implored, wept: but he was taken, unwillingly, to the comfort and security of the Old Men’s Home (Sunset).

In the subsequent years he voted once in 1910 (recorded as living at the Claremont Retreat) and was noted as being discharged on 5 July 1925 but was quickly readmitted four days later. He remained absent from the news and presumably lived out the remainder of his years in the Home.

Old Men's Home
Wards at the Old Men’s Home in Claremont

At the Home he would have had a bed to sleep in and was fed regularly. There was a library he could read from, a bowling green, the opportunity to go fishing and various other entertainments. The grounds were kept neat and were described as “bright with flowers.” Whether Olaf enjoyed such a change (especially after being on his own for so long) remains to be seen.

It’s not known if Olaf was admitted to the Home on the recommendation of another person or if he was removed by the Government however it is unlikely that he made the journey to Perth on his own. Despite his eccentricities, it’s a rather sad end for a man who put so much energy into cultivating the land at Mount Clara.

Olaf remained at the Old Men’s Home until his death on 4 March 1943 at the fairly respectable age of 89. As per his religious beliefs, he was buried in the Lutheran section of Karrakatta Cemetery. Unsurprisingly (given he was most likely penniless) he is buried in an unmarked grave. Frustratingly, the area is so unmarked that I could not even find the marker indicating where his burial plot is. Olaf’s remains lie somewhere in the patch of sand seen in the following photo.

Karrakatta Burial

In returning to the history of Mount Clara itself, it’s interesting to note that in January of 1907 (less than a year after Olaf was admitted to the Home) a man named George Baglin applied for a Miner’s Homestead Lease (what the Lands Department wanted Olaf to do) over Mount Clara. His application was granted.

By all appearances, Mr Baglin (for reasons of his own) kept the story of the hermit of Mount Clara alive and even called the property ‘The Hermitage’. However an article printed in The Evening Star in 1909 gave acknowledgement that Mr Baglin’s success on the property was likely thanks to Olaf.

All things seems to thrive well. Experiments have been made in almost all kinds of vegetables and fruit trees. Citrus trees have made extraordinary growth, and cauliflowers weighing 14lb were to be seen. Fred has undoubtedly been lucky in following and having the benefit of the labor of the “Old Hermit” who in years gone by wheeled his barrow of vegetables 60 odd mile to Southern Cross and back on his market days.

Like Olaf before him, George/Fred Baglin eventually left Mount Clara, stopped paying the rent and forfeited the property. He later went on to become a Member of Parliament for Western Australia.

In reading about Olaf, he often comes across as a rather strange, eccentric individual. It’s important to remember however that much of what we do know about him stems from newspaper reports. These reports and the ‘facts’ within them were at times contradictory and should be taken with a grain of salt. He was most likely curmudgeonly but at times he appeared to be kind. He was also fiercely independent and often refused help; not wishing to take something off someone else.

“My friend,” he said to an engine-driver who had offered him a coat, “never give away what you may need yourself.”

While it was true that he lived alone and constructed a fairly impressive home and garden for himself in the outback, the fact remains that much of what was printed in the papers was most likely gossip. Whenever someone different comes along, people will talk and speculate; a fact of life that continues to this day. Perhaps somewhere between the lines there is a version of the truth but the likelihood of that being uncovered in its entirety is slim. Whatever the case, Olaf was a man on a mission and there is no doubt in my mind that in carrying out his own purpose in simply living his life he managed to carve out a story of endurance that in turn became a legend.

According to a brochure on the Shire of Yilgarn’s website, one of the rocks near Mount Clara is aptly named ‘Hermit Rock’. Today the property where Olaf lived is privately owned. If you can add any more detail to Olaf’s story, please feel free to leave a comment.

Sources:

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