‘Colonel’ John Mead: the enigmatic ‘Gentleman Bum’ of the River Hills

On January 10, 1917, 75-year-old “Colonel” John Mead died in the county hospital after an 18 month battle with cancer. While little is known about Mead’s origins—including his real name—everyone in southern Lancaster County was familiar with Mead. Perhaps it was because of his unconventional lifestyle and living arrangements.

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Sarah Bishop’s Cave. Photograph by Marie Kendall, ca. 1900. The Connecticut Historical Society, 2000.178.180

The Rock

Mead spent the last 25 years of his life living in various rock shelters and caves along the river hills of the Susquehanna. His first rock shelter home was located one mile east of the Martic Forge at a place Mead called “Middle Rock.” However, the building of the Enola Low-Grade in 1903 forced him out.

The approximate location of “Middle Rock” is circled in red on the 1899 map of Martic Township shown below.

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The approximate location John Mead’s “Middle Rock” home circled in red on this 1899 Martic Township map.

Mead settled near the Susquehanna River, making his home beneath House Rock along the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad. However, he soon moved again when his rock shelter home was destroyed due to a railway widening project.

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The approximate location John Mead’s “House Rock” home circled in red on this 1899 Martic Township map.

Mead relocated for the third and final time to a cave he called “Observation Rock.” Located 1.5 miles south of Pequea along the C&PD, Mead would call this home for more than ten years. His quarters were said to be situated beneath one of the highest rocks along the Lancaster County shore of the Susquehanna River. The approximate location of Mead’s Observation Rock cave home is circled in red on the 1899 Martic Township map below.

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The approximate location John Mead’s “Observation Rock” home circled in red on this 1899 Martic Township map.

Mead protected himself from the weather by placing timber around the entrance to his rock home. He slept on a longboard only covered over by a thin sheet. Mead’s cookstove consisted of a half dozen bricks and a large iron plate. He was always well supplied with fuel from wood he cut in the surrounding forest and coal he picked along the railroad.

Canned goods, fish, dry bread, and coffee was his daily menu.

It was here that Mead entertained hundreds of visitors annually, some of whom were prominent figures in the community. Others were complete strangers on vacation in Pequea, which at the time was a popular summer resort. In fact, before the Great Depression, Pequea was a major tourist destination, with countless people staying at the River View Hotel each season.

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Pequea was once a trendy tourist destination where people enjoyed summer activities of boating, fishing, and swimming.

Observation Rock provided magnificent views of the surrounding country. Mead enjoyed walking about his premises with visitors, pointing out and explaining to them the work of nature as well as distant places viewed from there.

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The view from atop the nearby House Rock.

Mead also delighted in showing visitors photographs which were taken of him in company with the fair sex.

He also had an extensive collection of Indian relics, which Mead claimed to have received through his association with the Indians. Others he said were found in the woods about his cave home.

Those who visited him stated he would always accept a gift of money but never asked for any.

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Elderly swagman circa 1901. Image courtesy of New South Wales Government Printer.

“Colonel”

Mead often referred to himself as a “gentleman bum” but was familiarly known as “Colonel” to visitors. He was an excellent conversationist and enjoyed discussing topics of the day. Little is known of his origin as Mead typically avoided personal questions. What had been learned over the years was that he originally a native of Maine. As a young man, Mead was employed by his father, who manufactured goods for the United States Government.

Mead never divulged his reason for living as a hermit. His closest friends came to believe that John Mead was actually an assumed name. The prefix of Colonel was never accounted for though except that he was a veteran likely of the Civil War. Mead possibly suffered from PTSD, which contributed to his desire to live as a hermit.

Gentleman Bum

Mead was extraordinarily intelligent and a constant reader. Most of his reading materials were provided by generous railroad workers who, on their trip past his home, would throw him books and newspapers from the train.

People believed that Mead was well educated and said he was quite the linguist. He was always clean, tidy, and very courteous.

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Hobo sitting on a fence circa 1920. Image courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection.

Mead occasionally worked for local farmers. They said he termed himself the “gentleman bum.” Mead would accept a meal, providing he worked for it, but he always refused to sleep in a bed. Often in the spring, he journeyed to New Jersey, where he worked on vegetable farms.

It was not uncommon for Mead to disappear for several days at a time only to return with a supply of food, coal, and wood. He was a regular customer at the Eshleman store in Pequea, where he purchased supplies.

A Sad End

On August 27, 1916, Mead was admitted to the county hospital due to complications related to an earlier surgery for cancer removal. Five months later and still a resident, Mead died. Despite his many visitors and acquiesces, Mead’s body was unclaimed after his death. He was buried at the Almshouse Cemetery. 

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Lancaster County Alms House.

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