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David Lidstone stood calmly in the ashes of the cabin along the bank of the Merrimack River where he’s lived alone and off-the-grid for years.
The hermit and logger known as River Dave had paddled down the river to see his former home Thursday, the day after a judge gave him 60 days to retrieve his belongings. The property looked nothing like it did when he left in mid-July, arrested by sheriff deputies for defying a court order to leave the land. He spent weeks in jail, insisting he had a right to be there.
Still nimble at age 81, Lidstone hopped out of his faded green kayak and scrambled up a steep, muddy embankment topped by an American flag – onto the Canterbury property whose owner, 86-year-old Vermont resident Leonard Giles, had faced fines if Lidstone didn’t leave.
His chickens wandered through the garden past fallen fencing. The Asiatic lilies he planted were torn out. The two-story A-frame cabin he built was reduced to a pile of charred rubble by a fire that authorities said was likely accidental. The dank smell of burnt wood hung in the humid air. Nearby trees were singed by the heat from the flames. The plants in his greenhouse – peppers, tomatoes, cabbage and melons – were dry and needed water. Piles of wood still sat neatly stacked inside the woodshed.
Walking in the blackened debris past a broken stove and fallen chimney, Lidstone was matter-of-fact.
“This is the weird part about me,” he said. “I’m just able to accept things like this and not let it bother me.”
Still, it pained him to see so much of his hard work ruined, especially the damage to his gardens.
“They knocked the corn down! Now, why would you knock my corn down?” he said. “Isn’t that being just as miserable as you can?”
On Aug. 4, while he was still in Merrimack County Jail in Boscawen, one of Giles’ sons began taking down the cabin, leaving shortly before a fire broke out that leveled the building.
“I’m glad those guys weren’t there when I got here, because I’d have busted some heads,” Lidstone said.
But as days have passed, Lidstone cooled off. He said the fire marshal calmed him down and he agrees the fire could have been accidental.
The New Hampshire Fire Marshal’s Office is still investigating, but Canterbury Fire Chief Michael Gamache said there was no evidence it was intentionally set. Next to the wreckage of the cabin are solar panels removed from the roof, with the wires disconnected – a possible source of the blaze, Gamache said.
Some of Lidstone’s prodigious crops are ready for harvest, including trees heavy with peaches and bushes bursting with ripe blueberries.
He grew most of his food, supplemented with store-bought staples like oats and flour. But his sweet potatoes have been pulled out of the earth, his sunflowers flattened and pots overturned. These little acts of destruction rankled him.
“Why would you destroy a man’s tomato plant? That’s just plain, ludicrously, stupid.”
Down a path, one of several new “no trespassing” signs was hammered into one of the peach trees that Lidstone had grafted and planted years ago, which was now mature and filled with fruit.
“There’s another sign here,” he said and then chuckled. “Oh, come on. And they put staples in to hold it up.”
But Lidstone isn’t angry at Giles, who spent years in court and thousands of dollars to evict him.
“Everybody’s taking my side, and they think he’s the villain when he’s not,” he said. “It’s the Selectmen of the Town of Canterbury that stirred this whole thing up.”
He said the town was more interested in kicking him off the land, even if that meant he became homeless, than working out a resolution.
A potential squatter
The dispute over an old man with a white beard living off the grid in the woods began almost exactly six years ago when Canterbury Town Administrator Ken Folsom sent a letter to Giles on Aug. 17, 2015, warning him about Lidstone’s presence on his land, a 73-acre undeveloped woodlot.
While Lidstone says he has lived there for 27 years, Giles’ attorney Lisa Snow Wade argued the cabin was only built sometime after 2006. Lidstone said she didn’t have her facts straight.
“The town of Canterbury has been made aware of a potential ‘squatter’ on your property,” Folsom wrote in the letter. “We have areas of concern in solid and septic waste disposal and also in potential zoning violations related to long-term occupation of a non-compliant structure.”
In court hearings and in an interview, Giles’ Concord attorney Lisa Snow Wade said the town pushed Giles to evict Lidstone with threats of increased taxes and daily fines for violating zoning ordinances and state laws.
Most recently, she blamed Canterbury for the harassment the elderly Giles has received since Lidstone’s plight became a national news story.
“He’s enduring a lot of online bullying and it’s been very uncomfortable for him to be in a position where the town is telling him to get rid of the structures,” Wade said in court Wednesday.
Lidstone agrees with her. “Those selectmen, they’ve instigated this whole thing for tax dollars,” he said on Aug. 7. “They would put an old man on the street to sleep under a bridge.”
In 2017, a judge ordered Lidstone to vacate the land by September 2019. Folsom met with Giles and Giles’ son Stephen later that year.
“We had a sit-down and I just let them know one the concerns of the town was that there was going to be a penalty for a building on current-use property,” Folsom said, referring to the reduced tax status of an uninhabited woodlot. But the town never sent Giles a new tax bill or estimates of penalties for the zoning violations, he said.
Some of Lidstone’s supporters confronted the Canterbury Select Board at an Aug. 2 meeting, when Lidstone was incarcerated on a civil contempt charge, asking about the town’s role in the dispute.
The select board members said the 2015 letter was the extent of the town’s pressure on Giles.
“Mr. Lidstone and his property and his house are still there. So if we’re applying pressure it sure hasn’t been very effective,” Selectman Robert Steenson said at the meeting.
When friends of Lidstone, like kayaker Jodie Gedeon, asked if the town could take any action to support him, the select board insisted this was a private legal matter.
“None of us has any personal animus towards Mr. Lidstone,” Steenson said. “But we are also the governing body of the town of Canterbury and we therefore cannot ignore illegal activity that occurs within the town. All the other landowners and property owners rely on the town to enforce the laws and their property rights.”
Emails provided by the town of Canterbury show that in recent years, the Giles family was becoming frustrated with the town’s lack of assistance in removing Lidstone.
In October 2018, Stephen Giles wrote to Folsom about a WMUR Chronicle feature on Lidstone. “Hard to believe the police cannot arrest him but a news reporter can find him on his property,” Giles said.
Folsom replied that he would contact the sheriff and forwarded the email to Canterbury Police Chief Michael Labrecque, adding, “Kind of embarrassing if this came out.” The warrant for Lidstone’s arrest had been issued eight months before, in February.
At one point, Giles paid for an outside party to serve Lidstone a notice to appear in court, after Canterbury police and the Merrimack County Sheriff declined, according to the emails.
‘This is becoming somewhat of a very expensive joke for my family. My father is extremely annoyed the Canterbury police have not assisted the sheriff’s office,” Stephen Giles wrote to Folsom in June 2021, after an arrest warrant was issued for Lidstone when he failed to leave. He was eventually arrested by sheriff’s deputies for civil contempt and jailed on July 15.
Judge Andrew Schulman released Lidstone on Aug. 5, writing that he would have less of a reason to “make this particular place in the woods his home” after his cabin was gone. On Wednesday, Schulman granted him 60 days to claim his belongings, including his cats, and said a surveyor could access the land at Lidstone’s request.
Plans for the future
Now Lidstone is weighing offers from people across the country who have volunteered their land as a place for him to live.
Looking at the ruins of his house, he remained hopeful. He wasn’t sure where he would be in a year but was confident he would be fine.
“It’s discouraging, but maybe the best thing,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to come out of this. I’ve been offered lots as far away as Grafton, New Hampshire. A guy said he’s got a house I can move right into.”
He has been non-committal about where he’ll move permanently, although he is considering a potential offer from Concord Friends Meeting, a Quaker meeting with land just a few miles away.
His supporters have also donated clothes, many too large for his skinny frame, and enough food to fully stock a fridge. “Everybody wants to be helpful,” Lidstone said.
Having gone by David most of his life, he’s now become a public figure: River Dave. When he goes down to the water to put in his kayak, boaters stop him for hugs and photos first – a bit of irony not lost on a former hermit.
“I’ve tried to get away from everyone and look what happens, everybody comes and chases me,” he said.
His story – a man fighting to maintain a solitary homestead on land he doesn’t own – has captured the sympathy of people across the country.
“I think they see a little person being stepped on and they admire me for stepping back,” he said.
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