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Who was JOE ROOT - -- Facts, legends, or all just fantasy?HIS NAME WAS JOE ROOT.

Updated: May 31, 2023

Who was JOE ROOT - -- Facts, legends, or all just fantasy?

HIS NAME WAS JOE ROOT. He was real. Joe was not just a fantasy or legend, as some people think. To some, he ranked as the King of Presque Isle; others just called him that loony old hermit out on the park. Like most legends, the background and knowledge concerning Joe vary depending on your resources or myths that might get in the way of actual events.

For example, diverse sources show he could have been born either in 1880, 1867, or 1858. The truth is still a bit confusing. Truthfully, no one can be really sure. The 1858 date seems more logical since he was reported living on Presque Isle sometime around 1882. I am sure a two-year-old would not be moving to Presque Isle. I also have a hard time believing he was just 15 when he made this move. It seems from all documentation and stories about Joe, his time on the park begin about 1885.

According to old stories, when Joe was young, he lived part-time with his great Aunt Mary Johnson at 12th and Popular. Her home was along the former Erie Extension Canal, less than 50 yards from one of the canal’s locks. Mary’s brother, Gilson, lived in Girard and helped raise Joe when he was young. As a young child of nine or ten, Joe moved to Fairview to work with Gilson, where he learned to be a fisherman. While with Gilson, he would fish both Walnut and Elk Creeks and the near shores of Lake Erie.

When he reached his teens, he returned to stay with the widow, Mary Johnson. He helped Mary around the house in return for room and board. A sideline fact is that Gilson and Mary taught Joe to be an excellent cook, and Joe enjoyed cooking. This skill would serve him well when he moved out onto Presque Isle.

Not much is known about Joe’s childhood. Some people believe at the time; he would live among circus people from Dayton, Ohio. One story has his mother, as a circus person named “Froney Goodbye,” who wintered each year with the circus people in Girard.

From the information available, it looks like Joe was born in the county poorhouse, which was at the time located on a 100-acre plot at what is now 23rd and Pittsburgh Ave. At the time, the poorhouse was considered way out of the country.

The poorhouse building was a 60-room grim-looking brick building with little or no interesting features. Sometime in 1880, it was replaced with an even grimmer four-story building with over 400 tiny rooms. The old building became a laundry and maintenance building.

I have also found that Joe’s mother’s actual name began often appearing in county records as SUSAN ROOT. Yet, no one has ever heard who Joe’s father was or if she was ever married. W that Susan Froney traveled to Girard many times on the waters of the Erie Canal. Back in those days, the Canal became an accessible byway to and from the Fairview and Girard area.

Susan made these trips to be with her friends, the circus people. Most people believe this is most likely true because of Joe’s skills as a ventriloquist and his stories about animals and the circus. When he was with children, Joe would carry on conversations with a hollow tree or maybe even talk into his hat, which, to the delight of the children, would answer him back. He also told many stories about the circus and the people and animals he saw.

Still, another tale shows Joe as the son of Susan Root, who lived much of her life in the county poorhouse. This story has no mention of Froney Goodbye. Again, this story has its roots in the circus, as the unknown father was rumored to have been involved in the traveling show.

Still another story is that for the early part of Joe’s life, Susan and he were said to live with Susan’s mother in a small outbuilding along the towpath somewhere on the Erie Extension Canal. However, like most tales about Joe’s early years, no one can be sure if this is true or not.

But as soon as Joe became a young man, he developed a wanderlust. He began to spend more and more time on Presque Isle and visiting the bars in downtown Erie. Joe still lived part-time with Mary and helped her around the house. Eventually, he learned to become a full-blown fisherman’s apprentice and later, for a short time, a self-employed fisherman. Most of his fishing now took place on and around Presque Isle.

When the widow Johnson died in 1897, Joe became homeless and essentially moved out of Mary’s and permanently onto Presque Isle. He would live there from mid-March until the cold weather drove him off the peninsula to survive. It was usually in mid-October or the first weeks of November.

Joe would move off Presque Isle and become a regular winter resident of the now newer County Poorhouse, knowing he could get a warm bed and hot meal each day. When spring arrived, he would leave his room at the poorhouse and move back to Presque Isle. The poorhouse at the time was still located just off Pittsburgh Ave. near 22nd Street.

Joe Root’s allure and legend are extensive and varied; nevertheless, one aspect is constant in all the stories. Joe would have at least four or five shacks built from driftwood, packing crates, and anything else he could get his hands on. The shacks would always be hidden away in the woods of the park. He was also known to tear down and move them once or twice a year.

He moreover had a habit of moving from one shack to another so no one would know where or how to find him. Most people believe he did this to keep out of the weather. Some legends have it that the local lawman, Constable Siebel, was sure it was to stay one step ahead of the long reach of the law. The constable intensely distrusted Joe and watched him whenever he came into town. Another habit Joe had was moving near the lake or bay in warm weather and moving inland as storms and colds approached.

In article two, I will continue the sage of JOE ROOT and his adventures on Presque Isle. Until then,

Gene Ware is a published author o books and was past Chairman of the board of the Tom Ridge Center Foundation and the Presque Isle Partnership. Send questions and comments to

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