The Hermit of Lake St. Peter: “Ol Joe” Goulah Lived on his own Terms

By Barry Penhale
Photos courtesy Barry Penhale Collection

Established in 1956 and situated on a point of land dividing upper and lower Lake St. Peter Lake, a scenic park whose name is shared with a birch-lined lake and a long-established community has charmed travelers exploring Ontario for many years. Though limited in size, the park’s almost primitive beauty lures many repeat campers back to their favourite location among the inviting campsites.

A colourful and highly independent individual once lived here in the spot he considered “heaven on earth.” His name was Joe Goulah but his many local acquaintances simply thought of him as “Ole Joe.”

“Ole Joe” rowing on Lake St. Peter Lake in a wooden boat he himself built.

“Ole Joe” rowing on Lake St. Peter Lake in a wooden boat he himself built.

Though ultimately he was to live the life of a hermit, it is generally believed that Goulah first came to Lake St. Peter in the 1920s while in the employ of the Rathbun Lumber Company of Deseronto. Following the sale of Rathbun’s local logging operations, Joe opted to stay in the area by locating at nearby Mink Lake. Thus began his solitary lifestyle, devoid of human companionship but surrounded by an increasing number of pets. In addition to chickens and ducks it was said at one time he had a pack of 14 dogs and a lone raccoon. This menagerie seemed to satisfy Goulah’s need for companionship during a lengthy period that ended in the 1950s, when concerned Lake St. Peter residents successfully encouraged him to relocate to what today is Lake St. Peter Provincial Park.

As a one-time regular visitor to Lake St. Peter, I well recall when, across from the park campgrounds, I first ascended the hill that led to the overgrown remains of “Ole Joe’s” log cabin. It’s a trek I heartily recommend to others and one easily found in park brochures, providing a local history lesson that causes one to admire one man’s independence and obvious ingenuity.

Building his 24x18-foot cabin home without any helpers obviously did not faze Joe! The end result would have done any craftsman proud. His hand-hewn logs, handmade rafters and intricate details were neatly fitted one to the other — all without a draftsman’s skill or blueprints. The remains of his dwelling and what had been his garden were at that time still visible and some limited evidence existed of the owner’s early attempts to keep away unwelcome intruders.

I have no idea if any of the cabin or its remains are still there today but back in the early 1960s visitors to the park office were greeted by a small display related to “Ole Joe” and his time. Over the years the hermit of Lake St. Peter had become well-known to area residents and, as he aged, some of his acquaintances would buy Goulah’s handmade axe handles or purchase miniature canoes or his own line of unique jewellery.

Of all his creations, however, he was best-known for handcrafted violins and lutes made from local birch and maple trees. A prominent area teacher with whom I would chat when the opportunities arose, Vi Card often spoke of the time when she had Joe come to her classroom and play for the assembled students. Between his playing and singing — both greatly off key — the weird sounds he produced were unlike any she had ever heard! Goulah would on occasion entertain local friends but always made it known that a “hands-off” stipulation was a must when it came to his prized lute — his reasoning — “the music was so sweet, it would kill ya.”

In the early 1960s visitors to the Lake St. Peter park office were greeted by a small display related to Joe Goulah and his time. Over the years the hermit of Lake St. Peter had become well-known to area residents.

In the early 1960s visitors to the Lake St. Peter park office were greeted by a small display related to Joe Goulah and his time. Over the years the hermit of Lake St. Peter had become well-known to area residents.

That “Ole Joe” was quite a character is an understatement. He obviously marched to his own drummer and did so reasonably well for one lacking formal education and saddled with a mind that often acted more than a wee bit odd. Rumours abound that while exercising horses around a racetrack, a younger Joe had suffered a serious kick to the head. Perhaps there is something to those stories and since the Rathbun Company used horses in the bush, he may have been employed as a teamster. But there would appear to be an incomplete chapter facing anyone attempting to shed further light on the life of Joe Goulah. There remains much that we will likely never know.

Decades have passed since Goulah was on the scene and I confess to not knowing how or when he passed on. My friend Esmond Skidmore, late of Belleville, once took on a magazine-writing assignment at my request that focused on “Ole Joe.” Himself known as Lake St. Peter’s “hermit with a difference,” Esmond had over time attained a local celebrity status as the operator of a popular tea room. Intrigued by the occasional mention of “Ole Joe” by local residents, Skidmore responded positively to my suggestion and came through with an interesting piece.

Today, “Ole Joe” is long gone and the most distinctive sounds locally are those made by the majestic loons that cavort on the sparkling waters of Lake St. Peter. He would have heard such haunting cries many, many times and most likely didn’t think them to be the least bit weird and primitive. Perhaps he even accompanied them in his own original unorthodox fashion -- strumming his favourite lute.