I’d like to introduce you to an interesting character in Champaign County history and lore: Professor David Orin Steinberger.1, 2 Steinberger, who became known as the Hermit of Mad River, was born in Clark County, March 25, 1857, and settled in Champaign County. His family had an extensive pioneer history in the area. His maternal uncle Isaac Funk was one of the founders of Funk & Wagnalls, the publisher of encyclopedias and other reference works.

A graduate of the National Academy of Design and Art League Schools in New York City, Steinberger taught art at Wittenberg College (now University) in Springfield, Ohio USA. His uncle and the other half of Funk & Wagnalls, Adam Wagnalls, had also studied at Wittenberg.

While a professor, David Steinberger contracted tuberculosis (TB). At the time, it was commonly thought that people only got TB from drinking unpasteurized milk from infected cows. While there is scientific evidence that bovine tuberculosis can be passed to humans through raw milk and other dairy products made from raw milk, TB can also be transmitted human to human.

Steinberger, who became very ill, traveled to Colorado for treatment. His treatment would have consisted of living in an open, clean-air environment, primitive TB medications, and lots of bed rest and nursing care in sanitariums.

One of my uncles spent several months in a Colorado sanitarium for TB treatment. In the first half of the 20th century, this was really the only hope for TB patients.

Steinberger’s doctors deemed him too weak for any chance of recovery. They offered him the prospect of living out the rest of his days in a bed at a sanitarium.

But Steinberger wasn’t having any part of that. He boarded a train to return to Urbana and Champaign County. Too weak to sit up for very long, he lay on a cot in a baggage car.

A result of his health challenges, he lost his home and had to rely on friends and his own ingenuity to survive. Steinberger decided his only chance was to get out into the open air, away from everyone, and live off nature – fresh spring-fed Mad River water, tea from boiled tree bark, wild berries, plus food that friends and neighbors brought him.

With the help of friends, he built a tree house in early 1900, 40 feet above Nettle Creek, near the point it flows into Mad River. He was an inventive sort. He used a rope and pulley system to hoist himself up on a small board seat to his domicile, which he called “Camp-a-loft.” He flew an American flag above his home. Below the flag, a lantern burned brightly every night.

Gradually, Steinberger regained his health and strength. The white hair atop his head matched his long white beard. He was a gregarious old-school gentleman. Friends regularly visited him, bringing excess food they had to supplement his natural diet.

He passed the time by reading, writing and sketching. At the behest of friends, he eventually moved to a house. But after two “suffocating weeks” decided to move back to his tree house.

Later, his sister, Mary, decided to marry her beau, John McGee, in a ceremony held up in the tree house. This event made the national news.

In 1922, the farm where Camp-a-loft rose above was sold, so Steinberger had to move. He reestablished his refuge close to the Cedar Bog Nature Preserve in southern Champaign County. Steinberger painted blue arrows on trees to direct visitors to his new tree house. They brought him groceries and sketching supplies. He got milk from cows that grazed on a nearby farm.

After strong winds severely damaged his tree house, Steinberger had to live in a shack at the base of the tree. And injured by a falling tree, he had to use a crutch to get around.

At age 80 Steinberger was left without a home when the sheriff arrested him for vagrancy. I suspect the sheriff’s motive was to provide the hermit three meals, a cot and a roof over his head. However, by law, the sheriff could hold him for only seven days without formal charges. The sheriff and friends arranged for a cabin to be built for him near Zane Caverns and next to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in eastern Logan County.

Eventually he moved back to Champaign County and lived in the hay mow of a barn owned by Jason Bair (see book cover). Years earlier, Steinberger had rescued Bair’s wife, Cinderella Shockey Bair, from a raging bull in a pasture adjacent to Camp-a-loft. Cinderella (yes, that was her name) had managed to climb a small tree just as the bull was about to stomp and butt her to death. The Bairs’ were eternally grateful.

In his final years, the Hermit of Mad River lived at the Champaign County Home. He died of myocardial fibrosis on December 13, 1945, three months before his 89th birthday.

Not bad, considering his health history. But my goal is to make it to 99. Should I start eating wild berries and drinking from the Mad River?

  1. Bauer Fern Ioula Bauer, The Times and Friends of the Hermit David Orrin Steinberger, pp. 1-5, 1995.
  2. History of Champaign County, Ohio, pub. W.H. Beers & Company, 1881 (In the Office of the Library of Congress. Reproduced in 1972 by Unographic, Inc., 4400 Jackson Ave, Evansville, Indiana 47715)