STRANGE GH: ‘Mole man’ called the most eccentric man in Ottawa County history

Jan 2, 2012

He proclaimed his farm property in Blendon Township as an independent state; enforced his law by shooting at trespassers; and, for at least the last 15 years of his existence, he lived underground like a human mole.

The Dec. 4, 1910, edition of the Detroit Free Press described Whitters in a newspaper headline as “The queerest man in Ottawa County.”

William Whitters was born in Ireland on Nov. 4, 1829, and came to America, taking residence in Michigan’s Ottawa County. He served in the Civil War, in an unassigned position with the 21st Michigan Infantry, where he was described as “an exceptionally accurate sharpshooter.” After the war, he returned to Ottawa County, where by 1880 he was residing with his brother’s family in Georgetown Township. By 1900, he was a widower living in Blendon Township with his daughter, Mara, and Mara’s husband and their family.

Whitters purchased a 40-acre parcel of land on the corner of 88th Avenue and Taylor Street in north Blendon Township — and on it, or rather beneath it, made his home.

Whitters dug out a sizable pit on the property and constructed a shack within it. Passersby often thought the roof they saw was the top of a house hidden behind a berm. It was actually the roof of the shanty protruding above the surface of the pit.

The shack was described as “cramped.” The ceiling of the shack stood no more than 6 feet high from the floor. One side of the single-room space was reportedly occupied by chickens; the other side was a bunk of hay, used for a bed. There was no electricity or running water, as Whitters did not believe in “public utilities.”

The Grand Haven Tribune described Whitters’ home as “a rudely constructed affair.” The Detroit Free Press called it a primitive “dugout dwelling.”

Whitters proclaimed he was law on his land. Anyone, including neighbors, he considered trespassers and fair game for justice at the end of his rifle. Thus, Whitters barely came into contact with his neighbors, who called him “Old Bill.”

Whitters reportedly knew Scripture better than any preacher and claimed to had been to “nearly every country on the face of the globe.”

In 1905, a standoff — the result of a proposed expansion of Taylor Street bordering the southern flank of Whitters’ property — took place between Whitters and surveyors. Whitters constructed a barricade in the road, from which he positioned himself behind with shotgun, daring anyone to pass. In fear, the workmen fled.

The Grand Haven Tribune declared that Whitters was “turning things upside down in Blendon” — so, on May 4, Sheriff Jesse G. Woodbury arrested and jailed the old man.

After Whitters reached the age of 80 in 1910, he decided he’d like to spend the remainder of his life at the old soldiers home in Grand Rapids. He put all of his farming implements up for sale. An auction took place on his property, attracting onlookers and curiosity seekers who barely knew their strange neighbor.

Rain nearly washed the event away, but the bidding continued much to Whitters’ dismay. Thinking he was not receiving top dollar for his items on the block, he outbid the other bidders on every item. At the close of the auction, Whitters remained in possession of all of the items, and decided to forgo his plans to retire at the veterans home and remain on his property. He reportedly was angry he had to pay the two auctioneers the agreed commission on every item sold to get his stuff back.

On the morning of April 12, 1917, neighbors saw smoke rising from the Whitters property and raced over to see a smoldering fire pit. The old man had burned to death after his shack had caught fire. The cause was unknown.

Whitters was 87 when he was buried on April 14 in the Blendon Township Cemetery. He has remained underground ever since.

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