Pelican Pete
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pelicanpete1940.jpg
Elias Pelton, 1940

Pelican Pete, Paul Bunyan of the Salt Marshes

Pelican Pete was a character who rivaled Johnny Appleseed and other famous eccentrics of the early days in his mysterious and picturesque history. He could quote scriptures with the most learned Bible students, he could work the most involved mathematical problems in his head, he could quote Shakespeare, he had a wide knowledge of astronomy and his learning extended to many other lines. Yet, for some strange reason he chose to live as a recluse on the salt marshes [Quivira National Wildlife Refuge].

The tales of his enormous appetite rival the best stories of Paul Bunyan. His acquaintance was nationwide, due to the fact that hunters from all parts of the country, and sometimes from foreign countries, have come to the salt marshes to shoot geese and ducks. All of them knew Pelican Pete.

During the hunting season, Pelican Pete lived off the fat of the land. He made the rounds of the lodges and blinds and always was treated generously. Out of season he did a little sketchy cooking for himself and was fed at farm houses in the neighborhood.

The stories of Pelican Pete's learning are endless. He is said to have beat a young school master, who was teaching for a year to replenish his funds, before continuing his post graduate work, at mathematics. Whether the school teacher, or his strange opponent, propounded the problem Pelican Pete could write the answer down on the board the instant the problem had been stated. No matter what subject was broached he could quote a portion of the scriptures which applied perfectly to the discussion and give the book, chapter and verse from which he quoted. He could recite portions of Shakespeare and other classics and his learning in other unsuspected lines was always cropping out in his conversations.

Hunters on the marsh learned to lock up their food when they went to the blinds. If they did not, Pelican Pete was apt to consume it in a few hours, even though there was enough food to last the party several days.

He could make bread out of shorts and bacon grease, and could live for weeks on flapjacks made from the same material. One farmer gave Pete a dozen hard boiled eggs, a big bowl of potatoes, and a generous portion of fat meat for breakfast. He swears that Pelican saved the egg shells carefully, and after polishing off the huge breakfast, ate the shells with evident enjoyment.

Many hunters have seen Pelican Pete eat until he made himself sick, retire a few moments to correct the situation, and then eat again, as heartily as ever.

Elias Pelton came from a good family in the vicinity of Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Not a great deal is known of his early life. One story is that he was a brilliant student in a midwestern university and that overwork brought on a nervous breakdown. Other believed that some disappointment or tremendous emotional experience may have made him abandon his former mode of life.

At any rate, in about 1911, he is thought to have sold his share of his father's estate. He came to Stafford County, Kansas with about $1,500 in cash, six horses, a typewriter and some other belongings and homesteaded the SW 1/4 of Section 22-21-11.

The six horses died on the place without, as far as anyone knows, ever doing a day's work after their arrival. Pelton erected the walls of a shack on the place and lived in it for several years without taking the trouble to provide it with a roof or a floor. His cookstove would sink into the marsh muck until the door would not open without dragging, before he would take the trouble to jack it up. Finally he roofed the shack, but until the day it burned, it never had a floor.

After it burned, he lived in a hunting lodge for a time and then in a shed belonging to the Meggers. Finally he ran across a pre-fabricated chicken house in a mail order catalog and ordered it. That was his home for the rest of his days on the marsh.

In Pelican Pete's simple scheme of existence, it was easier to stay in bed in cold weather than it was to dress and make a fire. Visitors in the winter often found him in bed, his heavy felt boots, which he wore winter and summer, projecting from under the covers.

Pelican Pete's land was all marsh, heavily crusted with salt. One year he had the Langrehr boys sow it to rye, but the seed all pickled before it could sprout. If Pelican Pete had any source of income, no one knew of it. He had about $1,500 when he came to Stafford County. This sum must have covered all his purchases in the 30 years that followed because he still had about $29 in the bank when he was taken to Larned.

The hermit's life seemed to lack all routine or reason. He wandered widely over this section. He showed up in Ellinwood about once a year, but so far as is known he never purchased food or clothing.

He haunted the marshes and had a wraith-like ability to appear out of nowhere. Perhaps he had an unusually sensitive awareness of good cooking, brought on by the years of eating his own cooking. Hunters four miles from his shack would see nothing of him until the steaks started to broil, and there he would be, in the doorway. He just seemed to materialize where there was food, and he could make food disappear as mysteriously.

He was an accepted part of the cost of a hunting trip and hunters purchased enough food to take care of him when they planned a day of shooting.

The name "Pelican Pete" seemed inevitable. He was a good sized man and had a fiery red beard, but there was something in his attitude, when he appeared at a feast, that reminded hunters of a pelican, and his capacity for food made the name more appropriate.

Pelton was widely read and yet, when his guardian, Walter Rugan, cleaned out his shack, there was very little reading material in it. He was not a drinking man, and no one could say that he had any bad habits. His chief eccentricity was his neglect to cultivate any good habits. He did as little as possible for himself.

Now and then some friend would stake Pelican Pete to a bath and a haircut when he visited town. His neighbor, Fred Meyer, did a lot for him in a great many thoughtful ways. Now and then Meyer would bring Pelton to his home where he would scrub him, give him a haircut and a shave and outfit him in clean clothes. Meyer then would load up his car with food and take Pelton and his groceries back to the cabin. At odd times, Meyer would take food to Pelton's place.

Once when Pelton seemed unable to take care of himself, he signed a voluntary commitment to Larned [State Hospital] and spent a part of the winter there. But when spring came he disappeared and was soon back on the marsh, explaining that the weather was nice and he wanted to be at home.

In late July or early August of 1941, the Meyers had not seen Pelican Pete for some time. Returning from a trip they took the out-of-the-way road past his place to see that he was all right. They found him between the house and the pump. Apparently he had been there two days, too weak to shade his face from the sun. He was blinded by the light and in bad shape. A doctor was called, and in a few days Pelican Pete was much better. But it was decided he would have to go to Larned where he could receive proper care.

Friends who visited Pelican Pete at Larned had trouble recognizing him. The uncouth hermit was gone. He was clean shaven and neat, and was a fine looking man.

Pelican Pete became a business man, in a way, after he abandoned the marsh and looked to the state for his care. His land was leased for oil at $5 per acre, so that the state had some recompense for the years that it took care of him.

Elias Pelton, better known as Pelican Pete, hermit of the salt marshes, passed away May 13, 1945, at the Larned State Hospital in Larned, Kansas, having spent five years there.

Elias Pelton's brother, a mail carrier at Medicine Lodge, was notified of his death and arranged to have him rejoin his family in the Pelton cemetery lot at Medicine Lodge.

Hunters in many parts of the country will read these lines and know that Pelican Pete is dead and buried, but next fall, when steaks are broiling on the marsh, they will not be the least bit surprised if they look up and see him in the doorway. He always appeared from nowhere, and if his spirit roams the marsh, it will be hungry.

[reprinted from The Ellinwood Leader, May 17, 1945]