CANTERBURY, N.H. — For almost three decades, 81-year-old David Lidstone has lived in the woods of New Hampshire along the Merrimack River in a small cabin adorned with solar panels. He has grown his own food, cut his own firewood, and tended to his pets and chickens.
But his off-the-grid existence has been challenged in court by a property owner who says he’s been squatting for all those years. And to make Lidstone’s matters worse, his cabin was burned to the ground Wednesday afternoon in a blaze that is being investigated by local authorities.
Lidstone, or “River Dave” as he’s known by boaters and kayakers, was jailed July 15 on a civil contempt sanction. He was told he’d be released if he agreed to leave the cabin, but he has stayed put.
“You came with your guns, you arrested me, brought me in here, you’ve got all my possessions. You keep ’em,” Lidstone told a judge in a court appearance Wednesday morning. “I’ll sit here with your uniform on until I rot, sir.”
Lidstone is accused of squatting for 27 years in the cabin on private property in Canterbury. The wooden, two-level A-frame cabin had a small, cluttered kitchen with pots hanging from the ceiling, some appliances, and curtains on the windows. His porch had a footstool with a base made of stacked beer cans. He converted a wood stove into a beehive. He attached lights, a mirror and a pulley for a clothesline to logs supporting the cabin. There were piles of firewood.
Nearby was a gravel path leading to vegetable garden plots outlined by logs and some berry bushes. Lidstone got his water from a stream.
In court, Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Andrew Schulman agreed that Lidstone wasn’t hurting anyone, but said the law was clearly on the landowner’s side.
“You’re doing your own thing in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state, so there’s a lot of sympathy to you for that,” he said. “But there’s a lot of weight on the other side of the balance sheet, and not just about what the (landowner) wants to do with the land, but the weight I feel to uphold the judgment of the court and the rule of law.”
Jodie Gedeon, an avid kayaker who befriended Lidstone about 20 years ago, had been working with other supporters to help him, including organizing a petition drive and collecting money to cover property taxes.
“I’m devastated,” she said when she learned about the fire.
“He’s just a really, really, big caring guy, and just chooses to live off the grid,” she said in an interview last week. “It really is about humanity, it really is about compassion, empathy … he’s not hurting anybody.”
Gedeon and other supporters came out to a town select board meeting on Monday. Board members had said the town currently has no standing in the property dispute.
But even if there were a way to allow Lidstone to stay, it would be an uphill battle. His home was in violation of local and state zoning and environmental regulations, and there was no access to a road.
“You guys are in a quandary. So are we,” selectman Robert Steenson said.
The woodlot Lidstone called home was just a few miles away from Interstate 93. But it was hidden by the trees; it’s on 73 acres that’s been used for timber harvests. The property has been owned by the same family since 1963. There are no plans at this time to develop it.
The owner of the land had been seeking to tear down the cabin before the fire.
Lidstone has claimed that years ago, the owner gave his word — but nothing in writing — allowing him to live there. But in the eyes of the current owner, he’s a squatter and needs to go.
Property owner Leonard Giles, 86, of South Burlington, Vermont, didn’t even know Lidstone was there until the town administrator found out in 2015 and told him, expressing concern “with regard to the solid and septic waste disposal and the potential zoning violations created by the structure,” according to Giles’ complaint in 2016.
Lidstone, a bearded, small-framed, spritely man, has resisted efforts to leave since a judge issued an order for him to vacate in 2017. Following that, both sides had attempted to reach some sort of agreement for him, but were unsuccessful, according to court documents.
The judge suggested Wednesday that Giles and town officials work with a mediator, but Giles’ lawyer said the logistics would be too daunting.
The vast bulk of Lidstone’s personal items had been removed from the cabin before the fire, Giles’ attorney Lisa Snow Wade said Wednesday night. Several outbuildings remained, and no animals were found, either running around or deceased, Canterbury Fire Chief Michael Gamache said.
Lidstone, who doesn’t have an attorney, insisted that his cabin is a hunting and fishing camp, not a home. He also argued that Giles doesn’t own the property but is being pressured by the town.
“He’s a heck of a nice old man, I’ve talked with him a couple of times. This is not his fault, this is not my fault,” he said at the hearing. “It’s lying, cheating corrupt judges like you that are stepping on little people like me. But I’m telling you, sir, you step on me, I’m going to bite your ankle.”
Before the fire, Lidstone could be released if one of three things happened: he agreed to leave, the cabin was demolished by Giles, or 30 days had passed since he was jailed. Another hearing was scheduled for next week, but Lidstone’s status wasn’t immediately clear.
Gamache said the cabin “had mostly collapsed upon itself” as firefighters arrived in an off-road utility vehicle 2 miles into the woods. He said the State Fire Marshal’s Office has been asked to investigate the cause of the fire.
Lidstone hasn’t had any other contact with law enforcement, unlike the case of a man in Maine called the “North Pond Hermit,” who also lived in the woods for nearly three decades and pleaded guilty in 2013 to multiple burglary and theft charges.
Over the years, Lidstone, a U.S. Air Force veteran and a father of four who has made money as a woodsman, has been known to invite kayakers and boaters into his home, sharing stories about his life in the wild.
Lidstone’s decision to live in the woods is “exactly the lifestyle he wants,” said his brother, Vincent Lidstone, 77, of Lafayette, Georgia.
“What they’re doing to him isn’t right for anybody, whether he’s my brother or anybody’s brother,” he said. “He’s 81 years old. Leave him alone.”
Vincent Lidstone said he lost touch with his brother through the years, but described how the two of them and a cousin enjoyed spending time outdoors. They grew up in Wilton, Maine.
“We lived in the woods,” he said. “We camped, fishing, hunting. The three of us did everything together for a lot of years.”
It’s unclear where Lidstone would go. Vincent Lidstone said he doesn’t have the resources to help him. The Associated Press reached two of his three sons, who said they haven’t been in touch with their father recently. His daughter didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
Before the fire, Gedeon had said the matter hasn’t been discussed by her group yet.
“We want to see him be able to live out his remaining years where he is,” she said.