CANTERBURY, N.H. — For 27 years, 81-year-old David Lidstone lived in the woods of New Hampshire along the Merrimack River in a small, solar-paneled cabin, growing his food, cutting his firewood, and tending to his cat and chickens. But his off-the-grid existence has come to a sad end.
Court documents say the woodlot “River Dave" calls home just a few miles away from Interstate 93, yet hidden by the trees, has been owned by the same family for decades.
The current owner has been trying to get him out since 2016. Lidstone, now jailed, says a prior owner gave his word — but nothing in writing — to let him live there.
But Wednesday, his home was destroyed in a fire, the Canterbury Fire Department confirmed.
According to a press release, fire crews responded to the scene by ATV around 3:30 p.m. They first extinguished the flames that spread to the surrounding wooded area, then turned to the home that had fully collapsed. A water source from the Merrimack River was established using portable floating pumps, according to the release.
The flames were extinguished by 5:30 p.m.
Crews did not find anyone inside the cabin, the release said.
The State Fire Marshall’s Office arrived at the scene to investigate the cause of the fire.
Canterbury Police Dept., Boscawen, Concord, and Loudon fire departments, the State Fire Marshall’s Office, Railroad representatives, and Capital Area 1 Chief Gilbert all assisted on the scene.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The woodlot Lidstone called home is 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.
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.
In court Wednesday, before the house caught fire, Giles' lawyer, Lisa Snow Wade, said her client "hasn't needed the stress these last few years."
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.
In court Wednesday, officials said Lidstone can be released if one of three things happens: he agrees to leave, the cabin is demolished by Giles, or 30 days have passed since he was jailed.
"I will sit here until I rot, or I will go home,'' Lidstone, who doesn't have a lawyer, told the judge from jail on July 28 when asked if he'd agree to go back to the cabin to collect his things and depart for good.
Now that the fire has destroyed the cabin, it is unclear at this time what will happen.
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.
The wooden, two-level A-frame cabin, was profiled by a local television show in 2018. There was 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 had attached lights, a mirror, and a pulley for a clothesline to logs supporting the cabin. Nearby is a gravel path leading to vegetable garden plots outlined by logs and some berry bushes. Lidstone gets his water from a stream.
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 now unclear where Lidstone will 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 with a comment.