LOUISVILLE, Neb. — There was a time when dang near everybody in Louisville knew about Dynamite Pete.
If you didn’t spot the shoeless hermit walking into town for supplies, perhaps you heard his 200-year-old Jacob Stainer violin squeaking out “Turkey in the Straw” from the woods. Or maybe you saw him walking on his hands with a bottle of whiskey in his mouth to win a bet.
Legend has it that ol’ Pete, antagonized by a group of railroaders, once lit a stick of dynamite in a South Bend bar and asked, “Which of you kids are man enough to stay and have a drink with me?”
The patrons scattered, and barefoot Pete spat on his dirty fingers, pinched the wick and collected the orphaned beers for himself.
That story dates back more than 70 years. The man — whose real name was Levi Everett — died in 1949.
These days, the only real sign of Dynamite Pete in Louisville is a cheeseburger bearing his name and a bent photograph pinned to the back wall of a diner.
For an extra $2, Main Street Cafe will add chili and cheese to its Angus burger or a hot dog. “Dynamite Pete style,” the menu says.
Dynamite Pete is a fading memory, but his legend lives on in the yellowed newspapers and archives of the town library, and every so often in a fuzzy bar tale told by an old-timer.
Levi Everett was born Dec. 9, 1862 to a German immigrant father, and — perhaps as early as age 21 — he lived alone in a 6-by-9-foot shack along the Pawnee Creek near the Platte River. He worked in the rock quarry near South Bend as a powder monkey, setting dynamite charges to blast rock loose. That’s how he earned his nickname.
“It’s said that he got the job because no one else was crazy enough to drive a buckboard full of nitroglycerin along the bumpy, rutted roads during the summertime,” said Chris Petersen, who owns an acreage on Pawnee Creek near South Bend. “Somehow, he survived.”
Pete raised his own food in the woods and, for a time, cured his own tobacco. He didn’t pay rent, he didn’t pay taxes and he absolutely refused to wear shoes.
Each August, he is said to have wandered into Louisville for the annual carnival talent show to play “Turkey in the Straw” on his violin. One year, organizers asked him to stop chewing tobacco on stage, and he agreed. They also insisted that he put on a pair of shoes and a shirt.
“At this point, he drew the line and said ‘Hell no,’” wrote William Engelkemier in a blurb for the City of Louisville’s website in 2006. “With that, he walked off the stage and started playing his violin as he walked through the crowd.”
A story on the same site, told by Louisville resident Larry Johnson, described Pete inviting a group of kids into his cave for a home-cooked meal. Pete served chili heated by a fire in a tin can.
“Pete said, ‘No wonder it tastes funny, I forgot the secret ingredient,’” Johnson wrote, “and (Pete) reached into his mouth and took out his chewing tobacco and stirred it into the can of chili.”
In 1938, Dynamite Pete made news in Omaha when he came to visit Bobby Jeanne, a 90-pound girl set to be shot 60 feet out of a cannon at Ak-Sar-Ben Field. Pete dressed in a brand new suit and played “Turkey in the Straw” and a few other tunes for her.
The next year, Pete returned to Omaha, this time to be hospitalized. He had to abandon his shack and his crops for the summer. The rough stretch got him thinking.
“If I’d a had the right kind of a woman, she could ‘a gone on with the plantin’ and took care o’ me right there in my shack between times,” he told The World-Herald at the time. “I tell you, I didn’t know until then how necessary and comfortin’ a good woman might be.”
So the search for a Mrs. began.
On June 3, 1940, The World-Herald published a story: ‘Dynamite Pete,’ a Hermit, Is in Town Seeking Wife. The publicity worked.
A 41-year-old homeless widow with curly red hair and blue eyes named Myrtle Mason answered the call, asking a friend to write Pete a letter from Omaha, promising to wash dishes, keep house and “work the best I know how.”
Pete wrote back and sent a picture. He mentioned his monthly pension check, his travels to 14 states and his superb health at nearly 80 years old. Mason, according to The World-Herald story, said “all Pete has to do is come and get her.”
Engelkemier described Mason as “about the same caliber as Dynamite.” Petersen has been told secondhand stories referring to the woman by the name “Cat Woman.”
The engagement was short-lived. Levi Everett and Myrtle Mason were denied their union by health authorities, Mason told The World-Herald.
“It’s all off, and that’s all there is to it,” she said less than a month after writing to Pete. “The law won’t let him keep a woman in a cave.”
Later, Pete told the story a little differently.
“A fellow up in Wisconsin cut in on me, started a correspondence with her, and I guess he married her,” he told The World-Herald.
The brief engagement of Dynamite Pete and Myrtle Mason caught the attention of a nationally-syndicated radio show, “We, the People.” The show flew Pete out to New York in July 1940.
Pete left town wearing a natty blue suit, a tie, and socks and shoes he bought that morning. He ditched the coat and tie before ever arriving in New York.
The show was broadcast locally on KOIL. Pete wanted to speak off the cuff, he said before leaving, but they asked him to read from a script.
“I want to tell ’em about the time I was broke and got so hungry that I went into a front yard and started eating grass,” Pete said. “The women said I must be awful hungry, and told me to come around to the backyard. I thought she was going to give me something to eat, but she just told me that the grass was longer there.”
Pete was proud of his lifestyle. He referred to himself as the “last bona fide hermit living in a cave in the United States.”
“I’ll bet I’m happier down there in the woods than most any rich man,” Pete said. “... I don’t have to pay no rent nor no taxes. I don’t eat much and I’m better off for it. Yes sir, I think I do pretty good.”
Life took a downward turn for Dynamite Pete after his radio appearance.
In 1944, he was forced from hermithood when his cave flooded. He moved to Omaha to stay with his nephew. Soon after, he caught pneumonia and was taken to a hospital.
He lived out his last five years in a nursing home in Plattsmouth, where he died on the day after Christmas in 1949.
The Louisville Weekly Courier ran his obituary on the front page that week. It was the boldest headline of the day: “Death has claimed one of the colorful characters of the country.”
Some of the old-timers in town still know about Dynamite Pete, but the stories have faded. Most will tell you he was a lively old guy that lived in the woods. But few know about the stick of dynamite at the bar or the appearance on “We, the People.”
These days, it’s more likely that the unframed 4-by-6 photo in the back of the Main Street Cafe or the burger on the menu will be met with a question.
“Who’s Dynamite Pete?”
World-Herald librarian Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.