If you spent much time in Panthertown Valley during the 1990s, no doubt you met Carlton McNeill. And even if you didn't meet him, you surely benefitted from his hard work. Carlton was the unofficial caretaker of Panthertown and his work shows in all those winding paths leading to waterfalls and overlooks. When he wasn't blazing trails, he picked blueberries by the gallon and gave them away to everyone he met. He loved showing off his beloved valley to anyone who could keep up with him.
Don McNeill, Carlton's nephew, informed me that Carlton passed away on July 20, 2007 at the age of 86. Don wrote a touching letter, which I offer as a tribute to Panthertown’s Caretaker. If anyone else would like to send me their stories about Carlton, I would be happy to include them here.
Letter from Don McNeil:
"Carlton had developed a very aggressive cancer that spread to liver, brain, and lungs. We found out about the cancer on Sunday and he passed away on Friday. He had stopped eating and drinking and passed peacefully on Friday morning. He did not appear to be in any pain and had his mind up until the very end.
"When checking into the hospital a couple of the nurses were running the normal battery of questions. One of those was, 'Carlton, are you hard of hearing?'
"Carlton's response: 'What?'
"Nurse (louder): 'Are you hard of hearing?'
"Carlton: 'Not hard of hearing, just hard of listening.'
"He lived a good long life and had many friends and adventures throughout his life. He always said that he was as rich as Bill Gates or Donald Trump. They had so much money they did what they wanted and he had so little he did what he wanted. He traveled around some, but seemed to have found home when he found Panthertown Valley. He loved the mountains and waterfalls and most of all he loved the people he found there.
"One of his favorite poems was "The House by the Side of the Road" by Sam Foss. And so it was that Carlton came to live in a small house by the side of the road and to be a friend to man. But Carlton was not content to let the race of men go by. He had to go and find them wherever they were in the valley.
"I am reminded that not too long ago as I was getting ready to leave him after one of our visits, Carlton stopped me and said, 'Remember, if you see the enemy, shake his hand. You never know who might be your friend.' And so it was with Carlton, making friends even out of his enemies.
"I always loved to visit him and really enjoyed our hikes together throughout the valley. He guided so many people to greater views and a greater appreciation of the wonders of nature. Carlton left the mountains in peace and left us all a little sadder and perhaps a little wiser. We will miss him, but I am quite certain that his spirit will always reside in Panthertown Valley—on the trails, at the waterfalls, on the mountain tops, and most importantly, in the hearts of his friends."