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Tillie, the Indian Fort Hiking Dog: Tillie, the Indian Fort Hiking Dog

Written by Tom Chase

"Tillie" is the name of the well-known dog who for many years has accompanied hikers along the trails of Indian Fort.

Tillie passed away on the 23rd of July, 2013.

As explained below, Tillie was not a stray and her family took great care to allow her the freedom and joys of a hiker's life. A special thank you to Tom Chase for researching, compiling, and writing Tillie's story in 2011.

a photo of Tillie the Hiking Dog

Tillie's Story

The world’s foremost living expert on the geography of Indian Fort Mountain is getting old these days, and she doesn’t walk the trails as often as she used to. If her once nimble step is now a bit hesitant and stiff, she’s not one to complain about any arthritic discomfort she might be feeling. She still prefers to spend most of her day outdoors, on the mountain or at the trailhead on the north side of Big Hill Road (Route 21) just east of the Berea city limits. She’s there every day, offering a friendly greeting to the traveler.

Her name is Tillie. She’s the housemate of Ron and Bhana Deaver, who reside at one edge of the deep wood known as the Berea College Forest. The most conspicuous feature of this vast acreage, which straddles Madison, Jackson, and Rockcastle counties, is the towering East Pinnacle of Indian Fort Mountain. As poet John F. Smith wrote in Berea’s weekly newspaper, the Citizen, in 1927, “Thy bold high brow invites the gaze of man/ And tempts the stranger to ascend thy crown.” Tillie has made that strenuous ascent numberless times, probably thousands, always as the guide or companion of a visitor or group of visitors to the wild country in which she makes her home.

Tillie is known far and wide today as the Indian Fort Dog. “She sees that as her job,” explains Ron Deaver. “She’s totally dedicated to Indian Fort hiking. There are so many different people who she knows and know her. She lives with us, but she is very much her own dog. She gets up every morning and stretches and heads out to the parking lot to wait. She doesn’t hang out with us. At the day’s end she’ll come and be here at the house and lay in the living room with us, around the stove at night. Then the next morning she’s out again.”

A 1973 alumnus of Berea College, Ron has worked at the college for 26 years. He’s a Safety and Security Specialist in the Public Safety Department. One evening in 2003, he remembers, “I saw a dog, a black and white border collie mix, in a couple of locations just roaming campus as a stray. I had never seen her before. Later that night she was sitting over by Woods-Penn, just sitting there. She had no collar or tags. I was getting off work and said, ‘Would you like to come home with me?’ I put a piece of string around her neck, and she walked right with me and got in the car and came home. She has been here since.”

Ron and his wife Bhana and daughter Virginia lived, as they do today, in the college-owned house on Big Hill Road originally designated the Forester’s Cottage. Sadly, the family’s dog had been hit by a car and killed that very morning.

Bhana, who, like Ron, is a Berea College graduate, was hesitant to accept a new dog in the home. “Tillie just happened. We weren’t looking for a new dog, because we’re not people who go out looking for replacement pets. Virginia was three years old, and she had recently been bitten by a friend’s dog. I was leery. But Ron reassured me that this dog was super sweet and mellow. He had a really good feeling about her.”

Ron suggested the name Tillie for the new arrival. “It just came to me,” he says. The Deavers’ veterinarian estimated Tillie’s age at between one and three years.

Tillie took to the Deavers right away. Bhana says, “We tend to be pretty laissez-faire animal parents. We house them, we make sure they’re well fed, we love on them, but we also let them be more self-directed than most people let their pets. Tillie is a very cool dog. She’s so easy-going. She’s the most non-neurotic, low-maintenance dog I’ve ever met. Hiking with people, it kind of evolved naturally. She just went out and started doing it.”

Bhana estimates that once Tillie got started she would hike the mountain as often as ten times a day. Meeting visitors in the parking lot, “Tillie goes up, comes down, hooks back up with somebody else, and goes back up. She doesn’t care which landmark you go to. She doesn’t tag along behind you but walks along just in front of you. And she stays loyal to whatever group she starts out with. I never heard of her switching to someone else in mid-hike.”

Tillie’s outgoing nature created a few problems for the Deavers. Ron recalls, “At first her collar had just her required rabies and registration tags, and people would go through all sorts of tortuous routes to figure out who owned her and find out our phone number. Or people would come and knock on the door. We had people carrying her, bless their hearts. They were convinced she was dehydrated because she is good at laying there being pitiful so she can get some petting. We had them coming over just tore up about that. We convinced them that she gets fed and watered and lives by the stove. But we had multiple instances of people trying to figure out who she was.

“One time she came home lame, and we were pretty sure she had wandered into the cow field across the road and got kicked by a cow. We never saw an injury, but she was kind of gimped out for a week or so. We took her to the vet. Nothing was broken. But hurt or not, she wouldn’t quit hiking. That was before she was really well known, and there were people who were convinced she was a neglected dog, or we didn’t know she was injured. That was stressful for us. We had a tag made up that said, ‘Indian Fort Mountain,’ but that wasn’t quite enough. We still got phone calls from people, terribly concerned, saying, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but your dog…’”

The new tag on Tillie’s collar reads:
My name is Tillie
I am not a stray
I live next door
Let’s go for a hike

This tag effectively reassures visitors that Tillie is cared for.

“We’re only aware of her being back in town one time,” says Ron. “One of the forestry students who worked out here found her on the curb there in town and then brought her home. Somebody had taken her to town and set her out, probably prankin’ or something. That’s the only time she has ever been away from here.”

Tillie co-exists with the wild population of the mountain. “Tillie is a pacifist,” says Bhana. “She is so laid back. Believe me, she is not in any way a guard dog.”

Ron says, “I work at night, so even when I’m off, I’m up, and I’ll be outside in the dark a lot. I hear critters calling all around here. Tillie is nonconfrontational, not aggressive at all toward other animals. We have no skunk stories, thank goodness. She’ll holler at a possum or raccoon, and she barks at deer, but she doesn’t tangle with them. We’ve had wildcats here in the parking lot, and we have coyotes roll through. There have been sightings of bears in the forest. But Tillie doesn’t howl at anybody. She just comes to the house.”

The rugged ridges and escarpments of Indian Fort Mountain are a much-enjoyed recreational resource that attracts visitors from all over the United States. Twenty-first century social networks have spread Tillie’s fame throughout the recreational hiking community. She’s cited in dozens of blogs, and a Facebook page has been created for her. Bhana relates, “My stepson has met people in Lexington and Cincinnati and Louisville who have met Tillie and recall her by name. He was amazed to find people out in the world who know Tillie and love her.”

Because Tillie spends so much time in the wild outdoors she doesn’t exhibit the well-groomed look of a show dog. When her coat thickens with the approach of cold weather, it attracts leaves and twigs and other debris. However disheveled she may appear, people love her. Many of the families who bring their children to the mountain don’t have a dog at home and are thrilled to meet this enthusiastic hiking partner. While Tillie will readily accept treats from visitors, she does not require them as payment for her friendship. She appears to regard the shared effort of an uphill walk over challenging terrain as a joyful and fulfilling good time. Her companionship and encouragement elevate simple exercise to a spiritually satisfying social experience.

Many local residents routinely come once a week to hike, or even daily. If Tillie is at the house and hears one of the regulars approaching, Ron observes, “She’s gone! Tillie can recognize the sound of certain engines. They drive into the parking lot, and she goes on a run. She has a trail through the side yard and a little fence that she gets under. She’ll be sitting there waiting for them by the time they get the engine cut off.”

“She has her friendly wag-her-whole-body greeting that she’ll give them,” adds Bhana. “A lot of people have developed real relationships with her.”

One of those people is Eddie Kennedy, the artistic director of the Berea Arena Theater, located in a building formerly occupied by the U.S. Forest Service on Big Hill Road just west of Indian Fort Mountain. As Bhana tells it, “For a couple of weeks Tillie was camping out there, and they kept phoning us to come pick her up. She may have walked down the trail from here to the theater or even followed somebody up and down the West Pinnacle. Eddie said, ‘She’s been here, I don’t know why. So we’ve been feeding her burritos and things.’ I said, ‘There’s your why, Eddie!’”

“It would be great if there were a way to discourage people from feeding her so much when they give her snacks. We may have to come up with some kind of sign. She’s got some matronly spread now, and you can’t feel her ribs. We figure a lot of that is from just lying so much, because she’s hiking less and slowing down as she gets older. People drive into the parking lot and sit in their car to eat lunch, and she’ll go lie beside the car. People have confessed to me that they’ll bring a whole hamburger out to share with her. We’ll see work crews, if there’s road work nearby and they’re using the parking lot as a staging area. She’ll get to be their little bud during lunch breaks, and we’ll see all manner of treats coming in.”

“She’s perfected her stray act. Sometimes during the Indian Fort craft fairs she’ll be hanging around underfoot. Somebody who was staffing a booth watched as some kindhearted souls fed her scraps of chicken, which she stealthily tucked away in a hole and came back for more, looking like she was starving. They’ve seen people dribbling water into her mouth because she’s acting the part of a dehydrated, pitiful dog so convincingly.”

“But Tillie is still doing some hiking with folks. She’s a little slow when she gets up in the morning, but she goes out and sits in the sun and waits for people to arrive. She’s more selective now about who she goes with. She’s most attracted to family groups with little kids. She knows people with kids are going to have snacks on hand. They’ll probably walk slower, too. And the kids love getting to pet her.”

Local artist Carole Pierce recently asked Bhana, “What are we going to do when Tillie’s gone?” At Tillie’s last checkup, the veterinarian told the Deavers that she is still in good health, but inevitably they will survive her. Is there a new Indian Fort Dog waiting in the wings?

“No,’ answers Ron. “But one will probably show up. That’s the thing: we weren’t looking for Tillie. She came the same day our other dog, who was also an adopted dog, got killed in the road.”

Bhana adds, “Every one of the animals we’ve had was a stray or dumped, except for one cat that is the kitten of an adopted mother,” Bhana says. “People drop dogs and cats out here almost weekly. Jackson County doesn’t have a shelter, Rockcastle County barely has one, and Estill County, I don’t know if it has one. We’ve got four cats here right now that just recently got dropped. If we find dogs we contact the local shelter, and they come get them. We have been tempted to keep a couple of dogs and we have kept a couple of dogs. But the shelter will not pick up cats. You have to make an appointment if you have cats, and they never have openings.”

A cat can be a wonderful pet, but no cat or any other animal species could be another Tillie. Dogs and human beings enjoy a unique relationship. More than any mere pet or workmate, a dog is, quite remarkably, capable of genuine interspecies friendship. People love Tillie, the Indian Fort Dog, because she shares her friendship not only with her specific protectors but also with the larger human public. While it amuses her to coax her favorite delicacies from some of the people she meets, she never sets aside her integrity, her willingness to give as good as she gets. After she leaves this world, all who have met her will mourn her.