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Aug. 4, 2021, 10:38 p.m. EDT

Fire burns cabin of New Hampshire man jailed after nearly 3 decades in the woods

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By Associated Press

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 selectboard 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.

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