Today’s colorful character comes to us from Australia, which is (or at least was) well-known for its barefooted outback characters.
First, here’s a story about him from 1930 (The Northern Miner, 4 June 1930).
Jim Newmanton drops a few lines from Central Queensland, the area of prickly-pear and sand: One of the oldest identities on the bagman’s track in South-West Queensland, and the Darling River (N.S.W.) was old Barefooted Harry. Forty years back his best girl turned him down because his boots were shabby. Harry swore off boots for life, and his future best girl was beer. This old chap drove a bullock waggon for twenty years without boots, consequently his feet became very hard. One day he was on the road, and meeting a bullock team going the opposite way he, like all bushmen, pulled up for a yarn. As he stood near the leaders one of the oxen shifted his feet, putting one large hoof on Harry’s foot. The bullocky never noticed it until his mate said, “There’s a beast on your foot, Harry.” “So there is,” said Harry, and pushed the animal away. One night he was camped on the road with half a dozen other oxen conductors.
As the weather was bitterly cold he got close to the fire. After a time one of the men remarked that he could smell something burning, and that the stench resembled a horse’s hoof. Investigation showed that Harry’s foot was in the fire, and when this was pointed out to him he slowly drew the limb from the coals and went on yarning. He could walk over
bindlesbindies and broken glass without being inconvenienced in any way. No self-respecting bull-ant ever bit him on the feet, and no snake ever tackled him. The only thing that ever troubled him was the green and rainbow coloured snakes that chased him after a heavy beer session. He eventually retired from nosebag and bluey, and is now at 70 years of age, the possessor of a bit of money, in other words he is getting the old-age pension, and he honestly deserves it.
He always refused a job of well-sinking as he said it took the covering off his trilbies, and spoiled him for the road. When fighting a bush fire he always threw water on his trousers and never used a bag or bush to beat out the flames. He always walked along the edge of the fire and extinguished the flames by stamping the fire out with his feet. He wae a nice old chap, specially to himself.
He died at the age of 88, probably in 1938 or 1939, so there were a few remembrances of him. Here’s one from The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1939.
Barefooted men—men who go about at all times as foot-naked as aborigines—are not as rare in the bush as might be supposed. They are not dress “reformers” like Chidley, the one-time Sydney identity; neither is there anything the matter with their feet. They have tramped to and from school without boots, and felt more comfortable without them.
The most impressive figure, and the most widely known, was “Barefooted Harry,” of the Paroo and Farther Out. He was a well-built man, over six feet tall, and had a thick beard that reached nearly to his waist. Each foot was an inch more than a foot in length, and so hard that he could walk comfortably over
bindelsbindeis that crippled sheep dogs, and over rocks and pebbles on the hottest days!
Like the average handy bushman, he followed many occupations, but was chiefly teamster, big-gun shearer, tank-sinker, and fencer. Wherever he was, his dress almost invariably consisted of a striped shirt, dungaree pants, and a felt hat: but once he appeared in Broken Hill in an evening dress suit and a silk hat, having been rigged out for a special occasion by a hard-case mate.
As he strolled down Argent Street his appearance interested the police as Well as the mob. Then his mate took him into a store, where he bought a huge pair of carpet slippers. But he threw them away when he left the Hill, and gave the silk hat to a blackfellow.
Harry was one of the back o’ Bourke celebrities who figured frequently in camp-fire yarns. One evening he strolled up to a teamster’s camp, and stood by the fire with his hands behind him. Presently one of the men sniffed and looked around.
“What’s that burning?” he asked. “Smells like hide.”
“Must be Harry’s foot,” answered his mate. “He’s standing on the oven-lid that’s just come off the fire.”
“Better shift it. Harry,” said the first speaker. “Might get cooked.”
Harry removed the invulnerable member and felt the lid with his fingers.
“It’s hot all right,” he agreed.
There is a legend that Harry used to wear boots in his youth. One day he was crossing a flooded creek, with a girl when the girl’s horse stumbled and threw her. Harry tried to leap from the saddle to plunge in after her but his boot caught in the stirrup-iron, and he was dragged to the top of the bank before the stirrup-leather came off.
Before he mounted again he threw his boots in the creek—the last he ever wore.
Everybody sure likes that fire story, don’t they?
And here is one more remembrance, a follow-up to the previous story (27 May 1939):
Mr. Alec F. Dunn, Mudgee, writes:
There seems to be more than one story as to how Harry Rice, better known as “Barefoot Harry,” came to discard boots as a young man and go without them entirely for more than 70 years. E.S.S. says that it was through trying to rescue a girl (others say his wife) when crossing a flooded creek. This is the most romantic of the stories, but what Harry told me one day in Bourke in 1929 was this:
As a young man of 17 or 18 he was working for a fencing contractor in the Western Riverina on a big job in a very wet season. So constant was the rain that in that boggy country he found it more convenient to work without boots altogether. They were many miles from the nearest town, and after some weeks without boots, he got so used to it that he did not bother going back to them.
I always think of “Barefoot Harry” as one of the most striking patriarchal types I have ever seen. Exceptionally tall, square-shouldered and straight, he had strikingly clear blue eyes, which made a wonderful setting for his fine white beard. For my edification, following on a little refreshment, he would hold a lighted wax match under the sole of his foot, until the burning smell reminded you of a nearby horseshoeing forge. Alas, depression years and old age brought him to rations, and a shack on the banks of the Darling, near Bourke. He contracted pneumonia and passed away, full of years, at the great age of 88.
[Update: My thanks to Susan in the comments for the correction regarding bindies. In taking a careful look at the old newspaper articles, she is quite right. Interestingly, one newspaper spells it one way, and the other, another. I have fixed the text.]