Luck Ran Out

Hippie family lived in trees, on old boats and on the kindness of strangers until the law caught up. It was only marijuana, they say, but the Jarvises are not out of the woods yet.

August 28, 1999|By Devon Spurgeon | Devon Spurgeon,SUN STAFF

ELK LICK, W.Va. -- The six children of Ronald and Eileen Jarvis came of age in treehouses over swamps and in a rickety 60-year-old boat.

For seven years they lived a real-life version of "Swiss Family Robinson." No one knew where they were. And while they traveled from West Virginia to Maryland to Florida, they never stepped into a classroom or visited a doctor's office. They made money doing odd jobs and selling handmade wooden carvings.

Then, in June, U.S. marshals caught up with them.

Ronald and Eileen Jarvis are back in West Virginia, in jail awaiting trial on drug charges. Their children -- daughters in West Virginia, sons in Florida raising money for their parents' defense -- are talking for the first time about their life on the run. And they are longing for a return to that life together.

The Jarvis parents are accused of growing marijuana. Eileen, 53, is charged with one count of manufacturing marijuana and Ronald, also 53, is charged with conspiracy, with 11 other growers, to manufacture marijuana from 1979 through 1992.

Federal agents who inspected their 138-acre West Virginia farm in 1992 valued the crop at more than $200,000. Next to the family's one-room, ramshackle home, Deputy Sheriff Richard Bennett of Lewis County said his officers found 500 pounds of marijuana.

The Jarvis children maintain the marijuana was for their father's recreation -- an explanation that doesn't impress law enforcement officials. "Five hundred pounds of marijuana," said Bennett, "is an awful lot of recreation."

Ronald's mother, Josephine Jarvis, 79, shakes her head about the suspected 50 marijuana plants investigators spotted by helicopter. "Ron was stupid, and I have told him that. He had it growing out here in the open," she said.

Still, the Jarvises are no ordinary drug suspects. For seven years, they charmed strangers who even now wish the family only well.

Even Bennett said: "This family was different. They were artists and have a good family, more of a 1960s-type family."

A piece of land

Ronald and Eileen Jarvis met in a Georgetown disco in the 1960s, their relatives say. Both had long hair; he drove a motorcycle. They were unabashed hippies, and after they married, they moved to West Virginia as part of a "back to nature" subculture.

Their life savings went into a farm on a scruffy piece of land crawling with snakes and ticks. The isolated property is 20 miles from the nearest town, accessible only by one-lane dirt roads. They had no electricity or running water. Eileen planted a vegetable and herb garden. Ronald built a one-room house out of evergreen trees.

In the 1970s, Eileen gave birth to Yancy, then to two more sons in the one-room house.

Molly and Lily were born in a rusted yellow school bus that had been abandoned on their property. Anna was the last child, four years younger than Lily. None of the children has a birth certificate.

The couple spent mornings teaching the children how to read and write. The walls of their house were decorated with letters of the alphabet. In the afternoons, they played on a tire swing and made pottery out of sludge from a nearby stream. Yancy carved faces out of tree stumps.

The family sold wooden furniture and crafts in mall parking lots to stay afloat. They needed little cash because they made their clothes, grew their food and had no telephone or utility bills.

But on a sticky August day in 1992, their pastoral life ended. Federal agents flying over the backcountry in search of illegal crops found what they say were suspicious plants on the Jarvises' land.

Anna, then 6, remembers the whirring of a low-flying helicopter and the ticks that were out en masse that day.

Ronald and Eileen made a split-second decision to run -- leaving their dinner of chicken and rice burning on the wood stove. Eileen took three of the children and sped off in the family's white van.

"I understood what was going on, and I was pretty [upset] because my life was all gone," said Lily, who was 10 when they left. "I knew we were never coming back. It was pretty strange and scary."

With police crawling over the property, Ronald crept back into the house to get Anna's Raggedy Ann doll and his gold pocket watch.

He and his sons spent the night in the woods, watching breathlessly as agents came within a foot of their hiding place at one point.

Two days later, the family was reunited and got a friend to drive them to Annapolis. But first, they left their van in the parking lot at the bank with a note under the wiper, explaining to loan officers that the family "would be leaving town" and could no longer afford payments.

In Annapolis, the family scraped together enough money to buy a battered 50-foot-long boat. Black paint flaked off the sides of the 60-year-old ketch and water poured into the hull. It was towed to the Backyard Boats Marina in Shady Side. The Jarvises asked to stay at the marina a few weeks -- long enough to repair the vessel.

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