He was the Witch of Savoy, by his own description, and for decades he held court from his Dragon House in the woods of Savoy, Mass.
Earlier this month, at long last and after many disappointments, friends and family finally gathered for a memorial service remembering the life of Roger Davis, aka Witch Vortex, philosopher, shaman, artist, veteran, celebrated local eccentric, and friend to many.
Roger passed away on Jan. 11, 2011, at the VA Medical Center in West Haven, Conn., and was quickly given a military burial, without calling hours or funeral services, at a veterans' cemetery in Long Island, N.Y. The military style burial so far from his home in Savoy is just one of a number of curious circumstances which followed Roger's death last year.
As Roger once told a friend, he tried his hand at a number of occupations, but nothing seemed to work, "until I became a witch."
It was in this role he is best remembered, to several generations of friends and the many hundreds of visitors who came over the years to visit his legendary Dragon House. "Drop in for a spell," read the sign at the entrance to his property, and they did, from teenagers to Boston Globe travel writers; he would read their cards, their palms, tell fortunes and offer his insights into nature, magic and religion.
His extraordinary house, which he built by hand over 40 years from materials on his property, was a ramshackle yet surprisingly sturdy fortress of wood and stone built around an impressive dragon hearth rising up to where its menacing head looked out over the ornate grounds. The house was never wired for electricity; water was fetched from a well some distance in the woods behind it.
All around the surrounding lot, Roger's striking ritualistic works of sculpture strategically dotted the landscape.
"Roger didn't drive," said niece Megan Harrer Brooks, "he refused to pay the high prices for gas."
Thus for years he was a familiar sight walking the roads around Savoy and to nearby Adams. Sometimes locals would stop to offer him a ride, and it was in this manner that he met longtime friends Jim and Cathy Groves of Savoy. Upon driving him to his home at the end of Haskins Road, Roger invited them to see his place.
"I had heard of his house," Cathy Groves said, and upon seeing it, "I was absolutely stunned. I felt like Alice having stepped into the rabbit hole."
Roger enjoyed the steady trickle of curious visitors over the years, Groves said, even though some could be far more over the top than he. A YouTube video taken by two teenagers a couple of years before his death, possibly the only video that exists of him, shows a witch that is anything but scary: gracious, witty, and mild-mannered even in the presence of the two very silly young gawkers.
In years past, friends said, other practicing witches would come to Roger's place in Savoy to celebrate the holiday of Samhain. Over time, he appeared to grow tired of hosting the annual gatherings, partly because he found himself being shunted into a sort of guru position with which he was uncomfortable.
"People would sort of look to him to tell them what to do," said Groves, "but that wasn't his style."
As an artist, Roger's work earned high praise when in 2007 he was invited to show it at the prestigious Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art alongside the likes of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Theo Jansen, as part of an exhibit entitled "The Believers." Davis recreated a ritual space reminiscent of his own sacred circle in Savoy within one of the museum's galleries using his pagan statues, many of which he crafted with a chainsaw.
Groves said she and her husband had driven Roger to the opening reception that night. "It was the pinnacle of his life," she recalled, "He was really holding court that night. He told me, 'Don't dress conservatively.'"
Friendship with Roger was not always smooth sailing, Groves said. Roger corresponded with many people, and on occasion his letters could be argumentative, even hostile. This correspondence once lead to court proceedings, when a local business owner charged him with harassment over some letters he had sent. Again, it was Jim Groves who drove Roger, on this occasion to the courthouse in Pittsfield.
Cathy said Roger often would walk to Adams to leave muffins on her doorstep following their more heated "debates."
"We had a lively correspondence, I enjoyed it," Groves said. "It honed my thinking ... I really miss him."
Another close and longtime friend, Helga McConnell, also reported having a temporary falling out with Roger. McConnell had known Roger for around 40 years, but the two did not speak for a period from 2007 to 2010.
Helga described Davis as "interesting, and kind," and though he could be stubborn, she had great respect for him.
Roger Davis' beloved home fell victim to nature and then a suspicious fire after he died.
"I think the most important thing about Roger, he was such a self-sufficient man. Self-sufficiency was a big part of his belief system."
Six months after Roger died, myself and two other individuals visited the Dragon House to pay our respects and say our farewells, even as the forest had already begun the process of reclaiming that enchanted site.
The house's windows and doors were neatly and very securely boarded up, almost nothing of the interior could be seen. A number of the hand-sawn sculptures had been removed, including most of the chairs that used to surround the pentagram table where Roger would sometimes palaver with guests. Others had fallen over or seen damage over the course of the previous seasons. The worst damage seemed to be to the black and white goddess statue, featured prominently in the Mass MoCA show, which stood crookedly over the sacred circle with her left arm lying forlorn at her feet.
We made our gestures of goodbye there in that circle, voicing our hopes that some effort would be made to preserve the legacy of Roger's prolific artistry and the curious landmark of that truly unique house.
As we stood there on that peaceful summer day, I never would have dreamed that in just three short months the mythic Dragon House would be nothing but charred ruins. Or that inquiries about its demise would lead into the murky midst of an ongoing legal battle over that property, and an air of mystery that surrounds the entire last year of Roger's life.
To be continued ...
This is the first of a three-part series on the life, death and legal mysteries of the Witch of Savoy. Read Part Two here and Part Three here.
These Mysterious Hills is a production of writer Joe Durwin and more mysterious goings on can be found here.
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I was unaware of your passing...i am deeply saddened by your departure...even more that your place could not be preserved the way that it should have been for other believers to visit and continue to pay respect to you.