At Vermont's Dog Mountain, Comfort And Community For Pet Lovers In a small New England town, visitors come to a tiny white chapel dedicated to the souls of dogs. But how it came to be is its own complicated love story.
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At Vermont's Dog Mountain, Comfort And Community For Pet Lovers

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At Vermont's Dog Mountain, Comfort And Community For Pet Lovers

At Vermont's Dog Mountain, Comfort And Community For Pet Lovers

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  • Transcript

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

The story you're about to hear is, at its heart, a love story between two artists and a whole lot of dogs. It's also the story of what it means to follow a dream and the difficulties that can bring. And it's a story of Vermont artists Stephen and Gwen Huneck and their life's work, a place called Dog Mountain.

GWEN HUNECK: People will be driving their dogs up. They will get to the bottom of the hill, and the dogs will go ballistic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

G. HUNECK: And as soon as the doors open, they're out jumping into the pond, and they're having a ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

JON IDE: My name is Jon Ide - Gwen's older brother. When somebody hears about Dog Mountain, it sounds, you know, maybe a little bit goofy, but it's anything but. There are no fences, and dogs are welcome, or as Gwen liked to say, they're cherished.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, folks, we're going to get on with the dog party contest.

IDE: They have these dog parties where several hundred people will come with their dogs and play.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Best singer.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Do we have singer in the crowd?

DON CHERRY: Otis, what you think, buddy? You want to sing?

(SOUNDBITE OF HARMONICA MUSIC AND DOG HOWLING)

CHERRY: I'm from Don Cherry. We're from Littleton, N.H., and that's Otis. He is in Akita and Chow mix and whatever else he could possibly be.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG HOWLING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That is fabulous, Otis.

(APPLAUSE)

BATES: The Dog Mountain story began in the 1970s, when Stephen Huneck met Gwen Ide in art school. Independent producer Dan Collison takes over from here.

DAN COLLISON: Stephen and Gwen Huneck were married for 35 years. They never had kids, but they always had dogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

COLLISON: Here's Gwen's brother, Jon Ide.

IDE: Their their dogs were their constant companions. Every time they went to the store, every time they walked anywhere, their dogs would just constantly be right behind them.

COLLISON: It wasn't until Stephen was in his mid-30s that he taught himself to carve. And he carved what he loved - dogs. And from that love of dogs sprang Dog Mountain, a 130-acre, free-range, four-legged Disneyland with ponds, hiking trails and Stephen's dog carvings at every turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN HUNECK: I cannot work hard enough. I'm constantly bursting out with these things all the time.

COLLISON: And like a lot of artists, Stephen's work was much more about love than money.

DARCIE MCCANN: My name is Darcie McCann. I'm executive director of Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce. I don't think Stephen ever thought in the scope of business plans. No - visions, dreams, ideas, but not business plans. That was not his way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I'm a dreamer. I dream a lot.

IDE: He was walking with his dogs on Dog Mountain, and it just popped into his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

S. HUNECK: Build a chapel for dogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) A dreamer.

COLLISON: It was a simple idea, but one that had never really been done - create a sacred place where visitors could go to celebrate and leave memorials to pets they had loved and lost.

IDE: I remember when Gwen first told me that they were going to build this dog chapel. And I thought, well, that's kind of nutty (laughter). You know, dogs are great, but you've got to eat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

G. HUNECK: It took three years 'cause we kept on running out of money. It was like - heat or a chapel, food or a chapel?

IDE: And they often chose materials for the dog chapel, which was a struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

S. HUNECK: Hi, I'm Stephen Huneck, and I'm the nut that built the world's first dog chapel.

IDE: It's a small, New England-style chapel with a steeple on top. They imagined that people would be able to leave notes, little pictures, photos, remembrances of pets that they had loved and lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

G. HUNECK: And now every square inch of this chapel is covered and recovered and recovered with remembrances.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Memories of the dogs in my life. Debbie, for her constant tail-wagging.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Tony, you were a bad dog. We loved you anyways.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Ruffles.

IDE: In somebody else's hands, it could've been a little silly, little bit crackpot maybe. But in Stephen's hands, it's extraordinary. It's sort of perfect.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The love of life, Little Flipper - gone, but not forgotten.

IDE: It's a tribute to all the things that Stephen saw in dogs - you know, trust and love and so on. But I think it's also a tribute to a way of being in the world that perhaps dogs represent or embody.

DAVID: Our Morgan lived for 15 years with us, and I'm going put up a card in memory of Morgan, our dear companion for 15 joyful years. You are with us always - David and Linda.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Up in the north, come visit Stephen Huneck's dog chapel in Saint Johnsbury.

IDE: Things were going quite well for them for a while. They had a significant staff of artisans working at Dog Mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: An homage to everything canine and a chance to pay respects to those furry friends.

MCCANN: We had thousands of people coming in, looking for Dog Mountain. It was almost like a pilgrimage. People were coming from Germany. They were coming from Asia.

COLLISON: Stephen created a whole series of popular children's books based on their black lab Sally. And the proceeds from these books and the posters, prints and paraphernalia that accompanied them paid the bills.

IDE: But the thing that really knocked things over was the recession in 2008. And when there's a recession, people don't buy art.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

S. HUNECK: The economy is terrible, especially for an artist.

G. HUNECK: So when the financial crisis hit, our income went from quite a bit to zero. And consequently, we couldn't pay our property taxes. The town of Saint Johnsbury was threatening a tax sale.

IDE: The wolf was at the door. They finally had to lay off pretty much everybody, which for Stephen felt like an artist's defeat and failure and was hard to recover from.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: One of Vermont's most famous artists is dead, and his fans around the world are shocked.

AMANDA MCDERMOTT: I'm Amanda McDermott, and I'm creative director at Dog Mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Stephen Huneck, who's best known for his paintings and carvings of dogs, took his own life last week.

MCDERMOTT: He used make this morbid comment to all his employees that the only good artist is a dead artist. And the sad thing - there is this bitter truth to it, because when Stephen passed, it was, like, 500 orders that day. The next day, 400 more orders. People were flooding to the gallery, looking for anything that he had signed, anything that they felt would've had more value.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

G. HUNECK: It so sad, but by him committing suicide, it brought all this attention to Dog Mountain. So I thought of that as the only way that he could think of to save Dog Mountain, to save me, so I have a roof over my head. So I see it as a gift, really - not a gift I would've chosen, but a gift.

COLLISON: As news of Stephen's death faded, gallery sales slowed to a trickle. There was no new dog art to sell, and Gwen was left alone with the bills.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

G. HUNECK: It's still a struggle. I won't kid you, you know. We have a lot of overhead - property taxes, mortgages, all these things.

MCDERMOTT: Gwen greatly dreaded, feared Dog Mountain going under. She felt as if she would've failed Stephen.

IDE: I don't think for a moment she considered chucking it all.

COLLISON: Again, Gwen's brother Jon Ide.

IDE: I mean, that was their life's work.

COLLISON: So Gwen and the Dog Mountain team made a trip to New York City to try and drum up interest around a book Stephen had finished just before he died. It did not go well.

IDE: It should be acknowledged that Stephen and Gwen both had issues with depression and, I think, actually bipolar disorder. So it almost seems like she got home and looked around and said oh, my goodness, I'm right back where I was - back on the treadmill. She really crashed and became quite depressed. And within three weeks, she was gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Tragedy has hit twice at a Northeast Kingdom tourist attraction. Just three years after her artist husband took his own life, Gwendolyn Huneck of Dog Mountain was found dead Sunday morning, just before her 62nd birthday.

JILL BROWN: My name is Jill Brown, and I started working at Dog Mountain in June of 2006. She just said that doing this without Steve had become joyless. She just wanted Steve. She only ever just wanted Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: My name is Jill Brown, and I'm the general manager of Dog Mountain. This is the first dog party that we've thrown without Gwen, and it's difficult.

IDE: When Gwen died, Dog Mountain could have gone down the tubes in a week. The banks were circling (laughter). Literally - I mean, the day after Gwen died, there were meetings.

BROWN: This is now our labor of love, and it is our commitment to keep Stephen's legacy going. It's what Gwen worked for. That's what we're all working for. So thanks again.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: Thank you.

COLLISON: Even though he lives almost halfway across the country and does not consider himself a dog person, Gwen's brother Jon Ide agreed to take charge of Dog Mountain.

IDE: It's almost like a point of honor to do what we can to help Dog Mountain survive. Would you want to be the brother that let it crumble?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WENDY BERGER: I'm Wendy Berger, and I'm from New Boston, N.H. The first time we came to Dog Mountain, we brought Burgen (ph), who's here with us now, who's is 12, and Rowan (ph). And a year ago, we lost Rowan. He's been tough for us to get over. I don't know that we ever will. So it's been a year ago tomorrow. And I got permission from Dog Mountain to bring his ashes up so we could spread his ashes. And so it's a gift for us to be able do this 'cause this is heaven.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: Cody (ph) was my heart and soul - a therapy dog who gave to others.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Dear Sam, you're my best friend, and I'll always love you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #11: I miss you, Frank, my little hot dog of 16 years. Thanks for all the happiness you brought me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Are you a dreamer? Do you dream a lot?

IDE: Dog Mountain, the dog chapel are a source of enormous healing and joy. And maybe the kind of sensitivity that's required to bring that vision into the world, you know - the other side of that is maybe sometimes you see and feel too much. But if you were to ask them would they have traded it for anything, the answer's no way. Not a chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).

IDE: Imagine you've created Dog Mountain, you've created the dog chapel, and you throw a dog party. And hundreds of people come with their dogs, and it's just glorious. And they are having one of the happiest days of their lives, and you've made that happen. That's worth something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Every tale is going to...

BATES: This story was produced by Dan Collison and edited by Elizabeth Meister. To see an interactive website of Dog Mountain, go to npr.org.

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