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Dog Mountain | Home of the World’s Only Dog Chapel

Dog Mountain | Home of the World’s Only Dog Chapel
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Sign leading the way to Dog Mountain from Route 2.

Photo/Art by Julia ShipleySign leading the way to Dog Mountain from Route 2.

Dog Mountain, home of the world’s only dog chapel, is situated three miles from downtown St. Johnsbury,VT, just a frisbee toss from the Fairbank’s Scales factory on Route 2. Though the chapel is petite, the size of a rural post office, it feels like a sacred space, complete with pews and stained glass. Perched on a hill amid 150 rolling acres, the chapel is just one part of a property designed with dogs at the fore, free and open to the public, fully appointed with hiking trails, a pond, an dog agility course and one of the last remaining galleries of Stephen Huneck’s humorous, colorful, dog -oriented art.

All Creeds, Breeds,  No Dogmas

Photo/Art by Julia ShipleyAll Creeds, Breeds, No Dogmas Allowed.

Huneck– the rugged, mustachioed creator of the chapel, the art, and a thousand details decorating the property, from the pug-faced columns to the prayer flags printed with angel- Labradors– was inspired to build the Dog Chapel with his collaborator and wife, Gwen Huneck in the late 1990s. Free and open to the public since Memorial Day 2000, its walls have become covered with heartfelt, handwritten messages and photographs of beloved pets that have gone to dog heaven. “Grief is an universal language,” Jill Brown told me back in July, “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve held in my arms as they sobbed [over the loss of pets]– and that includes people from Germany and Japan, all over.”

dog chapel messages

Photo/Art by Julia ShipleyThe messages taped to the walls inside Dog Chapel compel a visitor to step inside for a closer look.

The Dog Chapel, a sanctuary for grief, remembrance and celebration of lost companions, is now, by extension, a memorial to the chapel’s creators as well. Tragically in early January 2010, distressed by financial worries that necessitated staff layoffs, Mr. Huneck, 61, took his life. In July 2011, Yankee Magazine published Justin Shatwell’s moving portrait of Huneck, his life and his legacy. Then, this past June, Huneck’s widow, Gwen Huneck, 61, ended her life as well.
Though the Hunecks had no children of their own, they left behind two long time employees, who are more like surrogate daughters, Jill Brown, Dog Mountain’s General Manager and Amanda McDermott, Creative Director. Also left behind are their business manager, a shipper, a framer, a summer maintenance employee and a new leader, Gwen’s brother, Jonathan Ide, of Madison Wisconsin, who is the administrator of the Huneck estate.
Despite Stephen Huneck’s enormous commercial success as an artist—both Stephen and Gwen Huneck appeared on Oprah to speak about their art in the 1990s; Huneck’s work is held in collections ranging from the Smithsonian to Sandra Bullock’s; and his illustrated children’s book “Sally Goes to the Beach” was a New York Times bestseller—the business, as Ide describes it “always seemed to be hand to mouth.”

View from the porch of the Stephen Huneck Gallery.

Photo/Art by Julia ShipleyView from the porch of the Stephen Huneck Gallery.

Even the dream of realizing the Dog Chapel became an ongoing saga of privation, Ide told me, where the couple was frequently faced with the choice to buy lumber or groceries, and chose lumber. With their personal finances and the business finances lumped together as one entity, when the economic downturn hit, and art sales trickled to a halt, their precarious finances became dire
On the day Stephen’s death was announced, Brown said, the Huneck Gallery was besieged with 500 orders. It’s widely believed that part of Huneck’s intention was to elevate the value of his work, posthumously, and thereby pull the business into the black, a grim plan. But it worked, and the laid off staff were soon hired back. In her husband’s absence, Gwen Huneck assumed the role of sole decision maker for the business, which includes not only the rights to the art, but the land, her home, the gallery and other buildings on the property.
So as Jon Ide works with his late sister’s lawyer to settle her estate, Amanda McDermott and Jill Brown have been taking care of the property, opening seven days a week throughout the summer “high season.” Currently the business is operated so that the sales generated by the Gallery cover staff payroll and the property taxes; and all the donations are relegated towards paying maintenance costs such as painting, plus utilities.

Jill Brown, Dog Mountain's General Manager

Photo/Art by Julia ShipleyJill Brown, Dog Mountain’s General Manager

Meanwhile, taking the creative reins, McDermott has helped create a virtual dog chapel online with has garnered 900+ “likes”; she’s created new merchandise– including transparent giclee prints, bumper-stickers, prayer flags and a new e-book, “Sally Discovers Dog Mountain,” and “Sally Goes to New York.” (Plus “Sally Goes to Heaven” forthcoming in the Spring of 2014). Jon Ide is ensuring that the website is upgraded and expects to unveil a new rejuvenated site just in time for the crucial holiday gift season. Furthermore they are working on licensing some of the images of characters for other products. And this Saturday, on October 12th, from 12-4 pm Dog Mountain will be hosting its annual Fall Dog Fest from noon – 4pm.

Photo/Art by Julia ShipleyPhoto/Art by Julia ShipleyDogs at Dog Mountain can romp leash free, and they don’t need bathing suits either

Ide sums up the stakes, and the road ahead: “There’s nothing else like it in the world, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. But I believe in what they’ve created… standing up on the mountain looking down on the chapel, gallery, the pond, fields, trails—it’s like one giant work of art.”

A figure of a dog adorns the steeple on Dog Chapel.

Photo/Art by Julia ShipleyA figure of a dog adorns the steeple on Dog Chapel.

Julia Shipley

Author:

Julia Shipley

Biography:

Julia Shipley is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Herd and Planet Jr. Her manuscript, Adam's Mark: Writing from the Ox House, supported by a 2010-11 Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant is forthcoming from Plowboy Press. As both a professional writer and subsistence farmer she's intensely interested in the overlap and interplay between these two fields. She also is fascinated with identifying and celebrating what makes each rural community distinct and special. Her Vermont Rural Life blog showcases the people, land and community of her unique corner of Vermont-- a mix of mountains and fields, daisies and delphiniums, Holstein cows and eight point Bucks, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, newcomers and old-timers all making their way in one of the least populated places on the east coast

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5 Responses to Dog Mountain | Home of the World’s Only Dog Chapel

  1. Charlene Murphy Grasselli October 10, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    I loved this story. I did not know of the chapel before. I think it is wonderful! Now to come up and see it for myself. I am going to tell my brothers to stop by also. Love Vermont! Love Vermonters!

    • Julia Shipley October 10, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

      Dog Mountain is such an interesting place where art and nature and play and reflection all merge together. My research for this piece began when my parents and I packed a picnic and our crazy dogs into a Chevy and drove over to Dog Mountain last July. It was one of the nicest days.

      Thank heavens for the brave hearts and commitment of Jill and Amanda who are helping to keep the place going, and also for the leadership of Jon Ide, whose appreciation for what Stephen and Gwen created is deep and strong.

  2. Jacki Wilmot October 10, 2013 at 6:53 pm #

    dog mountain is one of the best things I’ve heard of in my life. I read the story about it and Steven huneck when it was published before. It was a wonderful idea and beautiful place. i was so sorry to hear about all the financial trouble and I told everyone I know that it had closed because that’s what i thought had happened. it was very sad that he ended his life and now his wife has too? So this has been open since 2000? I wish I had known that. I will continue to tell everyone to come visit if they can and now I want to also.

    • Julia Shipley October 10, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

      Jacki,
      This past Tuesday (October 8th) would have been Stephen Huneck’s 65th birthday. He and Gwen began the ongoing Fall Dog Fest as a way to celebrate his birthday, but also to celebrate dogs and the beautiful fall foliage, too. If you or any one you know wants to learn more about Dog Mountain their website is: http://www.dogmt.com/

      And I echo Jon Ide’s description that the whole place is a giant work of art, a creative, beautiful expression of joy and playfulness.

  3. Leann October 19, 2013 at 9:45 am #

    I attended the dog party last weekend, what a beautiful place. I think this was my 6th trip to the mountain. I drive up from RI every year for at least one of the parties. There have to be 70 or so dogs running, swimming and playing off leash. It really is a heaven on earth. Thanks to Jill, Amanda and Gwens family for following the Hunecks dream for us. Thank you Julia for the article, that piece of heaven needs all the exposure it can get.

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