ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) — At Dog Mountain, canines and their human owners can take walks on a 150-acre Vermont hillside, enjoy several ponds, attend dog parties and even visit a chapel and an art gallery. Now, a group is hoping to preserve the doggie haven and the vision of Stephen Huneck, the late artist and children's book author who founded it.
The Friends of Dog Mountain recently received a $75,000 federal grant that will used to transfer the property to nonprofit ownership and for fundraising and development efforts.
"The mission is to preserve, steward and protect both Dog Mountain as a public access and asset for future generations to enjoy with their dogs," said Scott Buckingham, acting director of the nonprofit Friends of Dog Mountain.
Huneck and his wife, Gwen, purchased the property in 1995, transforming the barn into an art studio, and later opening the dog chapel, which welcomes "all creeds, all breeds, no dogmas allowed." Huneck, whose whimsical dog-centric prints, sculptures and furniture showed his love of the animals, envisioned the chapel as a ritual space to help people achieve closure after their dogs die. And based on the vast amount of loving notes on the chapel walls from pet owners to lost pets, it has achieved his vision.
Dog Mountain, where dogs can go leash-free, remains popular with animal lovers. A USA Today reader contest recently picked the destination as the #1 dog friendly tour or activity.
The Friends of Dog Mountain hopes the property can continue to flourish and become an "economic and cultural asset" to the St. Johnsbury, Vermont area.
Ideas include redoing the barn and holding programs for artists in residence, offering children's art and therapy dog training, said Buckingham. A local arts organization wants to hold a concert series at Dog Mountain — dogs welcome of course.
Dog Mountain has had its financial struggles and its recent history is a tragic one. Huneck, after a battle with depression, killed himself in 2010. Gwen kept Dog Mountain going but after three years, she took her own life.
The gallery's creative director said she finds joy in the fact that the destination keeps operating in their honor.
"It's such a joyous place. It's too bad there's that little bit of a shadow of sadness," said Amanda McDermott.
But McDermott is hoping the Friends of Dog Mountain effort will help to alleviate some of that.
Catrina Nuite, of Brattleboro, was visiting her son when she stopped by with her dog and her son's dog. She said she visits from time and time and likes "the people, the dogs and the land."
Carolsue Cummings, of Surf City, New Jersey, placed a note in the chapel this week after losing her 16-year-dog. She and her husband and her daughter and son-in-law who live in Vermont also visited the gallery.
"This is just so nice and so interesting," she said.
Roaming around the gallery is Sally, a black lab that belonged to Gwen Huneck. She's been adopted by McDermott, who says the comfort people receive by touching and loving a dog is great. Sally provides that comfort to visitors.
"It's a prescription that I think everybody needs in this type of world," McDermott said.