Losing a partner is considered one of life’s worst traumas. So is losing a home. Gwen Huneck suffered the first when her husband, folk artist Stephen Huneck, committed suicide in January 2010. Recently she’s been on the verge of experiencing the second.
Deepening what she describes as “a sense of despair,” Huneck’s inability to pay property taxes was jeopardizing not only her St. Johnsbury homestead but also key elements of her husband’s legacy. Dog Mountain, a 150-acre retreat for canines and their companions, and Healing House, a nearby lodge for visitors, appeared to be headed for the auction block.
Gwen Huneck at one point owed the town of St. Johnsbury more than $50,000 in back taxes. Local officials threatened to auction off her 220-year-old private residence and an adjoining lot, as well as Healing House, by the end of this year. Dog Mountain, which includes a Stephen Huneck gallery and a memorial chapel for dogs, would be vulnerable to a tax sale in 2012 if its arrears were not paid.
Donors and collectors have responded generously, however, to an emergency appeal. Their contributions and special half-price purchases of Stephen Huneck woodcuts for $400 have enabled the artist’s widow to pay a large portion of what she owed. “It’s very moving to me how much Dog Mountain means to many people,” Gwen Huneck says in an interview. “They came forward to help at a difficult moment.”
Now, under a deal she recently clinched with town manager Ralph Nelson, Huneck must come up with $7600 in each of the next three months to settle her tax debt entirely. “I think I can do it,” she says with a mixture of caution and hope.
The problems arose as a result of the recession that began four years ago. In 2009, all of Stephen Huneck’s financial resources were devoted to sustaining his staff of about 12 full-time workers, “so there was no money left to pay property taxes,” Gwen Huneck says. “Stephen was determined to avoid laying anyone off, but it became unavoidable.”
Two days after most of his employees were let go, Stephen shot himself in the head, Gwen recounts.
Because tax difficulties could recur in coming years, Huneck is planning to establish a Dog Mountain foundation, she says. It would ensure tax-free status for the property, which also includes hiking trails, a dog-agility course and ponds for pooches. “Welcome: All Creeds, All Breeds. No Dogmas Allowed,” proclaims a sign near the chapel, the walls of which are covered with photographs and handwritten notes of remembrance for deceased best friends.
“Stephen viewed Dog Mountain as something that would be around for centuries,” says Jim Bryant, a part-time resident of Woodstock who has visited the retreat “dozens of times” with his two labs, Ike and Tashi. “Saving it is vital for the community that has grown up around it,” Bryant declares. “Many people view Dog Mountain as a sanctuary.”
St. Johnsbury also has an interest in preserving one of its leading tourist attractions, town manager Nelson notes.