Updated: Apr 25
By Dean Bennett
Every year the mill shut down for a reason that most have forgotten, or never knew. Of the few that have heard of it, some would snicker, others would think it absurd, and there are those today who would bluntly, even angrily, say that the reason was immoral. But back then, more than a century ago, the opening day of deer hunting season was at the top of everyone’s mind, like cream in the bottle of milk delivered every morning to the back porch.
As the day drew near, everybody joked about how their trigger finger was beginning to crook up, and went around saying the same thing I heard my father say a half-century later—“There hain’t no deer”—just to keep people away from places where everyone knew they hunted. And then there was the big buck that left huge tracks, long rubs and gouges way up on trees, and big piles of large droppings, tempting people to compare it in size to a small moose. Of course, no one had seen the monster deer in recent memory . . . not clearly, anyway. For that matter, no one could say for sure that he or she had ever seen it. Still, it was only a matter of time before it would be brought into town by some lucky hunter. So it was understandable why, on the big day, with the idea of hunting flashing like a neon sign in everybody’s mind, so many people called in sick or had some kind of crisis, or just plain disappeared, so that the mill couldn’t function.
The act of shutting down the mill wasn’t any small, trivial indicator of where deer hunting stood in people’s minds. Never mind that the E. L. Tebbetts Spool Company mill was the major industry in town, the largest employer, the biggest part of the area’s economy. Even the town, Locke’s Mills, was named after the mill and its original owner, Samuel Locke. People came from all over the area to work in the mill, paying heed to the whistle that told them they had but ten minutes left before the mill started up at seven a.m., and a blast right on the dot of that time, saying they should begin work. After eight hours of labor, the whistle blew again and they left for home, their hearing numbed by the loud machinery and flapping belts, minds pressed down by the tedium of endless repetitive activity, and bodies aching and exhausted—all for barely enough money to meet the necessities of life, money they needed to survive.
But when hunting season rolled around, never mind the need to work or the demands of the mill; it was more important to hunt deer than pay attention to the damn whistle.
Many have tried to explain this phenomenon. I’ve been asked from time to time why I hunt. I’ve never had a good answer because I never thought about it much. It was something I grew up doing, and I took it for granted that this was just something my family did in the normal course of our lives, as did many other families in my town. I have hunted deer for nearly seven decades now, and, on occasion, even absented myself from my own job responsibilities to pursue the white-tails, just as my ancestors did at the E. L. Tebbetts Spool Company mill.
Most everyone will tell you that Why do you hunt? is a complicated psychological and sociological question, without a simple answer. But after a lifetime of experiencing this urge, which lurks in the back of my mind throughout the winter, after the fall hunt, and then begins a restless squirming in spring that gradually worms its way into my consciousness as summer progresses, awakening into an overpowering longing with the first smell of dying leaves in the fall, I think I’ve finally found the answer—for me, anyway.
If you are someone who doesn’t hunt, you may see parallels here with something in your own life that you love to do year after year—something that occupies your memories, daily thoughts, and plans for the future, something that bonds you with family and friends, and something that adds its little bit to the character of your community, and, on a large scale, to the collective culture in which you live.
But if you are someone whose very existence is gripped every fall by an irresistible urge to hunt deer, you will see more than parallels: You will see yourself here. And if you pursue this passion in a special place where you’ve gone as long as you can remember, you will find a deeper meaning in this story—a meaning drawn from the simple pleasure of connecting with yourself, with others, and with a certain place in nature, and with one of its creatures of grace and beauty: the white-tailed deer, an animal interwoven into the fabric of our culture, particularly so for those in rural areas who have a long line of ancestral connection.
My ancestral connection to deer hunting began with my grandfather, Jason Ransom Bennett. Through him that connection was enlarged to include his family and myself, and because of this, I have a better grasp of the position deer hunting holds in our culture, especially in rural communities; its place in the geography of the landscape; and its place in the mind. It’s in the mind where the story reveals how hunting can lead one to contemplate the meaning of our relationship to the deer and, by extension, the rest of nature, for the act of hunting can do this, especially when it ends in a death.
One thing that made it possible to write this book is the primary source material I had available. First, I interviewed my grandfather extensively in 1953 for a high school assignment, when he was in his early sixties, and have always kept that information. Second, my family handed down many letters, diaries, and photographs, beginning with my grandfather’s mother, Mary Bennett. She was born in 1866, and I knew her well because she lived close by until her death, when I was a senior in high school. Third, ever since I was one year old, my family’s experiences have been recorded, often in great detail, in three volumes of the register of Camp Sheepskin, my family’s small, unassuming, wood-framed, two-room building located on a ninety-acre lot of land in a heavily wooded and hilly area of western Maine. In the pages of this record, I found the reason why deer hunting has been such a constant in my life. This register chronicles my family’s relationship with a place of respite, a place where I spent many days during my boyhood and as a young man, especially with my grandfather.
From the time my grandfather built the camp more than three-quarters of a century ago, six generations of my family have visited during all months of the year. The fall deer hunting season always held a special attraction, however, and it remains so today. Through that span of time, deer hunting underwent many changes in our family, as it did in society at large. Those changes are seen here in human terms—in the context of one family’s experience.
My grandfather was a well-loved figure, respected for his honesty, sense of humor, and the caring and love he gave to his family. These character traits were also appreciated by those in the community. He was the town tax collector, an unenviable job that one could only keep if people thought they were being treated honestly, fairly, and respectfully, and one earned by the votes of residents at the annual town meeting, where folks had the chance to say their piece, and usually did. He was voted into the position each year for twenty-seven years, and over that time the citizens of my community came to know and like him for these qualities, as well as for his pleasant manner and interesting and entertaining conversation. People would come to his home to pay their taxes and then stay for an hour or more, visiting. I know this because I grew up right next door and was often there when people came, listening in and enjoying his abundant stories.
My grandfather was my best friend in my boyhood, and later, when I was a young man, my best hunting companion. Through him I learned that among the many encounters hunters have with deer, there is usually at least one that is told and progressively enlarged upon until it moves from a mere story to the status of a legend, sometimes with mythical overtones. For this reason one should read this book thoughtfully, as one would do when trying to separate fact from fiction—especially so with my grandfather’s Ghost Buck.
—Dean B. Bennett, Mount Vernon, Maine
Dean Bennett, a lifelong deer hunter and Maine resident, wrote this essay as the preface to his tenth book, Ghost Buck: The Legacy of One Man’s Family and its Hunting Traditions. In addition to hunting and writing, Bennett has spent time as a cabinetmaker, curriculum developer, education program evaluator, and college professor.