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The Essay: The Soul of a Village

11/22/2017

by Dean L. Lunt

The Soul of a Village first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Winter 2017.

The achievers, the builders, and the community leaders all play crucial roles in a town’s development, forming its muscle and its spine. But the soul of a village is also defined by its sometimes-eccentric and troubled parts. Such residents, perhaps just outside the mainstream, may not always affect a community’s future and often leave little tangible legacy save for fading memories, but they remain a critical part of its history by giving the village its distinctive personality. Many of those characters, especially those who lived during the 1800s and early 1900s, have already been lost to time. In the island village where I grew up, I am just old enough that my life overlaps with a few of these men and women, and I’m certainly old enough to have heard stories.

Lincoln Lunt died in June of 1973 at the age of seventy-four. A grammar school pupil delivering something to his house found him dead one afternoon. Lincoln’s house, essentially a one-room shack, was filled with magazines and comic books piled wall-to-wall like a thick paper carpet. Lincoln’s house was actually the “ell” from an old island house that had been torn off and floated down the harbor for him. At the time, he was living on a boat pulled up onto the banks of the harbor.

He sometimes abandoned his old cot and slept with a blanket and pillow in a shallow indentation atop the magazines themselves. Actually, the house was his winter home. He often spent summer nights in an old blue car near his house. The car was pulled back into small spruce and apple trees along the road, so just the front end stuck out. He could watch the road through the windshield.

I don’t remember, nor have I heard stories about him causing problems. As a younger man, he often stayed long into the night at Vera Dalzell’s house listening to the radio. He sometimes ate dinner at my great-grandmother’s house or bought some bread and ham at the small island store. He walked to my grandparents’ house every few days for a gallon or two of kerosene to fire the small stove he used both to heat the room and to cook simple meals. He kept a few lobster traps in the outer harbor that he rowed out to tend. Lincoln belonged to a different era; a different world, really. But he was a part of the island DNA.

Regardless of that, after dark, with no streetlights near Lincoln’s house, island kids ran past his camp. After his death, the old shack seemed extra spooky and we sprinted faster.

Fierce Independence

Like Lincoln, single men and some women lived for decades in one-room shacks or alone in houses scattered around the harbor. All had different reasons and circumstances. In those days, not everyone left as they got sick, they could no longer work, or they were widowed. Sometimes they struggled with alcohol. Few had any money while healthy, let alone tucked away for old age. They just grew older and poorer. They stayed because Frenchboro was home; they were fiercely independent; they were stubborn; and they could live simply, all things considered.

Sometimes family land came down to them through the generations, or they bought a piece for short money—island land wasn’t worth much back then. Often relatives just let people live in the old camps. After all, they were all family and where else would they go?

They lived in a place and in a time where someone could survive, had to really, with little money and just basic help. They had few, if any, bills and lived off the land and family charity. Someone usually looked out for them in an emergency, and offered a bed or meal in a pinch.

Island Bachelors

One of the most intriguing, and certainly better-remembered island bachelors of the twentieth century was Hiram Albert Lunt Jr., universally known as “Doonie Hum.” Doonie died at sixty-one in the spring of 1966, a month before I was born. He collapsed after a heart attack in the main road near my grandparents’ house. In truth, he drank himself to death. No question he was an alcoholic, but men like him didn’t get treatment in those days.

Doonie, the eleventh child in his family, was my great-great-uncle. His house, also a one-room shack, sat on the hill just north of the Butler Road nestled amongst the alders not far from my house. It looked down on the harbor and out over the bait shed. He slept on a bunk built into the wall. I didn’t know Doonie, of course, but I knew that house, and I own the land today. I have written numerous short stories based on that old shack and what might have transpired there.
Among other things, Doonie, known to “run his mouth,” spun tall tales. He occasionally roamed the streets drunk, or got into an occasional fight, or carried out a little family “dirty work” when he was a younger man. But usually when on a bender he holed up in his house or crashed with a few drinking buddies. They were not difficult to find.

“Some of the old guys always had a pint of liquor in a flat bottle in their back pocket. And Doonie Hum always wore a big overcoat,” said Carroll W. Lunt, Doonie’s nephew. “They always told a story about Doonie, a bottle of liquor in his back pocket and under that coat, falling down one time. He laid there for a minute and finally said, ‘Jesus, I hope that is blood I feel running down my back.’ ”

Raw-boned and famously rugged, he was known for his endurance, especially when digging holes or smashing rock. He supposedly could hammer or dig all day—“like a beaver.” He dug numerous wells and outhouse pits for islanders to make money. The late John R. Lunt Jr., told this story:

“He came down the house one time; he was drunk, but was trying to straighten out and get over a bender. He was broke, didn’t have a cent. He said, ‘You want a ditch dug from that well to the house, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You send over and get me a couple cases of beer so I can sober up, and I’ll dig you a ditch.’

“He sobered up and got over his bender, and he was feeling pretty good. So he came up one night and asked me where I wanted it dug. I showed him. Then I came in from traps one night just before dark, and he had it two-thirds dug. I was in the house, and every once in a while I would see a shovelful of sand fly out of that hole. So finally, I went over and looked down and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Diggin a trench for you.’ I said, ‘You haven’t got to dig it down that far.’ He said, “You have to dig down to the bottom of the well, don’t you?’ God, he dug it down about twelve-foot deep, right into the house. We had to push the fill back in.”
Doonie, considered a decent fisherman, could earn good money and hauled upwards of two hundred heavy wooden traps by hand from a skiff every day. He might work months on end without touching a drop of liquor. Then one day, after he had salted away some cash, he would start to drink and might not stop for a month or so. While “on a drunk,” he might hire someone to tend his traps.

Carroll, who along with his brother, Robert, helped look after their uncle for a few years, tells it this way:

“He wouldn’t drink for months; then when he got some money in his pocket, right in the middle of the best fishing, he would get someone to tend his traps; then he would go get some liquor.

“He would drink for days, weeks, even a month straight. He would be drunk, although he wasn’t much of problem. My mother—he was Daddy’s brother—she would cook some stuff and send me down with it. He wouldn’t eat it, but he didn’t want her to know it. Then he would send me to the store for checkerberry and vanilla and peppermint and stuff. I thought it was something to get him well; come to find out he was drinking it for the alcohol.   

“It would take him days to get back on his feet, and he would be almost helpless. Then he would be well enough by fall to get himself five or six bags of potatoes, a couple bags of flour, a few pounds of beans and other stuff to store up for the winter.”

Doonie even had a path named after him: The Doonie Hum Road. It ran from his camp to the back shore between the Salt Ponds and Western Point.

It is all grown-over now and is hard to follow, if you can even find it. It is a hidden path and has long been overshadowed by more important roads. But if you are so inclined and you look hard enough, you’ll remember.

Dean L. Lunt is the editor-in-chief of Islandport Magazine and the author Hauling by Hand and Here for Generations.