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Canine devotion lives on at a rural graveyard in Duxbury

Published March 23, 2011 at 7:25 a.m.

At first glance, the graveyard at the base of the Camel’s Hump trail in Duxbury looks like a typical rural New England cemetery. A simple fence of stacked, moss-covered logs encloses fewer than a dozen headstones, tucked away in the woods behind a caretaker’s cabin. It looks like a family was buried there, albeit one that saw repeated tragedy. Only two stones — one for Will S. Monroe and one for his sister, Catherine Monroe — are adult size. The rest are much smaller, as if marking the graves of children.

But if you read the inscriptions on the stones, a different story unfolds. For Will Monroe: “Teacher, author, trailbuilder, companion and lover of dogs.” And below that, on the same headstone: “Richard of Anahassitt, his master’s devoted Shetland.” For Catherine Monroe: “She loved Scottie and wished to rest beside him.” And, between the siblings, a small stone for Scottie: “The beloved collie of Couching Lion Farm. Among the stars a star.”

The rest of the burials? All dogs.

For Green Mountain Club members and Long Trail hikers, Will Monroe looms larger than life. A world traveler, professor and writer, he cut the Long Trail from Camel’s Hump to the Middlebury Gap — a swath now known as the Monroe Skyline — starting in 1916. But what many people don’t know, unless they’ve stumbled on his cemetery, is that he was a dog lover.

“He never married, and he didn’t have children,” says Reidun Nuquist, a retired librarian and longtime Green Mountain Club member who has written extensively on Monroe for the Long Trail News. “His dogs were his children.”

Nuquist has long felt drawn to Monroe, whom she describes as a “Renaissance man.” “I cherish the old photographs of the dapper, bearded man with his handsome dogs,” she wrote in a Long Trail News article. When she began her research at the Vermont Historical Society 10 years ago, she was surprised to receive Monroe’s papers not in a cardboard box but in a wooden casket built for a dog.

Monroe grew up in Pennsylvania, the son of a storekeeper. He had two loves: nature and literature. As a student, he contributed poetry to a local newspaper; in his twenties, he published his first book. After graduate school Monroe moved to Europe, where he fell in love with opera. Later, he retired to Vermont and — in addition to his dogs — kept doves, which he named after characters in Wagnerian operas.

Monroe taught at the University of Vermont summer school in 1914 and 1915. That’s when he began hiking the Long Trail. Ten years later, he settled at Couching Lion Farm at the base of Camel’s Hump. The 102-acre farm, which he bought for $1150, was “perhaps the highest elevation homestead in the state, reachable by 3.75 miles of ‘narrow woods wagon road’ from the North Duxbury railway station,” Nuquist writes. Monroe filled the place with books, and it quickly turned into a gathering spot for hikers and friends — and a wonderland for dogs.

Monroe loved the big breeds: St. Bernards, Shetlands, collies, Newfoundlands and great Pyrenees. In fact, Monroe’s Pyrenees might have been the first of that breed brought to the United States, according to Gary Sawyer, stewardship forester for the northwest region of Vermont. A licensed authority on working breeds, Monroe judged at dog shows around the country. At any given time, he had four or five canine companions.

Richard of Anahassitt, the Shetland who shares a headstone with Monroe, slept on an enclosed porch with the old man every night. But Monroe’s favorite was Scottie, the collie now buried between him and his sister. Monroe was traveling in Europe when Scottie died. His friends, who had been looking after the collie, didn’t know how to break the news. They sent a telegram; when Monroe read it, “he broke down and sobbed unrestrainedly,” Nuquist writes.

When Monroe himself died 10 years later, he left the farm in a trust to be used as a bird sanctuary, game refuge, wildflower and tree preserve, and public park. But when the state acquired the land in 1940, “it never lived up to its promises about the property, and eventually they had to tear down the buildings,” says Nuquist. “The only thing that’s left is the cemetery.”

The plot certainly looks as if it’s been cared for. Nuquist says that’s because she and other Monroe devotees stop by whenever they’re hiking in the area to pluck weeds or pick up downed branches.

“Monroe elevated and opened up the Long Trail,” writes Nuquist. “The least we can do is respect his little cemetery plot by keeping it tidy and free of debris.”

The graves are mostly buried in snow these days, but in the springtime, the cemetery comes alive with blossoms. Monroe was an avid gardener, too, and planted many unusual flowers and trees around his house, including an Ohio buckeye — the only tree of its kind in Camel’s Hump park — several kinds of rare ferns and countless rosebushes.

Gary Sawyer always notices the snowdrops that sprout in the cemetery. “The very first flowers and plants come up right next to the gravestones,” he says. “You don’t see them anywhere else.”

Sawyer stops short of acknowledging a ghost of Monroe, but admits the cemetery has an otherworldly feel. A huge windstorm hit the hillside a few years ago, ripping down trees around the trailhead. Sawyer couldn’t help but marvel that not one of them hit the Monroes’ gravestones.

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About The Author

Megan James

Megan James

Megan James began writing for Seven Days in 2010, first as Associate Arts Editor. She later became an editor for Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT, and is currently a freelance contributor.


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