Looking for work that would carry him through the winter, Phil Deckers arrived in Amherst at age 17. “The night I got here, I stayed,” and the owner of Paul Bunyan Furniture “hired me and found me a place to stay.”
Encompassing a furniture factory, a sawmill and a kiln, Paul Bunyan Furniture employed about 20 people. Back then in the mid-1970s, “every person in town was affiliated with the woods industry in one way or another,” whether cutting wood, driving log trucks or repairing equipment. “Even the senior ladies” mended socks for woods workers, Deckers said.
He settled in this town bisected by the West Branch of the Union River, earned an associate degree in forestry management at the University of Maine and sawed the wood with which he built a house on a knoll after clearing off its thick growth. Today Deckers works much of the year as a caretaker “on one of the outer islands” on the Downeast coast and plows snow and operates the welding shop near his home in winter.
Deckers has been an Amherst selectman for about 30 years, except for “two or three years back in the ’80s.” During a town meeting “I raised my hand to ask a question, really, I believe, and they were looking for a volunteer,” he joked about his initial election to the board.
Deckers loves living in Amherst. “It’s rural” and quiet, and “you don’t have to lock your doors,” he said.
But “the people make this place,” he said. “You don’t feel out of place if you show up for supper; they’ll put out a setting for you and invite you to join them.
“The people who’ve lived here most of their lives and those who are new to the area all seem to cherish the small community atmosphere,” Deckers said. “It’s no trouble at all to round up a handful of volunteers at any given moment to help with anything from town roads to personal hardships.
“Good help is no more than a phone call away,” he said.
“We do as much volunteer work as we can,” Deckers said. From exterior painting to interior cleaning, “pretty much all the work that takes place on the town hall” involves volunteers, and “when the town wanted the American flags put out” on Route 9 utility poles, several volunteers quickly did the work, he commented.
Noticing the tree limbs growing into town roads, volunteers used a bucket truck, a tractor with a chipper, and chainsaws (the equipment was donated for the project) to trim the trees.
Volunteerism reduces expenditures for a town in which “80 percent of our land is in Tree Growth,” with the value of such land “capped at $100 an acre,” Deckers said. While road-maintenance costs have risen substantially, the state’s payment for local road assistance has not kept pace. The state plows Route 9; the town plows Route 181, officially a state highway.
“We’re very fortunate to have a local school,” said Deckers, referring to the Airline Community School in Aurora. But education takes two-thirds of Amherst’s annual budget, and “the costs of running a school go up every year,” he said.
Deckers has visited Peru, the Caribbean, Los Angeles, England and Scotland, where he met country folk with interests and concerns similar to his neighbors in Amherst.
“Country people are country people, wherever you go on Earth,” he said.
Deckers has a son, Thomas, and a daughter, Jessica. Thomas recently moved home to live in a house near his father.