He was the Johnny Appleseed of our early years, an uncouth eccentric who loved “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” with as much passion as he disliked personal hygiene. In an era when people seldom bathed, John Milton Dunnacker, founder of Castaway Books in a log cabin in 1832, was renowned for his smell. At a time when everyone hosted parasites, Dunnacker was famous for the foul vermin that followed him wherever he went. Clouds of flies buzzed around his head, colonies of fleas lived in his queued hair and vacationed in his pants, crustaceans manned isolated outposts in his armpits. To parasites, the bookseller, his stench a mixture of aged cheese, rancid meat, pipe tobacco, sweat, and stale ale, must have seemed like Disney World.
Clad in goatskins, a pet Carolina parakeet perched on his shoulder, Dunnacker would stand in the doorway of his bookstore, handing out free copies of Defoe’s novel to everyone he met. Once everyone in the town had received a copy of the book, Dunnacker left the store in the care of his long-suffering wife and set off. Traipsing through forest and field, he would preach the virtues of castaway living, distributing his beloved book to backwoods settlers, most of whom had never seen the ocean and had little idea what they were missing.
Returning to Sycamore Shadows each autumn, Dunnacker would stay with his wife for the winter, selling books to those hearty enough to brave the closed stench of the cabin that served as his store and home. He would leave again when the snow began to melt and the streams swelled, a pack on his back filled with books and the only thing he ate, cheese. As often happens, his wife subsisted on roots, thistles, and charity while her husband roamed free. To this day, no one knows how Dunnacker paid for the books. Some believe that he had located the treasure of pirate Jean-Michele de Marsuoin, Sir Swinfish.
For 15 years he rambled in ever-widening arcs, until one autumn he failed to return. Perhaps someone murdered him as he slept. More likely, his body weary, his blood 30% cheddar, Dunnacker died alone in some sheltered glen while mice gathered round, waiting for the cheese. Either way, John Milton Dunnacker was never seen again. His wife continued the bookseller’s trade until her own death in 1857.
Scholars estimate that in 15 years of activity, Dunnacker distributed 3,000 copies of the book, many of which remain in Sycamore Shadows. For many Shadowers, copies of “Robinson Crusoe” distributed by Dunnacker—easily identified by his signature—while hardly rare, are prized possessions. Eccentric, self-absorbed, and stinky though he was, Dunnacker introduced literature to the region, and pretty good literature at that.
In 2010, current Castaway Books owner Kitty Parr, wanting to recognize Dunnacker and the book he loved so well, purchased an island in Little Rindle Creek, renaming it “Crusoe’s Island” in his honor. No doubt, Dunnacker would have appreciated the gesture.