Don Hunter is a collector of disappearing sounds. Steam locomotives? He's got 'em. Ever wonder what a door-to-door wood cutter's saw once sounded like in Eugene? He can play you the tape. When dial telephones arrived in town, Hunter thought to call up the operator and record her saying, "Number, please."
Hunter, once a high school techno-nerd but long since grown into respectable old age, has recorded the sounds of circus parades, of roosters crowing, of cicadas twittering and of cats meowing. He made what could be the first professional quality music recording in Eugene, the University Symphony in the late 1930s.
Now 89 years old, Hunter made his first sound recordings seven decades ago when he was a senior at Eugene High School. He was, then, the kid who ran the school public address system, a bright kid fascinated by a new technology. He soon had his own public address equipment and went into the sound business part time. Before he even hit college, Hunter had built his own acetate disc recording machine from an old phonograph. He would later own the first reel-to-reel tape recorder seen in Eugene.
"I was particularly interested in field recording," recalls Hunter, a thin, voluble man with clear eyes and short gray hair who lives in a house full of neon lights, rock collections and model trains in South Eugene. "I loved getting out and getting the sounds of nature. And I especially loved sounds that were disappearing."
Hunter would become the official recordist for Eugene's first radio station, KORE. He recorded the sounds of the McKenzie River boat parade and broadcast the parade on the radio one year. While working for KORE he met a preacher who wanted help recording his weekly sermon; the preacher's name was Herbert Armstrong, and he went on to found the Worldwide Church of God.
Hunter works from an extremely cluttered basement studio lined with thousands of 7-inch, reel-to-reel plastic and paper audio tapes. The labels on their boxes give some idea of the wide range of his interests:
"S.P. Steam Wrecking Crew 21 Sep '65."
"Ocean & Guitar."
"Georgia Pacific Logging."
"Sound: Electric Switch, etc."
It was about 1962 that he managed to track down a wood saw of the type he remembers from his childhood. "They were usually in a horsedrawn wagon. It was always exciting to go out and see what was going on. I wanted to get that sound - but they had all long disappeared."
On the recording, you can hear a belt engage the saw blade from a putt-putting gasoline engine. The belt squeaks faster and faster and finally hums evenly, just before you hear the metallic sound of the blade biting into firewood.
More tape titles:
"I still record things like that," Hunter says. "I always think I'll get a better recording, you know."
Trained as an electrical engineer at the University of Nebraska, he worked for the Eugene Water and Electric Board, doing technical jobs such as tracking down the source of radio interference put out by malfunctioning transmission lines.
He also worked for a neon sign maker in Eugene, prompting a lifetime fascination with neon. Step into Hunter's house and you find the hallway is lit by a white neon tube that runs along the ceiling, in place of the usual incandescent lights. So is the kitchen. Hanging in the front window is one of a rotating seasonal display of neon art; spring is a bunch of flowers.
Hunter also worked for the physics department at the University of Oregon, teaching photography and physics laboratory courses.
But his main job for the university was running the school's audio-visual department, which he founded in 1946 and from which he retired in 1977.
Sound is not his only avocation. Hunter has taken photographs for years, and along with his sound tapes are hundreds of boxes of Kodachrome slides, detailing everything from the eruption of Mount St. Helens to the loveliness of the high Cascades.
Hunter has done elaborate slide shows around the Eugene area for years, mixing his scenic slides with his sound recordings. He's also shown them for members of Congress to help convince the federal government to preserve the Three Sisters wilderness.
And then there are the rocks and trains. In other rooms in the basement, Hunter has his mineral collection on display in glass cases complete with the kind of black light you might find at at roadside attraction rock shop in the desert.
Another large room is dedicated to his train addiction. An HO gauge model train runs around the edges of a spacious room, which is otherwise decorated with real-life railroad artifacts Hunter has acquired over the years.
But it's Hunter's sound library that's attracted the most attention over the years. Plenty of people have model train sets. Lots of people have photographs. Few have actual recordings of real live steam locomotives, made in the days of steam.
Thus, Hunter and his recordings have enjoyed a small degree of national fame in recent years. He and his sounds have been on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." He has been featured on Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Art Beat" television show.
And, through the summer, the UO Museum of Natural History has a small display about Hunter's photographs and sound recordings. "Preserving the Sights and Sounds of Oregon: The Don Hunter Legacy" runs through Aug. 31 at the museum, which is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The future for Hunter's vast collection isn't yet clear. For one thing, it's not completely indexed, so only Hunter knows for sure what's in it, though he's working with the university to organize it all. The university, he says, wants to collect his material that's related to the university, but could be interested in collecting more of it. "The rest will probably go to the Oregon Historical Society or to Lane County Historical Society," he says.
Having progressed from acetate discs to reel-to-reel paper tape to plastic tape to casette tapes to mini computer discs, Hunter is still moving forward technologically.
"I am just on the verge," he says, "of buying a CD recorder ..."
Bob Keefer can be reached at 338-2325 or bkeefer@guardnet .com.
Hunter stays intent on sound while the train passes.
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|Title Annotation:||Arts & Literature|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Jul 6, 2003|
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