Pirates of Kezar Lake: The life and legend of Capt. Don Dickerman, by reporter Mark Chag, originally published in the Advertiser Democrat, Lovell, Maine, in 2007 and 2008.
Mark Chag’s note: The following are parts in a series of feature stories about the late “Captain” Don Dickerman, the Pirate of Kezar Lake. The stories are a “spin-off” of a seven-month-long series which brought our readers back to the life and times of the legendary crooner Rudy Vallee, who was introduced to Kezar Lake by Dickerman. While Vallee lived a glamorous and eventful life, Dickerman’s was borderline bizarre in eccentricities at multiple levels. Before the story of this true-life character, and lifelong resident of Lovell disappears into history, we have preserved here for our readers what could be found in the treasure chest, following a quest for the facts about his life. We share those historical jewels of one of the region’s most colorful people in this series.
Jan Whitaker’s note: Thanks to Don Dickerman’s granddaughter Dottie Mowatt for sending me these articles to share with readers.
Myths are based on legends, while legends are based on facts, and the facts surrounding the life of Don Dickerman are at times so outlandish, one might believe it was all just a myth. But it wasn’t. Capt. Don Dickerman — or simply Capt. Don, as he preferred to be called — was the leader of the band of pirates who once ruled Kezar Lake, in Lovell, as far back as the early 1920s. If fact, Dickerman and his band of swashbuckling buccaneers once had “dens” where they could hide out in New York, Miami, Washington D.C., and Hollywood. In all actuality, Dickerman was no captain, but he appeared to have been the liveliest pirate Western Maine has ever seen. “He was absolutely convinced he was a pirate. There’s no doubt about that,” says Kathy Popovic, Dickerman’s granddaughter who now lives in Casco. Kathy, along with her sister, Dottie Mowatt, of Otisfield, sit inside a screened-in patio on a summer afternoon, at a table covered with photographs of their grandfather and his days — and exploits — at Kezar Lake. Their grandmother, Clara, was Dickerman’s first wife — but not his last. He would go on to rack up a total of 13 wives before he passed away in 1981. Some he kept around longer than others. “There was one of his wives who he was married to for two hours,” Dottie recalls with a laugh. “He got married and then he just left her at Grand Central Station.” As the sisters continue to sift through the assortment of photos, Dottie picks up a large black and white photo, showing their grandfather in full pirate regalia, complete with the large gold hoop earring, gaudy rings, captain’s hat, and sash equipped with cutlasses and pistols. He’s holding up a glass in a toast, as is the beautiful blonde woman at his side. On the back of the picture, written in Dickerman’s handwriting, is, “Wife #5.” But there is no indication that Dickerman was a difficult man, and the reason for his total of 13 wives remains, even to his ancestors, a mystery. When asked how long her grandmother was married to Capt. Don, Dottie laughs and admits that she isn’t sure. “It couldn’t have been too long,” she says, since he went on to find 12 more brides. “I don’t know why he had so many wives. I really don’t know.” What we do know is that Capt. Don was born “Donald Dickerman,” on January 22, 1893, in Evanstown [JW: Evanston, a Chicago suburb], Illinois, the son of Horace and Mary Lou Hill Dickerman. He was a graduate of Andover College in Massachusetts, and Yale University in Connecticut. We also know that he studied art in New York, and was an accomplished artist throughout his life. His roommate – and ultimately lifelong friend — while he was an art student, was none other than a young man who went on to become one of America’s greatest painters — Norman Rockwell. Rockwell once sketched a portrait of Dickerman — in full pirate garb, of course — which was once featured on the cover “302 Traveler” magazine. For years, the original hung above the mantel at Dickerman’s lodge at Kezar Lake. Now, it is in California, and belongs to Dottie and Kathy’s cousin. Kathy recalls Dickerman visiting her while she was living in Connecticut some years back. “He said to me, ‘Let’s go visit Norman.’ And I said, ‘Norman who?’ And he said, ‘Norman Rockwell,'” Kathy says with a laugh, as she reflects back on the incident. “I told him that I just can’t get up and go visit Norman Rockwell!” Ultimately she passed on the offer, missing out on the chance to meet the painter, who died in 1978. Dickerman was no stranger to celebrities, and rubbed shoulders with them throughout his life. During the 1920s and 1930s, he had become a prolific nightclub entrepreneur, with no fewer than five different clubs operating in New York. In the “Big Apple,” he owned and operated the “Blue Horse,” “Daffy Dil,” “County Fair” — which was designed and themed after none other than Maine’s Fryeburg Fair — more on that later — the Heigh-Ho Club, and the Pirate’s Den. Additional Pirate’s Dens popped up in Miami, Washington D.C., and Hollywood, where photographs show Dickerman and party-goers in full garb enjoying the booty of a good time. But it was at New York’s Heigh-Ho club, in the late 1920s, that Capt. Don may have unearthed his most valuable treasures — Rudy Vallee. At the time, Vallee was an accomplished musician, a master saxophonist, and bandleader, but not a singer. While auditioning for a “gig” at the Heigh-Ho club, Vallee brought along a fellow band-member to sing in hopes of landing the performance. Dickerman sat at the club, watching the performance, and was less than impressed. Feeling nervous that the business opportunity would slip through his fingers, Vallee, who did not have a powerful voice, grabbed a megaphone and performed the song “Rain.” His whispery and melodic sound filled the room, and when he finished the final notes, he looked at Dickerman. “You do the singing,” Dickerman told him. With that, a star was born. Vallee, almost overnight, became a global sensation, the country’s first fanatically-popular icon, and the very first crooner — paving a road for Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley to follow. Throughout the 1930s, Vallee was a household name, with the most popular radio show in the nation — which initially broadcast from the Heigh-Ho Club — and “discovering” countless of other talents whose careers began because of him. But, it could be said, that because of Dickerman, Vallee’s career was born. This is a story oft-recited by Vallee’s own widow, Eleanor Vallee, who, to this day, includes Dickerman’s story of “You do the singing,” wherever she goes to keep the legend alive of her late husband, the crooning pioneer. It was Dickerman who also introduced Vallee to Kezar Lake, when the crooner visited him on a whim in 1930. Vallee had just completed attending a weeklong extravaganza in his honor in Westbrook, and needed a break. He flew on a “hydroplane,” or amphibious aircraft from Portland to Kezar Lake, looked down to find Dickerman’s blue float, and came in for a landing. Vallee fell in love with the lake, and soon bought 300 acres next door to Dickerman, where, for the next 10 years, pirate antics, music, Hollywood’s Golden Era elite and stories flowed like the wine that fueled them across the picturesque Western Maine hideaway. But Dickerman had discovered the beauty of Kezar Lake long before he welcomed Vallee as a neighbor. It’s not clear exactly when he first trekked to the shores of the region, but photos exist of him there as far back as 1912, when Dickerman would have still been in his teens. It appears he took a love for the area at a young age. Dottie recalls Capt. Don telling her that he bought the property on Kezar Lake initially after earning money by “selling ice cream out of a canoe on the lake.” By 1918, Dickerman’s lodge on the lake appeared in post cards from the region — one of which Dottie and Kathy have in their collection of family memorabilia. But where did a young man from Illinois, who sold ice cream from a canoe, and had an artistic eye, become a pirate? That secret may lie at sea. Dickerman, ever the adventurer, took to the high seas on the famous Beebe expedition to the Galapagos Islands in 1919. It was on that voyage, that the man who would go on to become Capt. Don, was able to — with the help of a baseball bat — kill an 18-foot-long giant manta ray while sitting in a 14-foot-long rowboat. This is the same Capt. Don who would later lobby successfully to gain a full posthumously-ordered pardon from the Mayor of New York City for another fellow (and very real) pirate — the infamous Captain Kidd. More on his life — not just the legend — in the next addition of this series, as we unearth the treasure trove of stories that decorated the life of the Kezar Lake Pirate, Captain Don Dickerman.
The pirate was preparing to set sail, although this trip would lead him not over the calm waters of Kezar Lake in Lovell, but over the high seas, to the Galapagos Islands. Don Dickerman — or “Captain Don,” as he preferred to be called — decided to take a break from life as a city pirate, and sail out on a true adventure. Here’s a bit of background. The longtime resident of Lovell built a lakeside camp on the west side of Kezar Lake sometime in the 1910s. It’s not clear exactly when he first came to discover Western Maine, but by the time he was in his early twenties, at least one postcard from the area depicted his home on the lake. Born an only child in Illinois, in 1893, Dickerman was a successful businessman by 1920, with a series of nightclubs scattered around New York City, rubbing shoulders with some of the finest musical talents and entertainers in the country. His first brush with the entertainment industry came when he was studying art, at the Art Students League, in New York City — where he shared a room with legendary Americana artist, and then fellow student, Norman Rockwell. While studying there, Dickerman began organizing a series of fundraising costume balls to help the school’s “needy students,” and managed to raise about $38,000, a huge sum at the time, according to an article that appeared in “302 Traveler” in 1979, by Ann Williams. Dickerman would use those talents of entertainment management, combined with a flair for outrageous antics, to create a series of “themed” nightclubs that would make him a fortune. But it was his skills as an artist — something he cradled as a hobby for his entire life — that landed him on a steamer that would take him from New York City, through the Panama Canal, and on to various islands, including Cocos and Galapagos in the Pacific, on an historic expedition. On February 11, 1925, the 2,400-ton steamer “Arcturus” departed New York, bound for the south seas on a six month expedition. Dickerman was on board as an “assistant artist,” hired to sketch sea life collected during the voyage. He was hired personally by the director of the expedition, none other than the great naturalist, William Beebe. Author of no fewer than two dozen books, Beebe was born in 1877. By the time he was in his early twenties, he had become an expert ornithologist, and was the curator of birds at the New York Zoological Society. He would go on to travel the world, collecting specimens, and making major contributions to the field with his observations, findings and discoveries. Before the Arcturus voyage, Beebe’s earlier trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1923 would go down in history as the “Beebe Expedition,” and his 1924 book, “Galapagos: World’s End,” based on that trip, is still in print today. Another book, “The Arcturus Adventure,” tells of the New York Zoological Society’s first-ever oceanographic expedition – of which Dickerman was a crew member. The book was published in 1927, enjoyed no fewer than seven additional printings, but has long since been out of print. Following the earlier expedition, Beebe cataloged completely in his book exactly what specimens were collected and brought back to the New York Zoological Society. However, he was not so precise when penning “Arcturus Adventure,” and mentions many examples throughout the book of what was caught, and summarizes the whole as “a host of treasures from the most microscopic beings to a giant devilfish weighing more than a ton.” It was this “devilfish,” which is also known as a giant manta ray, which was caught by Dickerman himself. In a 1956 interview with “The Post,” a newspaper in San Clemente, California, Dickerman described his battle on a boat with a beast from the sea. The reporter adds validity to Dickerman’s story, by noting that he, “Stoutly maintains the truth of a seafaring yarn of great relish, recalling the expedition.” “Dickerman captured an 18-foot manta ray while manning a 14-foot rowboat. Dickerman harpooned the sea monster, stunned it with a baseball bat, and with his boat on the manta ray’s back, steered two miles to the mother ship, whacking the not-so-fearsome fish about its fishy ears with the bat,” according to the report. As if the tale sounds too tall to be true, Beebe also mentions Dickerman’s manta-mauling in “Arcturus Adventure,” with almost as much flair. Beebe also reveals that Dickerman was not alone in the tiny boat at the time of the catch. “Dickerman, [Dwight] Franklin and [D.W.] Cady made up their minds to capture one. Assembling every weapon, legitimate and otherwise, which the Arcturus afforded, they set out in a tiny rowboat and made good,” Beebe later wrote. Apparently, there were early film cameras on board, which captured the entire event — and the blatant danger that the three men in a rowboat faced battling a giant manta. “When, later on, we analyzed the fight from the motion pictures, we realized that luck had surely been with us, for if the great fish had slapped its wing tips a little nearer and higher, the rowboat and devilfishers would have been flattened,” Beebe wrote. According to the account in “Arcturus Adventure,” the men battled the manta for more than two hours, with a harpoon and rifles and everything else they had on board — apparently including Capt. Don’s baseball bat — to secure the fish. When hauled aboard the ship, it was weighed at 2,310 pounds, and Beebe describes that the mouth was four feet wide and the “liver alone weighed as much as a man.” According to William’s article in 1979, Dickerman’s “full color illustrations of deep sea fish earned him a lifetime membership in the New York Historical Society.” Some of the color plates were printed in Beebe’s “Arcturus Expedition.” Williams also shines a little light on what may have been an ulterior motive, for this pirate-at-heart, to make the sea voyage. “During the expedition at Cocos Island, [an island near the Galapagos chain] Don’s fascination with pirates and their buried treasures inspired him to begin a search. After all, [the] infamous pirate vessels, the “Shrew” and the “Fury” had been lost nearby, with treasure said to be buried on a particular island. “Don, alone in a native dugout, scouted the island and felt drawn to a likely site. There, he nearly lost his life, falling into a huge hole, hidden under the tall grass. An eerie sight later heightened Don’s interest in the place: A previously unnoticed shadow appeared in a photo of Don snapped by a friend at the site of the shipwrecks. Whose shadow was it, and how did it get there?” Williams asks. It was a riddle that was never answered. Beebe also mentions Dickerman’s pirate fever on this very same island stop. He writes that as dawn broke, where the Arcturus was anchored offshore, Dickerman’s furor to reach the shore and walk in the footsteps of true pirates of the past was electric. Tossing a tiny rowboat and paddle into the water, Capt. Don raced to the shore, being the first member of the crew to arrive on the beach at Cocos. In the following, he makes a reference to Canada’s most famous Catholic shrine, and Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, as he describes Dickerman’s excitement. “Our atavistic pirate threw his tiny Panama dugout and paddle overboard, dived after, baled it, crawled in, and sped shoreward, in the same spirit with which a pilgrim comes within sight of the Kaaba. No devotee ever climbed the 72 steps of St. Anne de Beaupre with more reverence than Don Dickerman, tumbled ashore by the breakers, crept up the pebbly beach,” Beebe wrote. One of the more famous legends of the Cocos sprouted more than 100 years before Dickerman’s landfall on the same beach, and involves a mysterious “Captain Thompson,” who would team up with the pirate Benito Bonito, and bury more than $60 million in treasure in a cave not far from the shore. Even Beebe mentions the infamous Benito in “Arcturus Adventure,” as a man who “fell upon evil days and turned pirate,” and who, “lived up to the best traditions of swashbuckling and bloodthirsty piracy, and ravaged the West Indies and the east coast of South America with great success.” There are seemingly countless stories of buccaneers stashing treasures on the tiny cave-pocked island, dating back to the Incas, who purportedly even hid their treasures there in a cave on a mountaintop — hidden away forever from the Spanish invaders. Today, the uninhabited island is strictly protected from treasure hunters and tourists alike. Unlike Dickerman’s 10 adventurous days spent frolicking among the caves and palms in search of buried treasure while on the expedition, today, nobody is allowed to set foot on the island without the close supervision of a ranger from the governing country of Costa Rica. It doesn’t appear that Capt. Don found any of the hidden booty, on Cocos, but his stay likely left him with only more flair for his own passion for piracy. It was time to move on, back to New York, where he had his Pirate’s Den nightclub to tend to — and several more to create across the country. Kezar Lake’s own pirate was sailing home, leaving his mark on the Cocos, and in the artistic history that is the New York Zoological Society. Next, he would lobby for the full pardon of Captain Kidd, storm Hollywood with legendary crooner Rudy Vallee, and even pluck a piece of the Fryeburg Fair from Maine and drop it into the entertainment spotlight of New York City. All this, and more, as we continue to unearth the treasures in the chest of the life of Kezar Lake’s Capt. Don Dickerman.
The pirate’s dead body was chained to a post in the Thames River, in London, so that the rising tide could cover, then recede, three times, before being tarred and hung in metal harness as a warning for all others who considered such a profession. This was after he was hung, not once, but twice in the hangman’s noose, despite his persistent declaration of innocence. But was the legendary pirate known as Captain Kidd an innocent man? If he were to suddenly resurface, and return to New York today, more than 300 years after his death, he would find himself pardoned of all charges — thanks to a certain fellow “pirate” who hailed from the shores of Kezar Lake, in Lovell. Don Dickerman — or Capt. Don, as he preferred to be called — first came to Kezar Lake in 1910, and purchased a plot of land on the banks of the west shore, with money earned by selling ice cream out of a canoe. He would go on to become a successful nightclub owner — the proprietor of as many as 27 such establishments across the country, according to Kathy Popovic, a surviving granddaughter, who now lives in Casco. During his reign as a nightclub owner throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, he rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous celebrities and entertainers in the country, from Rudy Vallee to Bing Crosby. All the while, he was a self-confessed modern day pirate, frequently photographed in full-pirate garb, and clinging to the near-obsession until his dying day. But Capt. Don had a tender spot for his fellow buccaneers, and when he saw an injustice, he wanted the wrong righted. Such was the case of Captain Kidd. Born William Kidd, sometime in the mid-1600s, he would go down in history as one of the most famous pirates to ever sail the seas – although he may have never been a pirate at all. Kidd’s adventure into piracy is a complicated, though well-documented one. A wealthy and successful New York merchant, he was employed into the service of England’s King William III, while America was young and still a territory of the sprawling British empire. Supported by a group of investors, including, as the story goes, a Lord Bellomont, who was then the governor of the territories of New York and New England. Under the employment of the crown, Kidd set sail in his ship, the Adventure Galley, in early 1696. His mission? To capture booty away from pirates and “enemies of England” — in this case, “enemies,” meant the French — and return such riches to the crown. In essence, Kidd was set out to return what was stolen by pirates, and that which England wanted to take from their “enemies,” and bring it home. His destination was the Indian Ocean. Things did not go well for Kidd and his crew, and they sailed nearly a year-and-a-half before sacking their first trophy — which, by accident according to Kidd, turned out to be a Portuguese vessel. Several months later, Kidd captured another boat which was — under a disguise — flying French flags. As it turned out, he had captured an English vessel. Faced with a mutiny from his long-frustrated crew if he surrendered the boat, he kept the prize and sailed on. Eventually, Kidd’s journey led him to true pirates and “enemy” ships which were captured, raided and looted. But by then, the damage to his reputation was done, and he was himself gaining a reputation as a pirate. After several years of treasure collecting and additional shenanigans attributed to Kidd’s poor lack of judgment — such as attacking other “non-enemy” ships — the captain caught wind of his publicly-branded label as a pirate, and decided it was time to set sail for home and clear his record. Arriving in the waters off of New England, Kidd sent a messenger to assure his safety, and was guaranteed a full pardon by Lord Bellomont — who lied. Perhaps smelling that something was awry, Kidd, before making landfall in Boston where Lord Bellomont’s office was located, he unloaded his priceless booty he and his crew had collected over the years. Sending boats away from the ship, it’s been rumored — or perhaps proven since some has since been discovered — that Kidd buried his vast treasures in locations along the New England shorelines, including Maine. “People have been searching for it for almost three centuries, and a bit of it has been found,” Robert Ellis Cahill wrote in his 1987 book, “Pirates and Lost Treasures.” According to Cahill, the first to dig up some of the buried booty was none other than Lord Bellomont himself, with the aid of the Massachusetts militia. They uncovered, on Gardner’s Island off the coast of New York, a stash of “91 pounds and 8 ounces of gold dust, 196 pounds of silver bars and coins, two pounds of diamonds and other precious stones,” in 1699. Other such treasures were later collected, and one suspect spot was rumored to be an island off the coast of Maine. Upon turning himself in, Kidd was escorted from Boston to a dungeon in England. He was jailed for nearly two years until his trial, and never allowed visitation from his wife. When being escorted to the gallows, he allegedly whispered a series of numbers to his wife when the opportunity was briefly afforded. The numbers, 44106818, according to Cahill, were almost exactly precise coordinates for Deer Island, Maine, where it was later rumored a discovered treasure provided the riches for one of the world’s wealthiest men — John Jacob Astor, who would later go down with the Titanic. There is also wide speculation that some of Kidd’s treasure was buried somewhere on the Isles of Shoals, of the coast of New Hampshire. As legend has it, Kidd left more than gold and silver behind. He allegedly killed one of his crew members, so that the ghost would forever protect the stash. (That’s not the only ghost in this ongoing Don Dickerman tale, however. More on that later.) Legends of buried treasures and ghosts aside, Kidd performed miserably in his defense while on trial. In 1601, he faced the gallows in England. He marched to his death, in a stammering, drunken stupor, and was hung — not once, but twice. On the first attempt, Kidd, who by all accounts was a large man, snapped the rope that was tied around his neck and was sent plummeting to the ground. The second hanging attempt was successful — but the officials weren’t through with the notorious Capt. Kidd yet. His body was then chained to a post so that the rising tides could engulf the body over the course of several days three times. If that weren’t enough, the corpse was then tarred and placed into a snug wire cage and hung up as a warning to all other pirates. Legend has it that Kidd’s body remained suspended and rotting in the cage for years. But was he guilty? Or was he simply following the King’s orders to the best of his ability — however ineptly? Kezar Lake’s Capt. Don believed the latter, and that his fellow pirate deserved a posthumous pardon — 225 years after Kidd was guaranteed one by Lord Bellomont. The owner of four Pirate’s Den nightclubs — one of which was in New York City — and all of which had a full-staff of pirate waiters and entertainers and were themed around the days of piracy, Capt. Don set out to see to it that Kidd earned a full pardon. The pardon came from the then-mayor of Kidd’s own hometown, New York City. Born a poor farm boy in 1869, John Hylan was a self-made man who followed the American dream to New York City. He arrived there as a young boy with $4.50 in his pocket. By 1918, he was the mayor of the city. He also happened to be mayor in late 1924, when Capt. Don began his campaign to have Kidd pardoned of all charges of piracy — the same pardon Kidd himself so desperately sought back in 1699, and was once falsely guaranteed by Lord Bellomont. Very little documentation of Dickerman’s attempt seems to exist, but an exhaustive search has turned up a pair of articles detailing the pardon of Capt. Kidd. In a 1956 interview with “The Post,” a newspaper in San Clemente, California, offered the following. “He [Dickerman] once straight-facedly sought and obtained a full pardon for the pirate Captain Kidd from the mayor of New York City. Dickerman reports that research revealed the famed pirate was not actually a pirate at all, but actually returned stolen goods captured from buccaneers. He says Kidd was framed by the mayor of Gotham, a rascally Britisher named Lord Bellomont. Some 225 years too late, the then mayor signed a public pardon, before riotous party-goers, at a pirate’s ball.” In addition, an article published in the New York Times, on December 21, 1924, mentions the event briefly, in the last paragraph. The bulk of the article outlined treasure-hunters on yet another search for Kidd’s buried treasure. “Last month, Mayor Hylan signed a formal pardon for Kidd,” the article states. “He did it for a group . . . who gave a Capt. Kidd ball of which the purpose was to further the interest in the romance of piracy.” With Captain Kidd pardoned, and Capt. Don still on the loose, it was time to capture some backwoods booty — in the form of musical talent — from Western Maine, and bring it to the Pirate’s Den in New York City. It was also time to take on another of Capt. Don’s passions — the occult, and try to communicate with the dead. Dickerman supposedly, in his own words, had multiple conversations with the infamous Blackbeard the Pirate. Interestingly — and well documented — Blackbeard had a run-in on the very same Isle of Shoals as Capt. Kidd, where he also left something behind, in the form of a ghost. Dickerman’s conversations with Blackbeard the Pirate from the afterlife, and the legend of still more buried treasures, lie ahead as the story of the Kezar Lake pirates continues.
If it weren’t for Capt. Don Dickerman, America may have been deprived of one its favorite evening pastimes — frequenting a nightclub. It was Dickerman who, in his own words, invented the very first nightclub, in downtown New York City. “The Pirate’s Den” was a true novelty in its day, featuring a gang of pirate waiters and performers, live music, and multi-levels of atmospheric fun, all themed to look like the days of swashbuckling mayhem. Capt. Don, as Dickerman preferred to be called, was perhaps the last true pirate the world has ever known, at least in his own heart. Piracy was lifelong obsession, which apparently sprung up in his early years of visiting Kezar Lake, in Lovell. He first arrived there as a young man, in 1910, and returned over and over again until his death in 1986, to a plot of land and series of cabins he built, originally, with money he earned selling ice cream from a canoe. It’s not clear exactly when he decided that he was a modern-day pirate, but he later ventured to Cocos Island, in the Galapagos chain, in a madcap search for buried treasure there. He had specific insight on where the treasure was buried, which he says he gained by conversing with the dead through a medium. But his search turned up empty-handed. By the early 1920s, he had opened the original Pirate’s Den, in New York. Three more Pirate Den nightclubs would follow, in Hollywood, Miami, and Washington, D.C. But buccaneer-themed clubs weren’t his only flair in the business. It’s been said by relatives, who have passed his story along, that Dickerman, at his prime, owned as many as 27 clubs scattered across the country. He burst into the business while still a student at the Art Students League in New York, where he studied alongside the legendary Norman Rockwell — who became one of Capt. Don’s lifelong friends. When two of Don’s granddaughters, Dottie Mowatt and Kathleen Popovich, tracked down and contacted their long-lost grandfather in the 1970s, they became acquainted initially through letters. One such letter from Capt. Don, dated February 22, 1974, shines some rare light on the early days of his life in the nightclubs. “You asked about the Pirate’s Den. It was the first place ever called a ‘night club,’ and the first one was in Greenwich Village, that arty section around Washington Square [in] New York City,” Don wrote. “The larger one, built later, seated 300 on each ‘deck.'” In the letter, he goes on the describe how there was a “Main Deck,” “Gun Deck,” and “Hurricane Deck,” while the band was situated on a freight elevator which could be hoisted from one deck to another using “old-fashioned hand power” to entertain guests at each level. The entire apparatus looked like a pirate ship. Perhaps most astonishing is that, when Capt. Don was venturing into the world of nightclubs, the country had just banned alcohol during the time now known as Prohibition, which spanned 13 years from 1920 to 1933. It was during this period that illegal “speakeasies” popped up in cities all across the country, selling bootlegged booze, largely controlled by the Mafia. Capt. Don, however, albeit a pirate, was no mobster, nor a bootlegger, nor a criminal. It was widely touted at the time that his nightclubs succeeded not because of alcohol, but the sheer entertainment of attending. A New York Times article dated August 26, 1932, describes Capt. Don’s clubs in the city as relying on “atmosphere rather than liquor to attract customers.” However, Don’s reluctance to stay straight and not serve illegal booze may have also drawn the ire of the mob. Waterford’s David Sanderson, a local historian and nephew of one of Capt. Don’s neighbor’s on Kezar Lake, heard many of the tales first hand. According to Sanderson, when Don was approached by a button-man to start serving booze under the Mafia’s control, Don not only refused, but punched the mobster so hard he knocked him flat on the floor. Sound like a tale too tall? Capt. Don’s defiance was documented in a 1979 article in “302 Traveler,” by Ann Scott Willams. “During Prohibition, he built, decorated and directed five night clubs, refusing to make them speakeasies and bringing him into conflict with gangsters Vinnie Higgins and Hudson Dusters,” Williams wrote. “Don will show you his famous right thumb, broken on the jaw of one last such thug he slugged.” One of Capt. Don’s other New York hotspots was the Heigh-Ho Club, where the legendary Rudy Vallee — also a resident of Kezar Lake for a time — was discovered by Don himself. In addition, he operated the Blue Horse. While little documentation exists as to what this club’s atmospheric theme was, there is some information left behind in Capt. Don’s own notes. “The Blue Horse Tea Room was [originally] a Christian Science Church [that was] having a meeting when I signed the lease on a Thursday,” Don wrote. “I remodeled the entire place, building [a] kitchen, rest rooms, etc., and changed the entire picture into arched ceilings [and] fantastic modern decor in four days and nights. The $12,000 cost paid off an average net of $700 weekly, for 12 years.” The Lovell Historical Society has a copy of an original menu from the Blue Horse. The listed items include such original dishes like a “tomato wiggle,” for $1.25, a “blue horse dream” for 75 cents, and “Welsh rarebit,” for $1. The most expensive item on the menu? Sirloin steak at $1.75. The menu also reveals that patrons paid a 25 cent cover charge during the week, and 50 cents on weekends. With his love for Maine, and his regular retreat to Kezar Lake, in Lovell, it should come as no surprise the pirate and nightclub entrepreneur would try to theme a club after his beloved home away from home. He did just that, with the “County Fair.” The rural-Maine, back-country-style club was inspired by the Fryeburg Fair, and Capt. Don hired local talent to venture to the Big Apple to perform. While details about the nightlife in his more than two-dozen clubs is scant, at best, the County Fair was well documented by Don himself, in a story he contributed to the Advertiser, dated December 15, 1927, letting the local Mainers know all about how their neighborhood talents were being displayed in New York City. “The dance floor is a race track with a specially fenced off outer track for fast steppers. The famous Eddie Worth Orchestra in country band costumes occupy the grandstand, while the midway and exhibit row are where the people sit with the funny signs overhead. White fences are everywhere and hundreds of little silk flags waving in artificial breezes under the blue satin sky,” he wrote. That fall, he featured a group of local talents from Western Maine, and lists them in the article. “Real Downeast natives from Maine at the County Fair is the headliner for [the] act. The group is made up of Center Lovell people and includes John Farrington, Deacon Ed Hodsdon, Miss Irma Hodsdon, Reggie Pitman, Prud Poor, Mrs. Maude Silkworth, Gerald Palmer, Linwood Sawyer, Mrs. Anna Hodsdon, Mrs. Helen Farrington, Uncle Steve Kimball, Mrs. Minnie Sawyer and Mrs. Marie Palmer. “These people are the real folks from Center Lovell, Maine, one of the most beautiful spots in the world, nestled in the Kezar Lake Valley, and right at the foot of the White Mountains, where we have our summer camp.” Next, in his article, Capt. Don goes on to describe some disbelief from the patrons of the club, who thought, perhaps, he had hired actors instead of employing true Mainers. “It was pretty hard to gather a crowd together who could leave their farms, and while there seems to be some doubt about their being from the back woods, I guarantee them to be 100 percent Oxford County; there is not a man in the crowd who can’t milk a cow nor one of the women who can’t knit a mitten. “My County Fair is an aristocratic dinner and supper club patronized largely by smart New Yorkers and are a hard crowd to please. But these people have won the most enthusiastic applause that I have ever heard at any exhibition dance, including the greatest stars of New York City.” Capt. Don pays particular attention to “Uncle Steve Kimball,” who he mentions several times in his article. “Uncle Steve Kimball is 76 years old, and an old pal of Mellie Dunham’s. Uncle Steve is probably the last of the old masters who teach these old fashioned square dances and hopes to organize a few private classes while here in New York. “Uncle Steve rowed five miles up the lake to my camp [at Kezar] to see if I could use his fiddling. He is one of the grandest persons I have ever met, with a lovely spirit, enormous amount of pep for a man of his age and a marvelous twinkle in his eye shining out as a grand picturesque Santa Claus.” Don wraps up his Advertiser article with yet more praise for the talented group of Mainers. “I am writing to you as their home paper, because I feel that they have earned the cheers of the folks back home and want to spread the news of their success in their home state. During their six weeks in New York, about 25,000 people will have enjoyed their dancing. They have mortalized the grand old American classics which are fast giving way to the innovations of modern jazz,” Don wrote. One other detail, which should be noted about the County Fair, came from Williams’ story in 1979. “The public was greeted [at the County Fair nightclub] by a most unusual host, the famous Gus, a white leghorn rooster who crowed and strutted about the stage to introduce the acts,” Williams wrote. “Gus never knew he was anything but human, and years later was still doing his thing, greeting guests, at the Dickerman’s ‘Happy House’ summer place on Lake Kezar.” Western Mainers performed for the masses during the Roaring Twenties in Manhattan, thanks to the local pirate, Capt. Don. But despite the roosters and blue horses and pirate ships, the nightclub days of Don’s life would come to an end. It’s not clear when Don finally surrendered the nightlife, but the original Pirate’s Den is known to have burned down in 1929. A New York Times article dated April 24th of that year detailed the event, describing how Capt. Don’s greatest regret over the fire was the loss of a parrot, named Robert. “Above all else, Mr. Dickerman deplored the loss of his pet macaw, Robert, reputed to have been more than 100 years old,” the article states. “Robert was a true veteran of the Spanish Main. He was brought to New York from Panama about eight years ago, and since that time he had nightly made the rendezvous ring with his oaths and orders.” Despite the loss of the club, and the other Pirate Dens in later years, Capt. Don never lost the pirate in his heart. He claims to have contacted, through a medium, none other than the most infamous pirate who ever lived – Blackbeard. More on that, including Capt. Don’s own notes on his conversations with Blackbeard, talking from the dead, when we continue to explore the eccentric pirate of Kezar Lake.
When a person is the only pirate left on earth, things can get pretty lonely, and conversations with fellow buccaneers can be tough to come by. The solution? Talk to pirates who are dead — especially if you’re hoping to dig up their buried treasures. That’s just what Lovell’s Don Dickerman decided to do. The flamboyant character who frequented his camp on the west side of Kezar lake from 1910 until his death in 1986, had a long list of eccentricities, beginning, but certainly not ending, with the assertion that he was a modern-day pirate. Having become an established artist and nightclub entrepreneur, who rubbed shoulders with celebrities from Bing Crosby to Norman Rockwell, Capt. Don, as he preferred to be called, also found time to share conversations with – hold your breath — the dead. Sifting through the endless typewritten and handwritten notes he left behind, it is clear that Capt. Don had an enormous interest in the occult. It’s evident that as far back as the early 1920s, as a young man, he was already going to great lengths to talk with souls who have passed over, either with seances or through the use of a “spirit board” or “talking board,” a device today most frequently referred to today as a “Ouija” board. Although the Parker Brothers toy company has patented the “Ouija” board and sold it for decades as a popular board game, the technique of using letters, numbers and a movable indicator or planchette to communicate with the “other world” is nothing new. The practice has been used for thousands of years, and has long been seen as a joke, a hoax, an oracle, a means of talking with the dead, and, to some, a dangerous tool of the devil. But Capt. Don had a passion for the instrument, and even had a copyright dated in 1948 on his own version of the board which he packaged and sold. At least one of those original boards still exists, belonging to Dottie Mowatt and her sister Kathleen Popovic, two of Capt. Don’s granddaughters who live in the Oxford Hills area today. He called it “Cap’n Don’s Hi-Ya Sprite Board,” and it sold for $1, advertising that, “Laymen can now venture in where only mystics have trod,” and as the “most sensational game ever produced in the history of the world.” One advertisement for his game even touts that, “A dozen or so would solve all your Christmas problems!” Don sketched the board himself, evident in the artwork which includes boats, tropical drinks and a number of whimsical sayings, in addition to the traditional “yes,” “no,” alphabet and numbers. Although he had the “Sprite Board” copyrighted in 1948, it’s evident that Capt. Don was using some other format of the oracle to talk with — what he believed were — long lost pirates from beyond the grave. When he ventured to the Galapagos Islands, on the Arcturus Expedition in 1925, Capt. Don was most eager to set foot onto one of the most heavily-rumored resting places of buried treasure on earth — Cocos Island. While it was documented that he raced ashore in search of the booty, we know now that Capt. Don had good reason to think he was going to find something special. Through his years of communicating with those whom he believed to be the dead, Capt. Don took meticulous notes of the conversations, many of which still exist in the hands of family and at the Lovell Historical Society. Often the conversations were benign in nature, as Don conversed with the afterlife about such things as his current business ventures. There are scads of pages of his conversations through the board with his mother, whom he always affectionately referred to as “Mother Dick.” And, after some careful searching, there are pages of alleged conversations with a pair of pirates. The first is with Sir Henry Morgan — most frequently referred to today as Captain Morgan — who was not so much a pirate, but a privateer, who sacked Spanish ships for the British government, returning the booty to the crown. Morgan appears in several of Capt. Don’s conversations, at times alongside another notable historical buccaneer, the most famous pirate who ever lived — Blackbeard. Also known as William Teach, Blackbeard, who ravaged the seas in the late 1600s and early 1700s, appears to be the epitome of every pirate who ever lived — and it should come as no surprise that Capt. Don would want to chat with him, even if through a “talking board.” In Douglas Botting’s 1978 book, “The Pirates,” the author, through historical documents, offers up a vivid description of the terror of the high seas, referring to Blackbeard as Teach. “Teach’s beard was the single most important element in the mystique that came to surround him. This beard, like a frightful meteor, covered his whole face, and frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there,” he wrote. “It was, of course, a black beard, and from it Teach took the name by which he came to be known. It was also, because he never trimmed it, very bushy and very long, reaching down to his chest in one direction and up to his eyes in the other. “Before he went into battle, he stuck lighted matches under his hat. They were long, slow-burning affairs made of hemp cord dipped in saltpeter and limewater. The effect was terrifying. His face, with its fierce eyes and matted hair, was wreathed in smoke, and he looked to his prey like a fiend from hell. His resemblance to some kind of piratical demon was completed by a bandolier with three braces of pistols, loaded, primed and cocked for firing, and by the additional pistols, daggers and cutlass he carried in a wide belt around his waist,” Botting continued. Notorious stories about Blackbeard seem to know no bounds. It has often been said that he would occasionally and sporadically kill a crew member just to keep the rest in line, and that he ultimately had 14 wives — Capt. Don, it should be noted, had 13 in his life. Blackbeard’s legend brought him awfully close to Maine, where, just offshore on the Isles of Shoals, he is said to have buried treasure and, under haste from approaching British ships, left behind a young courtesan, Martha Herring, to guard the booty. Blackbeard never returned to the Shoals, having finally been caught up with off the coast of the Carolinas, where he was killed in battle while in a drunken rage in 1918. He was said to have been shot multiple times in the head, and stabbed repeatedly before his body finally gave up. He was quickly beheaded and the head was hung as a trophy. As legends go, the body was tossed overboard and — headless and bleeding — is said to have swum several times around the ship before finally sinking to the depths. There are countless rumors over what became of his skull, including many who claim it still exists today. Back on the Isles of Shoals, there have long been many rumors of a “Lady in Red,” who is supposedly the shrieking ghost of Herring, who continues to guard over Blackbeard’s treasure today. To sort out all those legends, and in an attempt to unearth some of their treasures, Capt. Don turned to his talking board. Apparently, he sought the secrets of buried Cocos Island treasure prior to his Galapagos trip in 1925. After unsuccessfully searching, he asked Captain Morgan why he was not able the find the booty. This is documented in notes Capt. Don made of the conversation dated in 1956. Captain Morgan’s response — again, through the talking board — was that there are, in fact five separate treasures buried on Cocos, but Don received false information from the former spirit as to how to locate any of it, although noting that he did come close. “The ‘characters’ to whom you spoke were, in a sense, a temptation. Too many outsiders would hamper you and cut in on the profits. You would actually be flying false colors and would not actually retain enough of the booty and swag to make it more than an exciting trip. These temptations are placed in your path to confuse you, but, at the same time, to instruct you. You would make a wise choice to stay away from these elusive marah lights that appear to glow so brightly and turn out to be nothing but mirage,” Morgan “said.” When it comes to Blackbeard, much of Capt. Don’s conversation is not of treasure, but of a continual exchange of pleasantries. It almost seems that, truly believing he was talking to Blackbeard himself, that Don was in awe of simply being able to converse with him. One such exchange, dated in the notes from March of 1956, is as follows: “Good morning good friend Teach. You haven’t heard from us for a few days. We like to visit with you when we have the chance, but it appears our lives are cluttered up with mundane things and we do not talk with you as we should,” Don told Blackbeard, and awaited a response through the board. “Good morning to you. I have been waiting, and not too patiently to visit again with my good friends and former ‘associate.’ Your wench will understand the need of one seafaring man to greet another. Such is our fellowship, and the ways of men,” Blackbeard replies. There is much discussion, recorded in Captain Don’s notes, regarding reincarnation, and past lives. It seems, not only did Don live past lives, or so he thought, but Blackbeard discusses in vague terms how he was preparing to return again to another life on earth. “The question arises in my mind,” Don asks of Blackbeard, “were you and I actually associated in any way during my former days of piracy or otherwise?” “You never knew me, lad, as a former pirate in the brotherhood. But we are all brothers,” Blackbeard replies, and adds his parting words with, “Farewell mate, good sailing in YOUR area.” (emphasis is Capt. Don’s). In another conversation through the talking board, Capt. Don’s notes indicate that he was conversing with both Blackbeard and Morgan simultaneously, offering up still more pleasantries between one another. There is a long paragraph during which Capt. Don praises both Morgan and Blackbeard, stating that he is “very very happy to witness this pact,” their deeds in life were “greatly admired” by him, and refers says that he admires the “great accomplishments as a buccaneer, the great Sir Henry Morgan himself,” at which time, somehow, Morgan interrupted Don. “I must interject my thoughts at this time, and say that I am joyously happy over this reunion on the right side of the line, with an old pirate rival [apparently referring to Blackbeard]. We were all brothers and should continue to be and help each other, help one another for only in uniting can we accomplish the many things we all have to do, there in the mortal world, and here, in the spirit world. I am overjoyed at this happy and wonderful turn of events,” Morgan said. In the very next paragraph of the notes, Blackbeard adds his two cents. “I am a humble pirate, in the presence of a master [apparently referring to Morgan]. I’ll do my share of working on this side and each step I take will be for the Glory of the Cause. I am overjoyed at these wonderful meetings with all these wonderful beings that are rallying around on this side,” Blackbeard said. In what may sound like an afterlife rallying call of the pirates, Capt. Don seems to have been in on the reunion. Although many might question the authenticity of these types of “conversations,” Morgan does give some insight to Don on the afterlife, in another page of undated notes. “All souls must come from a background predominately good or evil. This choice was made long ago, even as time is reckoned here. Those followers of evil held their cohorts in their power, those of us more fortunate were followers of the LIGHT. It has always been so, through Eternity,” was Morgan’s explanation, with Don’s emphasis from his notes included. Unfortunately, sifting through the hundreds of notes Capt. Don left behind is no easy task. He didn’t do much in the line of organization before he passed away, and left his life story of notes and thoughts like shuffled deck for his family to sort. At the request of this reporter, his granddaughters removed a box from an attic which was full of papers and had been stored away since Capt. Don’s death. Mostly, it included still more countless notes from his conversations with souls from the world beyond, through his talking board. With other family members, gathered around the table as a savage thunderstorm roars outside, the papers are pulled one by one from the box. Then appeared an interesting find. A conversation that Capt. Don had through his talking board, decades after his Galapagos trip. It was with a pirate who said he hailed from Papete, an island in the Caribbean. He also said he was on the Cocos Island when a certain treasure was buried. Next, he goes on to give remarkably precise details as to how to locate that treasure. As this reporter begins to read the carefully worded treasure map, one of Capt. Don’s descendants — we won’t say which one to keep the map a secret — asks for the paper, looks closely at it, and tucks it away with a gleam in the eye. The pirate blood flows on, as does the hunt for that lost treasure.
August 17, 2007, was a beautiful day to make history — pristine, actually. The bright, early morning sun was shimmering across the waters of Kezar Lake, which was almost as smooth as glass. Not a cloud littered the sky, as a pair of motorboats loaded with volunteers — and one carrying scuba diving equipment — carved the water’s surface from opposite directions, to meet at a predetermined location, on the way to find secrets sunk for more than 60 years. Call them historians, call them enthusiasts, call them curious, call them family members looking for answers, or call them modern-day-pirates seeking treasure, they all were seeking answers to a long-lost artifact. Cathy Stone, the president of the Lovell Historical Society, loves to talk about the town’s one-time resident and legendary crooner Rudy Vallee, who lived on the western shore of Kezar Lake during the summer months from 1930 until he sold his 300-acre retreat in 1945. However, when the subject comes up about his behemoth cabin cruiser – a 31-foot-long Chris-Craft called Banjo Eyes — and whether or not it sits on the bottom of the lake, Stone typically responds with a wide smile and a hearty laugh. The demise of the legendary boat remains a mystery. There are those who say the boat was hauled away, perhaps given to the Coast Guard for the war effort. But the Coast Guard has no record of any such donation. It could have been sold, or it could have been donated to some needy institution – Rudy donated his pipe organ which once graced the Kezar Lake lodge to a church in Westbrook. Or, perhaps, it could have been sunk, scuttled by none other than Capt. Don Dickerman, Rudy’s next door neighbor on Kezar Lake, and the very person who discovered Rudy’s voice and made him a global phenomenon. It’s no secret that Capt. Don — as he preferred to be called — and Rudy had some sort of a falling out. Rudy himself writes that he turned his back on Kezar Lake in 1945, headed to his new home in Los Angeles, and “never looked back.” Perhaps out of spite, or anger, or revenge, Capt. Don decided to scuttle the boat that Rudy so cherished. Banjo Eyes was a gift to Rudy from the famous singer, actor and entertainer, Eddie Cantor. Cantor, who hit hard times following the great stock market crash of 1929, was given a second shot at stardom, thanks to Rudy and his number one radio program, the Fleischman’s Hour. Of course, it was thanks to Capt. Don, that Rudy landed the radio gig in the first place. An expert saxophonist in the late 1920s, Rudy auditioned his band before Don at the Heigh-Ho Club in New York City. Unimpressed with the first singer, Don was ready to send the band packing when Rudy, instead, leaped onstage and performed a song himself. When it was over, Don, now famously, told Rudy, “You do the singing,” and a star was born. In the summer of 1930, Rudy visited Capt. Don at Kezar Lake, taking a “hydroplane” from Portland. He immediately fell in love with what he called “one of the most beautiful lakes in the world,” and purchased land there which soon became a summertime playground for Hollywood’s elite. Among the countless amenities, Rudy kept an armada of no less than 30 boats for him and his guests to enjoy. But the crown jewel of the fleet was Banjo Eyes, and last Friday, August 17, a group of enthusiasts — and divers — set out to find it. Al Stearns owns a camp on Kezar Lake, and is no stranger to the area. As a young boy, working on his father’s farm, he would sell milk and eggs and other goods to a certain rich neighbor who would frequent the area and had a lodge down the street — Rudy Vallee. Al even recalls going for a ride in Rudy’s luxurious car — a magnificent treat for a Western Maine farm boy during the Great Depression. But last Friday, Al drove his speedboat across the smooth waters of Kezar Lake with Stone, scuba diver Adam Brandow, of Standish, his father, Bucky Brandow, also of Standish, a longtime experienced diver who stayed at the surface, and divemaster Larry Pilotte. Pilotte, a Manchester, New Hampshire, native, who first got scuba certified in 1975, divides his time now between his Kezar Lake home, and the Big Island of Hawaii, where he takes tourists on dive excursions. He is no stranger to life underwater, and volunteered his time to see whether or not Banjo Eyes could be found. Doing a little research in advance, Pilotte heard a story from the current owners of Rudy’s compound — the New England Frontier Camp — that Banjo Eyes was not only scuttled, but how it happened. He says he was told that the cabin cruiser was burned while afloat, and that the charred remains simply sank into the depths. Al’s father, Marcus Stearns, who is now deceased, left a record behind in the form of an oral history that supports the theory that the boat was sunk by Dickerman, and is preserved in a document that is now in the archives at the Lovell Historical Society. It’s called, “Notes on Banjo Eyes,” and, with some details omitted as noted to protect the exact location of the site, reads as follows: “When I would go up to camp on Kezar Lake, I would often stop by to chat with Marc and Ester. On one of the last visits, Marc and I got into a discussion about the boats of Kezar Lake, one of my favorite subjects. The conversation turned to Rudy Vallee’s Banjo Eyes — arguably the most famous of the storied boats to grace the lake — I wondered out loud whatever happened to Rudy’s big boat. Marc said, ‘I know where it is. It is lying on the bottom of the lake in [details omitted here]. It seems Rudy and Don parted company way back in the mid-[forties], Don becoming [sic] very bitter towards Rudy. After the war, in 1945, Rudy decided to turn his back on Kezar for California. So, fifty years ago, Don scuttled the Banjo Eyes in a fit of anger directed against Rudy Vallee.” Stearns’ account does not detail how Banjo Eyes was “scuttled,” but, in the depths of Kezar Lake, and in the precise location that Stearns said it would be, Pilotte and Brandow found evidence of what may be a large, burned boat. Sifting through rising silt, as the water was stirred, Pilotte probed and prodded at what he says was “definitely” the charred remains of what was most likely a boat. He said the debris field was large, perhaps 30 feet long — the length of Banjo Eyes, and included long sections of wood, mostly fused and too heavy to lift. However, he and Brandow were able to pry loose a few pieces and bring them to the surface, along with a single artifact that was not wood — a four-pronged metal apparatus that measured about a foot in length. “Banjo Eyes in a bucket,” came to the surface, as the divers ended a nearly 40-minute dive in the mid-morning hours on Kezar Lake, as the spectators on both boats examined the artifacts. A second boat included Dick and Dottie Mowatt, and Kathleen Popovic. Dottie and Kathleen are two of Capt. Don’s surviving grandchildren, and passed the metal object back and forth to have a closer look. Could it be a part of a Chris Craft cabin cruiser built in the 1930s? Al, from the wheel of his speedboat, surmised that it looks like something that could be used to hold a flag. Indeed, an existing photograph of Banjo Eyes, at the Lovell Historical society, shows Rudy proudly posed at the bow of the craft, with a “Chris Craft” flag blowing in the wind near his feet. While nobody at Friday’s excursion could say with any certainty that the debris was Banjo Eyes, expert help was sought from those who know more about the antique boats. Dave Robesyk, who works at the Chris Craft parts department in Sarasota, Florida, was unable to identify the part, and said that all records of Chris Craft vessels built prior to 1980 had been submitted to the Mariner’s Museum, in Newport News, Virginia. A request for information from the museum was not returned before press time. Robesyk recommended contacting the Chris Craft Antique Boat Club, based at Hoffmaster’s Marina, in Woodbridge, Virginia. They too were unable to identify the part, and suggested contacting Jim Wick, at LPX Sales and Services, in Bradenton, Florida, who specializes in Chris Craft Parts. Wick was particularly enthusiastic about the part, and initially thought that it likely came from the interior, but, after a day of hunting for clues, admitted that he could not say for certain that it was a Chris Craft part. “You really don’t see too many of those around anymore,” Wick said of the 1930s style cabin cruiser. It could be that the metal part did not belong to a Chris Craft, or to a boat at all. Nevertheless, the debris field remains, and in it, perhaps so does the answer to the fate of Banjo Eyes. “I’ll definitely dive it again,” Pilotte says. Brandow agreed, adding that, “It was just a good time going down there.” As for Stone, she took the metal part back to the historical society, not knowing whether it was a piece of history, or a piece of junk, but, nonetheless smiling wide with a laugh as always.
Perhaps the single greatest tragedy in the long life of Don Dickerman is this — it was never documented. Then again, were he still alive, he might tell us that his greatest personal tragedy was the $19 million in buried treasure he stood above without knowing it – learning of the discovery only years later, but more on that in a bit. Fully believing he was a modern-day pirate, the self-proclaimed “Capt. Don” lived high and large and never with a dull moment. Born in 1893, he arrived via stagecoach at what would become his lifelong summer retreat, Kezar Lake, in Lovell, in 1911. There, at the young age of 17, he bought a plot of land on the lake’s western shore with money he earned “by selling ice cream around the lake in a beat up canoe I bought for five bucks and patched up with silk and shellac,” Don wrote. Capt. Don would remain at Kezar Lake, frequenting his camp that included a cluster of buildings and a constant flow of visitors including family, friends, and Hollywood celebrities, until his death in 1981. He did apparently make an attempt at a biography. His granddaughter Dottie Mowatt — who now lives in Otisfield — contacted Don for the first time in the 1970s, to track down her long-lost grandfather whom she had never known. They began a series of letters to each other before they met in person. In the letters, Capt. Don — ever the pirate, even in his language — refers to his Dottie and her sister, Kathleen Popovic, of Casco, as his “granddotters,” and, as follows, describes his “otter-bi-oggerfy.” “Anxious to see the pictures of my great-granddotters,” Don wrote, from his winter hideaway in Florida, the Seahorse Beach and Yacht Club, on Longboat Key. “Guess I told you I am typing my otter-bi-oggerfy. Have 65 chapters written in pencil. You’ll love my stories of running with the rumrunners, getting a story for the Saturday Evening Post, also my harpooning the biggest manta ray ever caught, 2,800 pounds.” The story of the manta ray was true, and well documented. It happened while Don was working on a research vessel which took him to the Galapagos Islands. While he was employed as a marine life artist, his real reason for taking the voyage was, apparently, to search for buried pirate treasure on the island of Cocos which he had learned about by “talking to dead pirates through a medium,” or so he believed. A photograph of Don on that Cocos beach where he searched for the treasure — including the alleged ghost of a long-dead pirate — is printed in this edition of the Advertiser publicly for the first time, as were many of the photographs in this series. An unusual white image appears before Don, a streak that he says many later told him could only be that of a ghost. There was a second photo taken seconds later, and no such “ghostly” image can be seen. Some years after his failed search for treasure on Cocos, Don showed the photos to a man, and recorded the incident – on a scrapbook page that exists in the Lovell Historical Society’s archives -as follows: “One evening a seafaring gentleman came aboard the quarterdeck at my Castaways Club [in Los Angeles] and said, ‘I hear you have been to Cocos Island,’ and I said, ‘Yes, and so have you?’ Getting out my albums and showing him my [pictures], he recognized the large rock, the largest on the beach. ‘I skippered an expedition to Cocos two years after you people were there,’ he said. ‘I’ve been living off my cut as a skipper ever since. In that picture, you are standing on the exact spot where we dug up $19 million worth of pirate treasure!” While the treasure wasn’t found by Dickerman, the manta ray on the same expedition most certainly was, and the entire episode was caught on film — which remains locked away by the New York Zoological Society. “We were in a 14-foot boat and he [the manta] was 18 feet wide. Drove him back to the mothership with a ball bat with us riding on his back,” Don once wrote. “I got the red necktie for the biggest lie of the season at ‘Liars Night’ at the Rod & Reel Club at Miami Beach, and every word was truth. Later, I got a $100 prize for best true story of the month for ‘True Magazine.'” Although he describes “65 chapters written in pencil” of his autobiography, if such a manuscript exists, its whereabouts are unknown. But if the pages ever turn up, the book would undoubtedly be a bestseller. Capt. Don was a man who shared a room as a young art student with Norman Rockwell — who became a lifelong friend, and who once sketched Don in full pirate garb, a drawing that still belongs to a family member in California today. Capt. Don opened a series of entertainment establishments in New York City — the first nightclubs. Although Prohibition banned serving alcohol, Capt. Don focused on good food, and a wacky theme for each club to keep patrons flowing in. The Pirate’s Den, the Blue Horse, and the Heigh-Ho Club — just to name a few — were some of the nearly 30 clubs Capt. Don is alleged to have owned and operated over the years. Of course, it was at the Heigh-Ho Club, in New York City, where he discovered the crooning, silky voice of Rudy Vallee and launched him to stardom. Rudy soon bought property on Kezar Lake next door to Dickerman and the pair were summer neighbors from 1930 until Rudy moved on to Los Angeles in the 1940s. In his own autobiography, Rudy recalls the mock-battles he would have with Capt. Don and the other “pirates” on Kezar Lake. “Dickerman brings up his pirates,” Rudy wrote, adding that they would arrive by water in an armada of some 30 small boats, and challenge he and his guests to an improvised game of water polo, which Capt. Don invented. It was “embellished with all the thrill and danger akin to that type of sport,” and “played with a large rubber ball, small paddles and small boats, [with] some men standing up in the boats and constantly turning over. The ball may not be touched with the hands, and is eventually put through goal posts floating in the water. The pirates invariably win, even when some of [the] boys press into service some of the gaily colored bike boats, which are like dreadnoughts compared to the small boats of the pirates, and which may be propelled through the water while a man stands in them with a paddle. Even these avail not against the expert swing of the pirates, who all but stand on their heads in their small boats with the greatest of ease.” In later years, long after the days of entertaining Rudy and the long list of celebrities who visited the lake, Capt. Don turned his attention to entertaining the entire town of Lovell. He has been accredited with helping to revive the summertime Lovell Old Homes Day celebration in 1976, for the nation’s bicentennial. He built a giant float that year, draped in flags, and welcomed aboard his family to take part in the parade festivities. In other years, he built a float based on Noah’s Ark, and another which was called, “Lotta-Bull.” In 1976, during the Old Homes Day festivities, he posted a “Wanted” poster, hoping to find more family members he may not have known existed. After all, he was a man who had 13 wives — the legendary pirate Blackbeard only mustered up 12. In the “Wanted” poster, which was plastered around Lovell, Don referred to himself as “D the P,” or Don the Pirate. It read as follows. “Wanted, information concerning any lost progeny of Don the Pirate of Kezar Lake. D the P’s unit in the Old Home Day parade, August 14, featuring a Bi-C [bicentennial] comedy ship named ‘Yankee-Doodl’ will be manned (& girled) by at least eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren he KNOWS of, ( and other assorted relatives, three all the way from California) – truly a family affair. This rocking-chair octogenarian wants to make sure he does not reject any legitimate (or otherwise) offspring, grand-offspring, or great-grand-offspring, and offers a reward of a bicentennial flag, to be carried in the parade, to information leading to positive identification to further fatherhoods, grand-fatherhoods, (or just Hoods), such as birth certificates, thumb prints, birth marks of Ye Goode Olde Jolly Roger (skull and crossbones). Phony lookalikes (God forbid) pot-bellies and flat feet not acceptable. Respectable (or disrespectable) reports accepted by D the P’s agents.” In another year, during the Old Homes Days event, Don posted a different “Wanted” poster, complete with a photograph of himself in a black and white prison uniform, and offering a $50 million reward by the FBI. That poster said that his “crimes” included “Craig’s Market safe-cracker, bank robber, chicken thief, horse thief, sneaking into Hammond Brothers barefoot, stomping Bill Vinton’s clay, Sunday cussin’, John Fox’s bedroom window peeper, Kiwanis membership counterfeiter, damn dam dynamiter, double-nose thumber, Jack Bassett gooser, selling town dump seagulls for Shake & Bake, and gigantic multiple rape.” The poster went on to say that Capt. Don was “expected to crash the Lovell Old Home Week parade where he would hope to see many friends before being recaptured and placed in solitary confinement.” If that weren’t enough, the same poster adds that Don is “considered very dangerous, and armed with a rockpile sledgehammer, stolen when escaping,” and offers the description that he “can be identified by an overpowering odor of scotch, gin, dark rum, flea chaser, sewer gas, Draino and dead horse glue.” When Capt. Don penned that poster, he was 81 years old. He was a man who befriended the world’s most famous entertainers, who talked through a Ouija board with souls from the dead, and who even got a full pardon for Captain Kidd more than 200 years after the pirate’s death. His “happy house” at his camp was always a bustling place, filled with family, friends and fun. Indeed, his granddaughter — or should we say, grandotter — Kathleen, while on a recent boat excursion to see if there was proof to Capt. Don’s allegedly sinking of Rudy Vallee’s cabin cruiser “Banjo Eyes,” looked across the waters of Kezar Lake and saw the old compound which she frequented many years ago. “It looked so totally different than it used to be,” she later said of the quiet, blissful cottages which rest on a land that has since been subdivided. “It used to be a beehive of activity all summer, filled with cottages and people.” Looking at site, there is one last remnant of Capt. Don that still remains, resting high up in a tree near the shore. It was a treehouse, of sorts, but also known as “The Honeymoon Suite,” where Don spent a honeymoon nestled high above the water’s edge with one of his 13 wives. Today, all that remains is a bundle of boards that cling to the towering tree trunks by the nails that hold them in place, in plain sight to anyone on the water who knows where to look. But there is much more than a few boards to mark the legend of Capt. Don and his time at Kezar Lake, and in Maine. In an interview with Don for “302 Traveler,” in 1979, writer Ann Scott Williams described a visit he made to what is now known as the Oxford Fair. “Perhaps Don’s story is best summed up in a remark made about him by Col. Wheeler when Don appeared as Maniac Marmaduke, the man-mangling gorilla at the South Paris fair, ‘We’ve had lots of wild men in this-here fair in the last 30 years, but this is the damdest animal I ever did see!'” Williams recorded. While no biography exists, there are his notes — an endless array of scribbles, limericks, songs and letters, that his “grandotters” have preserved in boxes all these years and are now sorting through. Someday, it may all find its way into a book form, so that the world will not only remember Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, but the nefarious Kezar Lake pirate Captain Don Dickerman as well. His tales seem larger than life, too tall to tell, but they were all true. Capt. Don once said, ” My life’s work, has been giving people a good time.” In that, he succeeded. In addition to Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Norman Rockwell, and the countless other famous icons who played a role in the life that Don Dickerman lived, there was another famous friend who crossed his path — Robert Ripley. Today, Ripley is famously known for his “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not,” books, television shows, “odditoriums,” and countless other mediums for displaying the unbelievably true curiosities of our world. Ripley was once asked by Capt. Don, why he didn’t include any of his own stories, exploits, or adventures in his showcases. “I know it happened, Don,” Ripley replied. “But who would believe it?” Following his death in 1981, Capt. Don was not buried with the mock tombstone with which he once posed next to at the Pirate’s Den — “Here lies the body of Captain Don, his breeches were off but his boots were on.” Instead, his body was cremated, and in a quiet ceremony, two men rowed out into the middle of Kezar Lake in a canoe. One played a melody on a flute, while the other carefully spread Capt. Don’s ashes into the water, so he could permanently become a part of the lake he loved — and yes, the men were dressed like pirates.
21 responses to “More on Don Dickerman”
Great article. I have a wonderful caricature of my grandmother dressed as a pirate with a beautiful note taped on the back that is older than I am. The name on the back is Don Dickerman signed by cap’n Don.Searched his name online and found you. Thank you Donna
We have a decanter and glasses with pirate pictures and Don Dickerson name and 1933 on them. Were these painted by Don?
I don’t know of them and have never seen them, but it’s likely since he was artistically talented.
I’m wondering if Dickerman had anything to do with the Pirate’s Den which was on an island in Lake Pennesseewassee in Norway, ME from the 20s to WWII. Perhaps this one came first? Does anyone have any pictures from the Norway, ME Pirate’s Den later named the Bandbox Pavillion?
I feel certain that the Greenwich Village Pirates’ Den was the first, in business at least by 1917. That’s where the money was. I’ve never seen any images of the one in Maine.
My grandfather, Leo Lammers, was a waiter and captain at the Blue Horse for eight years. I have a reference letter written on Don’s “Specialist in Artistic Diversion” letterhead written by Mrs. Horace Dickerman, the financial manager. The restaurants he lists at the top are Pirates Den, Blue Horse, County Fair and Heigh Ho.
I am a nurse-retired- that took care of his -last-wife at their home in Intervale,NH. I worked the night shift taking care of her until her death–I had many a conversation with “Capt Don” the pirate—I also have a few of his drawings and paintings–he gave them to us nurses at Christmas time– -I took my family-husband and 2 children plus 2 foster children-to the parade in Lovell in 1976–
Ruth L Swinerton, Edinburg, Va
How fortunate for you and those lucky enuf to enjoy such special memories and artifacts, thanx for your input, you should write a book about this incredible guy!
While going through some old photos from some long gone family members I found a little flyer/menu from the Blue Horse perfectly preserved in the stack. It’s really adorable and I wanted to know more about the Blue Horse and found your site. Thank you very much for all the information.
I have a few items illustrated by Don Dickerman too — I like his drawing style and sense of humor.
I happen to be thinking today about Rudy Vallee because of the revival on Broadway of “How to Succeed in Business…” Then I thought about your grandfather because I knew he gave Rudy Vallee his start. I knew that from your grand father. When I was a kid in the 60’s my cousin and I would go over to Don’s house on Kezar Lake because he lived next door to my cousin. I lived down the lake next to Farrington’s on Pleasant Point. He also had the best water toys that he would let us play on! That blue raft you wrote about ended up at my cousin’s house. It was a water slide.
I had “googled” Lake Kezar and that is how I happened on to your web site. Thanks for writing about him. I never knew his history other than the fact he was a cool neighbor to some “little kids!”
Would appreciate a copy of the picture at the Miami’s Pirates Den.
I only have one from the LA Pirate’s Den.
I am one of Don’s Granddaughter’s. I have a great picture of my grandfather with wife #5 at one of the Pirate’s Dens.
Terrific! Great to hear from you. We’d love to see it!
I will scan it next week and send it to you if you want to give me an email address.
Kathleen: My maiden name is Victoria Burroughs. From the 1950’s when my parents and I lived in Newport Beach, Ca. to just before Uncle Don’s death, my family and I were very close to your Grandfather. I visited his home on Lake Kezar many times with my husband and our children. I would very much like to talk with you and your sister as I have many of Uncle Don’s letters (in pirate language), a Spirit Board that he painted for me and actually showed a girlfriend and I how to use. She actually got a message that was occurring at the time we were working it.
In Mark Chags series is the mention of Uncle Dons’ Biography, or “Bi-oggerly, as he called it. I know that the 65 page document did actually exist, because it was sent to me by Uncle Don, on two occasions for editing. It was kept in a leather binder and shipped to me in that binder.
In addition to paintings he did, I have lots of envelopes decorated with his bluebirds, “daffydills”, and letters (in pirate lingo), most written by his “secretary”, Nellie P. McGinnis.
I vacationed at Lake Kezar, “The Birches” and my husband helped Uncle Don hang a beautiful wooden Kiyak from the ceiling of the “Happy House” upon its completion.
Looking forward to having an opportunity to meet you and share many memories of Uncle Don, “Capt. Don”.
I can be reached by telephone at 828-749-2223, by snail mail: P.O. Box 369, Saluda, NC 28773, via e-mail: email@example.com and I Phone via voice or text, 828-785-2554.
Victoria Nelson Eliot
Hello….I am President of the Miami Police Benevolent Association. We have owned the old Capt. Don’s Pirate Den property since 1941. We are doing a history of the property. I would like to talk to someone who knows about the Miami Pirates Den, etc..
cell 305 586-5997
From your article: As the Depression deepened business evaporated, leading Don to declare bankruptcy in 1932. A few years later he turned up in Miami, running a new Pirates’ Den, and next in Washington D.C. where he opened another Pirates’ Den on K Street in Georgetown in 1939. In 1940 he opened yet another Pirates’ Den, at 335 N. La Brea in Los Angeles, which was co-owned by Rudy Vallee, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby among others.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008
Hi, I have a old drink menu from the Pirates Den and was wondering if maybe you know when about it was made. It’s a really cool piece of history.
Just guessing because I haven’t seen it, but if it has only soft drinks on it, it’s probably from the 1920s, otherwise the 30s.