BRATTLEBORO—Lester Dunklee doesn’t like to answer the phone at work.
That doesn’t mean he’s antisocial, though. On the contrary — answering the phone might mean interrupting a chat with a customer.
When asked what he loves most about his job, Dunklee, proprietor and sole employee of R E Dunklee & Sons machine shop, didn’t miss a beat: “Helping people out. It’s very, very rewarding to help people out with finding a solution to their problems."
“Everybody wants something straightened or fixed or something,” he said.
Sure, Dunklee finds a solution to his customers’ problems, but it often comes with friendly conversation, as if one were visiting the man’s living room. To a recent visitor, he appeared in no hurry to take patrons’ orders or to shuffle them out the door.
“You never see the 11mm bolts,” Dunklee said to a man buying bolts, lock washers, and taps for his “old excavator."
“You know where you see ’em?” Dunklee asked, then answered, “the brake calipers in your car,” before expounding on why automobile manufacturers might choose a part of such an unusual size.
A workshop full of frogs
From there, the lengthy talk between the two men continued on to homesteading, the vagaries of rural living, and the best way to buy a new truck without getting ripped off.
They sat across from one another at Dunklee’s work table, which was piled high with books, papers, and just a few of his menagerie of frogs.
Little plastic frogs, ceramic frogs, and a few plush stuffed frogs decorate the front area of the western half of the shop.
“So, what’s with the frogs?” a visitor asked.
“They showed up here and they’ve been breeding ever since,” he explained with a laugh.
A sign on the wall reads, “Dunklee’s Machine + Supply + Frog Emporium.”
Along with it are old photographs, photocopies of funny stories, artistic renderings of the shop, and a medal from the Brattleboro Fire Department. The department gave the Civilian Service Award to Dunklee for his “continuous support and generosity."
“That’s my cone-head award!” Dunklee said.
During the 2003 and 2004 construction of the Main Street bridge, later named the Kyle C. Gilbert Memorial Bridge, Elliot and Flat Streets were changed to one-way roads.
Thus, fire trucks coming from Elliot Street’s central fire station often had to travel down Elm Street to get to the rest of town. At the bottom of Elm Street, the intersection’s steep hill and sharp turn impeded the driver’s ability to see cars coming from Frost Street.
Fearing a terrible collision, Dunklee kept an ear out for the fire alarm sounding from up the hill. When he heard it, he would run down the block and physically stop traffic at the Elm-Frost-Flat intersection until the fire truck safely passed through.
“I was a traffic cone,” he said.
Withstanding the flood
Barely a decade later, the man who loves to help others needed quite a bit of help himself.
R E Dunklee & Sons was in the path of the Whetstone Brook, which runs behind the shop, when it jumped its banks during Tropical Storm Irene.
“A two-week vacation and hard labor is what I got” from that event, Dunklee said, noting the waterline on the outside of the door was 18 inches from the ground.
The water mostly missed the western half of the shop, Dunklee said. His theory: The combination of Lynde Motorsports’ flatbed trucks damming up the water coming down the hill from Elliot Street, and the silt deposited in front of Dunklee’s doors, kept most of the churning deluge out.
He said most of the water came in the back door.
The cellar filled with four feet of water. In the eastern half of the shop’s main floor, the water rose to within two inches of his most prized machine’s motor before it crested. That machine, which Dunklee described as “the metal-muncher, the hydraulic iron monster,” shears flat stock, can bend metal, and punches holes in steel. Replacing it would have been an expensive challenge.
But it could have been much worse. Or, maybe Dunklee is just an optimist.
“Steel is not hampered too much by a washing,” he said, adding, “it did give me a real good excuse to clean up the basement. There’s stuff that hadn’t been touched for 50 years."
“I had to rinse some silt off,” Dunklee noted, but he wasn’t alone.
“A lot of people came around” during the days and weeks after the storm flooded Flat Street, Dunklee said, and not all of them were friends and customers.
“They were people you wouldn’t expect. People worked their butts off to get me up and running. It was totally unexpected to have people put aside their own lives to help me out,” Dunklee said.
Holding a town together
Over a few recent days, patrons brought a variety of projects into the shop: a bike rack with too much wobble; an industrial paint mixer in need of a part; a worker from Hazel restaurant picked up a carbon dioxide tank for their soda and beer dispensers; and a Jeep had lost a nut for its control arm.
The local conventional wisdom is that Lester Dunklee keeps this town in working order.
“I keep a nut and bolt supply to keep people’s cars and tractors working,” Dunklee said. “They just need one and don’t want to buy a package of 100."
“The battle” in his business, he says, is that “you get a lot of very cheaply made products, and some of the stuff isn’t worth fixing. The engineering leaves a lot to be desired.”
R E Dunklee & Sons is a third-generation, Dunklee-owned business. Lester’s grandfather Robert invested in the shop with two partners in the 1920s. They started out rebuilding automobile engines, but when the industry changed to rebuilding engines in the factories and not in the field, “they were about to go belly-up,” Dunklee said. So they started taking in other work.
Robert Dunklee eventually bought out his partners’ interests and ran the shop until he was 80 years old, in the 1960s. Then, Robert’s son, David, took over, and ran it until 1986.
“I started here full-time in 1973, when I was 25 years old, after I left the Coast Guard,” Dunklee said.
But his career began well before then.
“When I was a kid I used to be in here bothering the help,” Dunklee said. “When I was in first grade, I’d try to make something. My dad would set me up. He had a lot of patience.”
Dunklee’s was the only one among his five siblings interested in the business. None of his four children want to take over, but Dunklee doesn’t mind. “They’re doing all right. I don’t begrudge them a bit” for choosing different paths, he said. “I don’t want to torture them!”
“I’m gonna go as long as I can” until retirement, Dunklee said.
When that time comes, he has no plans to sell the business.
“I’m just gonna walk right out the door,” he said.
“Everybody says, ‘I hope you don’t retire!’” Dunklee said.
As if on cue, a woman arrived with a push mower. She rolled it over to Dunklee, who assured her he could sharpen its dull blade and she could cut the grass in her yard very soon.
“Don’t ever retire!” she said.