DUMMERSTON—The West Dummerston Fire Department’s annual pancake breakfast, held the same morning as the famous apple pie festival, is a major fundraising event for the small, rural department, which serves the 30.8-square-mile town of just under 2,000 residents.
According to longtime member Lester Dunklee, who co-chairs the event with Randy Hickins “and a few others,” last year’s breakfast brought in “around $3,500 [to] $4,000.”
Although in a typical year this money is crucial for the department’s survival, this time the stakes are even higher.
The central fire station, located on East-West Road, needs replacing, and every flapjack flipped helps the independent fire department get that much closer to building a station big enough to hold its trucks — which the current one cannot.
Earlier this year, officials from the department led a successful petition drive asking the selectboard to schedule a special town meeting, where residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of raising taxes to help build a new fire station.
The vote authorized the town to cover no more than $175,000 of the project’s total cost, estimated at $250,000 to $280,000. Any money the fire department takes in will reduce the town’s contribution. According to Town Clerk Laurie Frechette, $13,650 has been raised through donations as of late last week.
The department so far raised some of the costs through their own volunteer efforts, such as the annual sugar-on-snow supper, a successful summer bake sale at the Interstate 91 Welcome Center, t-shirt sales, raffles, and the upcoming pancake breakfast.
This is the last year the pancake breakfast will happen in the old Dummerston Center fire station. Although department officials wanted the building demolished and replaced in time for the event, delays in securing a special town meeting date precluded it. According to Dunklee, demolition of the current station will begin next spring.
Dunklee, Hickins, and Phil Davis started the pancake breakfast in the late-1980s. “We looked for another fundraiser and at the time we were trying to figure out what to do to make use of the crowds and not step on anyone’s toes” at the apple pie festival, Dunklee said.
“I tell you what kind of guy Phil was,” Dunklee said. “He had a kidney replacement and he still hopped up on the fire truck [during calls]. He might say, ‘You drive,’ but he’d still hop up on the truck,” Dunklee said.
After Davis passed away from cancer, the two men, with help from others, kept it going.
“Randy’s not active” on the fire department now, Dunklee said, “but he’s right there, with the pancake breakfast and the sugar-on-snow."
11 gallons of syrup
Dunklee, who orders the ingredients for the pancake breakfast through the Chelsea Royal Diner’s wholesale accounts, shared some event-related data.
Although he couldn’t say how many pancakes are produced each year, Dunklee did confirm the cooks go through seven cases, containing six bags each, of pancake mix, with 11 gallons of maple syrup alongside.
About half of the syrup is donated by local producers who, Dunklee said, often donate a gallon for every gallon the department purchases. “That’s a lot of money” the maple producers give to the department, he noted.
Dunklee buys raspberries from Dutton’s to mix with some of the pancake batter; the blueberries are donated by Sidehill Farm.
They fry up 14 cases of breakfast sausage. Some are served as patties; others are chopped up for the 10 gallons of gravy ladled on top of the 500 biscuits made from 35 pounds of flour.
“We try to pick a good sausage recommended by a few restaurants,” Dunklee said, noting the group tried serving bacon the first few years, but it was too tricky to cook enough for the event without smoking up the whole upstairs of the fire station.
About 500 cups of coffee get brewed.
To please those who like applesauce with their breakfast, Dunklee, Hickins, “and the ladies from the community center” make a big batch using Dwight Miller & Sons apples. The group also bakes the biscuits.
On pancake day, Dunklee and Hickins meet in the latter’s kitchen at 5 a.m. to make the gravy, while back at the station, “the coffee starts getting made before 6 a.m.,” Dunklee said.
“Randy and I always make sure we don’t get there too early with the gravy,” Dunklee said with a laugh, pantomiming a man shaking, afraid the gravy will never arrive. “You don’t want them expecting too much,” he said.
Once the gravy is made and delivered and the doors open, Dunklee spends the event overseeing the proceedings. “I make sure everything runs smoothly,” he said.
“If we run out of something, I can go over to the church or the grange. It’s a good thing they’re in close proximity, because you can’t run to the store,” Dunklee said, explaining the traffic in the village prevents a quick trip to the supermarket.
“We’re all done and cleaned up by 12:30 [p.m.] or so, when the rest are just beginning,” Dunklee said, adding if the firefighters have anything left over — biscuits, applesauce, coffee — “we bring it over to the church or the grange” to sell.
Dunklee said the department used to include a boot drop on pancake/apple pie day to take advantage of the throngs of visitors to the village. But, due to a variety of reasons, including church officials’ concerns with holding up traffic and firefighters feeling awkward holding up boots, about 18 years ago department officials called it off.
‘Apple Pie Ride’
To make up for the loss of the $500 to $750 the boot drops would bring in each year, Dunklee said the department put a barrel out near the fire station so people could “passively donate."
During one of the donation barrel’s first years, “the biggest, burliest” member of the Worcester Motorcycle Club — “he looked like a Hell’s Angel” — walked over to the barrel and “he reached right into the bottom of it,” Dunklee said. “He was there for a few minutes, poking around. Everyone thought ‘What’s he doing?’” Dunklee said, but nobody felt courageous enough to go ask him.
Finally, the man walked away, and one of the firefighters walked over when the coast was clear and looked into the barrel.
“There was a couple-hundred-dollar donation in there,” Dunklee said.
He later learned the motorcycle club hosts an “Apple Pie Ride” for its members, and proceeds from the sale of the commemorative pins — usually about $500 to $750 each year — goes to the West Dummerston Volunteer Fire Department.
“We don’t bother putting the barrel out anymore,” Dunklee said.