DUMMERSTON—It was the best kept secret in town.
For those plugged into social media, or subscribers to Town Clerk Laurie Frechette’s news updates, the word was out about a surprise drive-by parade on May 16 for Don Hazelton to mark his 90th birthday.
Judging by the dozens of decorated cars and trucks that lined up in Dummerston Center on an overcast Saturday morning, a lot of townspeople got the word.
Everybody, apparently, except for Don.
Don said he celebrated his 90th birthday on May 13 in the way that he wanted — with a banana split sundae at Fast Eddie’s on Putney Road, and his family had a little impromptu parade by his house.
Little did he know what he was in for three days later.
Just before 10, Don was expecting to get picked up to go to a nearby woodlot to do some work for the community’s firewood bank for families in need.
Instead of cutting wood, he got a rolling birthday party.
And, yes, it was a surprise.
“I didn’t know there were this many people in town,” he said.
While the COVID-19 outbreak’s face-masking and social distancing substituted the birthday salute on wheels for a formal party, everyone was happy to take part in honoring a person who has been an integral part of Dummerston life for decades.
A lot of living in a little town
Don Hazelton doesn’t have to go far to see the touchstones of 90 years of his life in town.
Aside from his military service during the Korean War era, he has always lived in Dummerston Center. For more than six decades, he’s lived in the little house he built after he returned from the service, where he and his wife Caroline “Bunny” Hazelton raised their family.
Not far from his current home on Park Laughton Road is the farmhouse where he was born on May 13, 1930.
Don said his parents, Merton and Hazel, sold it during the World War II years, when people from New York looked northward to Vermont for a safe place to be during a global conflict.
“They were afraid the city was going to get bombed, and they were looking at every five-cow farm in Vermont to see if it was for sale,” Don said.
When he looks across his front yard, he sees the H.H. Miller House at the junction of Park Laughton and Bunker roads. He said he didn’t mind the short move to the Miller House — which his father Merton bought after selling the original farm during the war — “because we finally had indoor plumbing.”
Beside it is an old apple cold-storage building, a reminder of the former H & M Orchard, operated by Merton Hazelton and E.V. McKey, the man who bought the Hazeltons’ farmhouse.
At its peak, the 15-acre orchard produced up to 9,000 bushels of apples annually. A 3-acre strawberry patch nearby once produced more than 20,000 quarts of berries a season. Don took over running the orchard in 1974.
The apple trees and strawberries are gone now, and the orchard is now a hay lot.
Just beyond is the sugarhouse on East-West Road that his father started in the 1940s and that Don later took over running as he harvested sap from 1,000 maples every March. A story about Don and other Dummerston sugarmakers appeared in The New York Times in 1998 and provided a bit of fame for the family.
The sugarhouse is close to the Dummerston Congregational Church (where his family worshipped), the West Dummerston Volunteer Fire Department (where he was on the Rescue squad), and the Evening Star Grange (the social center for this small town).
Bunny died in November at the age of 89, and Don deeply misses his wife of 68 years. But there are five children, and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins in his very extended family. Many were around for his birthday week.
He also has plenty of friends in town, as well as in the West River Valley, thanks to his many years in local agriculture and the many years of volunteer work for organizations ranging Grace Cottage Hospital to the Maple Leaf Squares. Many were in the Saturday birthday parade.
There was plenty of love to go around for Don on this morning. The woodlot could wait for now.