PUTNEY — Community support for Julie and Greg Winchester is strong as the couple rebuilds their business, Rod's Towing & Repairs, after a suspected arson fire destroyed the gas station and repair shop at 40 Main St. on Oct. 9.
“We're five, six, weeks in now, and the community of Putney has been so amazing,” says Julie Winchester.
Apparently, the Winchesters are pretty amazing as well, as comments on the crowdfunding site Give Butter about the station - believed to be the longest running family-owned service station in the state - attest.
To date, two community benefits - a dinner and a barbecue - have also raised close to another $18,000. And others are literally providing manpower to help rebuild.
“You've saved our cars since our teenagers were smashing them. This is the least we can do,” Meg and Alison Mott wrote with their contribution on Give Butter.
“They say you don't know what you got until it's gone,” wrote Andy Voda. “But I've always known what I got from Rod's: honesty and straight shooting.”
“You have towed and repaired us and filled us up so many times ... here's back at you,” said Lise Sparrow.
To date, the campaign on the crowdfunding site has received $18,375 in donations from 146 supporters toward a goal of $250,000.
“Rod's has been a part of Putney life since before the hippie invasion and kept many a Volkswagen bus on the road, including mine,” wrote Michael and Deborah Weatherby.
“We join the rest of the Putney community who stand with you,” Terry Keegan and Michael Goldberg commented with their donation. “You have been a model of strength and courage. Wishing you all the best.”
A spate of fires
Police have also been investigating the Rod's fire and five other suspicious blazes that occurred in October in Putney, Dummerston, and Marlboro.
Noting that “arson is a criminal statute, not a fire classification,” Det. Sgt. Matthew Hill of the Vermont State Police's Bureau of Criminal Investigations' Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit says the fire at Rod's remains “active and under investigation.”
“We do not have an update for the fire at Rod's at this time,” he said this week.
The fire at Rod's was discovered at 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 9 by a passerby. That same night, a homeowner discovered a chair he had placed at the end of his driveway on Bunker Road in East Dummerston had been set on fire.
On Oct. 15 at 8 p.m., the Marlboro Fire Department was called to a fire at a vacant building on Town Hill Road. This fire has been determined “to be the result of direct human involvement.”
On Oct. 22 at 5 p.m., the Marlboro department was dispatched to a reported structure fire at an abandoned Route 9 motel. This fire is also thought to be set intentionally.
Finally, on Oct. 28 at 5 p.m., the same fire department responded to a structure fire that completely destroyed an unoccupied camp on Stratton Mountain Road.
The Department of Public Safety Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit (FEIU), in cooperation with the Putney and Marlboro fire departments, has been investigating all the fires in Windham County, including one on Oct. 2 that has resulted in the arrest of two juveniles.
This investigation revealed the two were hunting in Putney when they went onto a Shag Bark Hill property and “lit multiple items on fire, including a boat, vehicle, and residential trailer.”
Both juveniles fled the scene prior to the arrival of the fire department. Due to the ages of the suspects, no further information about the case is available.
“Set fires are very difficult to investigate and track down. It would be a little easier if there were more than four of us, but there aren't, and fires don't stop because we're working on something else,” says Hill.
Investigators ask anyone with information about this or the other fires to call the Vermont State Police in Westminster at 802-722-4600. Tips may be submitted anonymously by texting keyword VTIPS to 274637 (CRIMES). Tips may also be submitted online at vsp.vermont.gov/tipsubmit.
People with information may also contact the Vermont Arson Tip Award Program at 800-32-ARSON. The Arson Tip Award Program is a separate entity from the state police and, through funding from insurance companies, offers a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to an arrest.
A steep cost to rebuild
Rod's has been an icon in Putney since Greg's father and mother, Rodney and Doreen Winchester, opened the station 54 years ago, the year Greg was born. Greg has been running it for the past 30 years. Doreen died in 2016, but Rod is farming in his retirement.
The fire shocked everyone.
For “the entire family - from our children right to the great-grandbabies,” the service station is “an extension of all of our homes,” says Julie. “I know for me and Greg, everything about the shop ... well, he said, 'This is the place that I have been the most in my entire life.' And to see something like that ... I think Dad was more devastated for Greg.”
The fire left more than a dozen people without work and the loss was at first estimated to be in excess of $500,000. Julie believes it will be double that in the end.
“We are under insurance, but it's a total loss, so we have to replace everything in that shop,” she explains.
“Between the wrecker we lost, and nine customer vehicles, and 54 years of equipment, and then the rebuilding [...] we think it's closer to a million,” says Julie, while talking by phone as she and Greg headed to a shop in New Hampshire that has had to close and sell everything.
It turned out that the Winchesters were the only folks to respond to that shop's liquidation, and their offer was accepted.
“We saved a ton, put a dent in our large inventory [loss], and hugely helped another in need,” Julie writes on her Facebook page.
Despite the challenges, Rod's is open and staff members are “doing the best they can as far as phones and things,” says Julie.
“Our wrecker [towing] business is 100 percent up and operating, and we're working hard to get gas going because there are a lot of details with a gas station and tow truck and repair business,” she says.
The Winchesters hope to have three bays operating by the first of the year and plan a grand reopening in the spring “to celebrate this rebirth.”
Putting things in perspective
And in the meantime, the community is cheering them on.
“We are so grateful,” says Julie.
She noted that despite an uncertain time when Covid has not “brought out the best in a lot of people,” the tragedy has shifted a community's perspective.
“At our benefit dinner, there were neighbors sitting together at a table who hadn't spoken in two years,” she says. “It was like that didn't matter, nothing else mattered.”
“It's been devastating, but we are trying to look for the beauty - for the bad being the good,” Julie says. “It's been so beautiful.”