BRATTLEBORO — At almost 75 years of age, Lester Dunklee is one of those original kinds of Vermonters who are issued so many words at birth. He tries not to let go of too many of them at one time. And yet, once he gets to know you, the stories, historical facts, words, and laughs just flow out of him.
Dunklee is retiring and, on Dec. 31, he plans to close R.E. Dunklee and Sons Machine Shop at 72 Flat St., a local institution that has been in continuous operation since the early 1920s.
A friend to all, the man is full of heart - ask anyone who knows him. They will tell you a tale of brilliance in creating what any job requires, and a heart that is bigger than most.
Fred Cheney of Guilford is a true fan and regular customer.
"A man who is liked by so many and has helped thousands of people over the years is also a man that is so talented and humble - he's irreplaceable," says Cheney. "We, as contractors, farmers, and local homeowners have taken him for granted for many, many years."
Known all over the county as the guy who always has whatever oddball thing you are looking for, one can always purchase a single nut or bolt, standard or metric, of any grade or weight from the tiny buckets and tins that hold thousands of them all over his shop.
Surprisingly, Dunklee can locate whatever his customer is looking for after a quick moment of thought, and thentrudges from one room to the next, leading the way to the home of whatever you need.
That's a bold statement if you've ever visited his shop, where machines of every size and age vie for space on the floor with pieces of metal, tubes, giant cylinders, wires, and oxygen tanks. Here, chains, pullies, belts, and drives are hung from the ceiling, and you get to machinery via small pathways throughout the space.
In a far corner stands a tire press that came to Brattleboro in the early 1900s. An old belt-driven system hangs above the huge machine which runs on 550 volts and is still used to this day.
Local historian Bob Cornellier thinks of the shop as a "manufacturing museum," and he has suggested that perhaps a museum is exactly what the Dunklee shop should become.
Jay Urato of Brattleboro agrees. "They need to put that building on the National Historic Registry when he decides to close up shop," he says.
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First opened by Dunklee's grandfather, Robert E. Dunklee, the business was passed down to his father, David, and then on to Lester, who has been making things in the shop since he was a little boy, giving him a lifetime of experience.
"My father went to the shop almost until the day he died," remembers Dunklee. "He always wanted to be there."
In a town where three generations of Dunklee men have helped so many people from all walks of life, everybody has a story about Lester Dunklee and his machine shop.
When one regular customer, Ron Minnes, of Brattleboro, was working on his 200-year-old house in 2019, he was grateful to Dunklee.
"I needed a special thing built so that I could lift the house off its foundation to save it. I called Lester, and he said, 'Come on down, I can make it if you tell me what you need.' Three days later he says come and get [it]!" Minnes says.
"I think he charged me all of 50 bucks," he adds. "The man is a gem, and once gone will never be replaced."
Jessica Turner of Putney says her 4-year-old son's prize possession was an all-metal firetruck with pedals that he drove every day around Putney village. One day, a pedal fell off and became jammed in its inner workings.
"I took it to Lester's shop to see how much it would cost to fix it," Turner says. "He spent half an hour on it, fixed it perfectly, and then didn't charge me. I have never forgotten his kindness and his excellence at what he does."
* * *
Turner might not have known at the time that Dunklee has been a longtime member of the West Dummerston Volunteer Fire Department. Anyone who knows him would have told her that he'd do just about anything for a fellow firefighter in training - even one of preschool age.
Former Fire Chief David Emery is an old friend.
"I dealt with his dad for years. His dad lived on Chase Street. Every day he would pack his lunchbox and put on the same hat that he wore day after day, and head down to the shop, and every night at 5, he'd walk back home. You couldn't meet anybody nicer. Lester is just like his dad."
Emery tells a story about what happened when the Red Knights International Firefighters Motorcycle Club, of which he is a member, was given a piece of steel from the World Trade Center in New York City, destroyed in a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I needed to put this twisted piece of steel on a stand or some kind of pedestal, as it was going to be displayed in Boylston, Massachusetts," remembers Emery.
"I brought the piece down to his shop and he said, 'Give me a couple of days to look at it, and I'll see what I can do with it.'"
About three days later, Emery went back to the shop to see what his friend had in mind for the display. On the back of a piece of paper, Dunklee had drawn out what he thought it should look like.
"It was absolutely perfect," says Emery.
But a question lingered. How was Dunklee planning on bolting the piece? The gift of 9/11 steel came with rules. The steel couldn't have any holes drilled into it, and it couldn't be painted. It had to remain as the firefighters at Ground Zero found it.
"He fabricated hot rivets that look exactly like the piece of steel so that you couldn't tell if they were a part of the piece or not," Emery says. "And because the rivets didn't show, a thief wouldn't be able to tell where they were, so they wouldn't be able to steal it."
He called it a work of "genius," adding that Dunklee had made up this elaborate frame to hold the steel with special bolts that fit into the concrete.
"I couldn't believe it. It was amazing," Emery says with shock in his voice.
Dunklee also managed to find a special dust to apply to the steel, which will prevent the artifact from rusting without using any paint, consistent with the terms of the gift.
The group installed the work of art to great acclaim. When Emery returned to Brattleboro he went back to the shop and asked Dunklee what the group owed him.
Dunklee responded that he wanted to think that question over.
Emery returned to the machine shop and asked the question again, over months, he did so repeatedly without response.
"Lester said that he was still thinking about it, and I said, 'Lester, it's now been eight months! You've had plenty of time to think about it. I really don't want you to donate this effort and time. Can we at least pay you for the steel?'" asked Emery.
Dunklee is still thinking about it, all these years later, Emery says.
"I don't think I'm ever going to get an answer," says Emery. "The man truly has a heart of gold. He does so much for so many people."
* * *
Ask around, and you'll hear countless voices in the community sing Lester Dunklee's praises for his volunteer work for many groups and individuals, his amazing ability to craft anything out of metal, and the many ways he makes his skills and equipment available to others.
"Lester used to sharpen our paper cutters for years at Dummerston School."
"He's helped Experienced Goods out with repairs on metal racks."
"He makes wonderful homemade doughnuts for the Maple Sugar Supper in Dummerston."
"He even makes a special Gilfeather turnip doughnut for the Wardsboro Library for their Gilfeather Turnip Festival."
"He serves on the Dummerston Community Center Board."
"He's got a heart of gold; he always charges people what he thinks is right. If they can't pay him, he says, 'Well, just pay me when you can.'"
* * *
Bob LeBlond has known Lester Dunklee for years. About 30 years ago, LeBlond started a group, all photographers, who would meet in his basement processing historic glass plates.
"There was a small group of us doing this work. One of us would put the plate in an enlarger, another would expose the paper, someone was at the developer, and together we brought these old pictures back to life. Most of the pictures were of Wardsboro, but I noticed one night that a bunch of them were from Dummerston," LeBlond remembers.
LeBlond went down to Dunklee's shop and asked his friend if he'd like to join the group and come help with the photos of his hometown.
"At the end of the night he told me, 'I had so much fun, can I come back next week?'" LeBlond recalls.
"For about three weeks at the end of the night, he asked the same question and I finally said, 'Lester, stop asking, just come!'" he adds. "Every week he continues to show up. That was years and years ago now. We like to tease him because in all these years he's only missed two nights. Of course, that was only because he had surgery," says LaBlond with a hearty laugh.
"He's a wonderful guy to work with," he says. "He's devoted to whatever he puts his mind to, and he's a hard worker."
LaBlond worked for Mount Snow for 48 years working on water systems, plumbing, and heating. One day, Dunklee called LaBlond and asked him if he could meet him at the Dummerston School.
"He said,'We're having a problem with the water system over here. Can you come down and look the thing over?' The man never stops. When he's done with work, he just volunteers to work for someone else. He's a truly kind human being."
* * *
Dunklee's father, David, didn't use a cash register - he made change right out of his pocket.
His son, on the other hand, has had help from an unsung hero: his wife, Debbie Dunklee, who has been his bookkeeper for the last 40 years. They support each other.
"When I first started doing the bookkeeping, everything was done by hand. That was a little challenging, but we got it done," she says modestly.
"Now I have a computer, Lester writes down what the job was, he brings the slips home, and then I record what was sold."
* * *
So why is Dunklee retiring now?
"Well," he says, and pauses. "My body says I have to. I don't have the strength in my arms and my knees that I used to. And then there is the brain fog that comes with getting older. By 2 o'clock, sometimes I can hardly add up some numbers.
"I can't operate that way," he says honestly, but with a tinge of sadness in his voice.
We move to what might be a happier question.
In addition to generations-old metalworking machinery and a timeless collection of nuts and bolts, Dunklee's shop has frogs. All kinds, many made of glass, wire, paper, plastic, stuffed. And they are everywhere.
What will become of the frogs?
Dunklee's mood lightens.
"You want 'em?" he asks with a laugh.
"I don't know if they'll go back in the water, but they might," he deadpans. "Maybe they'd prefer the mud."
It's hard to figure out when you go in, and more than one guest in his shop has asked Dunklee, "What's up with the frogs?" He never says, he just smiles.
But this is what's up with the frogs.
Many years back, Dunklee's friend Jim Severance, an amateur race car driver, would have a few breakdowns on the weekends when he might race at more than one venue. He would call Dunklee and ask him for help.
Eventually, Dunklee simply gave him a key to the shop so that if he needed nuts and bolts or a piece of metal, he could just let himself in and help himself.
"I come back one Monday morning," Dunklee remembers, "and there's a whole bunch of little frogs sitting on a wire over a paper lilypad."
And they were all over his shop - everywhere, he notes, laughing.
"After that, you know frogs, they breed. Suddenly another comes in, and then another one, and I just let it happen. It's amazing who brings in the frogs," he says with a wide grin.
* * *
What's going to happen to the shop in 2024?
Dunklee isn't sure just yet. The old Vermonter has returned to the conversation and words become fewer.
"I need to get in there and inventory what's there, and we'll just see what I'll do with the place after that," he says.
Josh Steele, a frequent customer, sums it up for all of Brattleboro.
"Lester is a master machinist, a major local resource, an endless wealth of knowledge, and has two huge green thumbs," he says.
"This is a major loss for this community, but I'm very happy for him," Steele adds. "He deserves a healthy and wealthy retirement."
Fran Lynggaard Hansen, a Brattleboro native with deep connections to local history and to people everywhere, is a Commons reporter and columnist.
This News column by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.