Tuesday March 20, 2012

WILMINGTON -- For John and Patty Reagan, owners of Dot’s restaurant, the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene has created an emotional roller coaster.

The massive flood last August all but destroyed the historic diner, but that didn’t stop the couple from exploring every option to reopen the "heart of Wilmington," and Monday they announced in front of a crowd of nearly 100 people that Dot’s will return.

"It’s going to take a lot to put it back together," John said. "We have chosen this path to rebuild Dot’s as a way to preserve the heart of Wilmington, preserve past memories and the opportunity for future generations to have the Dot’s experience. We look at this as more of a stewardship than ownership, in helping to keep the traditions for many, many people alive."

The total cost of the project is estimated at more than $600,000, but many volunteers and economic groups have already pledged their help.

At the announcement, Gov. Peter Shumlin called John and Patty an "example of Vermont tenacity."

"Standing here just seven months later you’ll find the strength and love that holds Vermonters together," he said.

Shumlin, who used to ski at nearby Hogback Mountain as a kid, told the Reformer that he used to beg his parents to take him to Dot’s afterward to get a cup of their famous chili.

"This place is a symbol of the town and that we’ll rebuild Vermont better than Irene found us," he said. "When I saw this place the only way to get here was via helicopter and I didn’t think for a second it’d be back in less than two years. Only in Vermont would you see this speed of recovery. We’ve got a lot of work ahead and at times it might feel like one step forward two steps back, but we’ll get there."

Having the governor speak provided a sense of reality that rebuilding Dot’s was actually going to happen, John said.

Previously, John and Patty had thought the only option they had was to build a three-season restaurant and salvage what they could, but with help from people like members of the Vermont Preservation Trust and the Wilmington Fund, they’ll be able to use most of the historic building.

"We’re going to rebuild what we have," John said in an interview with the Reformer. "We’ve had a great response from people in town and second homeowners."

Construction is scheduled to start in June and the restaurant could reopen in November.

The plan is to lift the building off its footing, rebuild and raise the foundation a foot and a half, then put the building back.

The renovations also give John and Patty the opportunity to change the layout of the diner by moving the eating area out over the water that almost closed the restaurant forever.

"I feel like we’ve been on one of these rides where they strap you into a bungee cord and you fly up and down," John said. "But now I look at the building and I see where the new dinning area will be instead of where the kitchen I’d never use again."

On Aug. 28, John and Patty opened the restaurant at 8 a.m., but when they saw how quickly the Deerfield River was rising, they sent the staff home.

"This one we knew was going to be bad," Patty said. "We’ve been through flooding before so we grabbed what was irreplaceable and left."

After moving Patty’s vehicle, John stood with her on the front lawn of a neighbor’s house and could only watch as the water and debris battered the sides of the building.

"We saw all sorts of stuff go by that morning," John said. "The water brought down dumpsters, propane tanks, trees, a cow and a horse."

It was nearly a week after the flood before they could get inside their restaurant, and John and Patty said what they found astonished them.

"The tables were still set," he said.

Each had floated to the front of the building, covered in a thick layer of sludge, but that was the least of their problems, Patty said.

The massive rainfall and flood waters had eroded large portions of the building’s foundation, stripped away siding and left the historic diner in shambles.

Sid Federbusch, a second homeowner in Wilmington, said he ate at Dot’s every chance he got, and joked that he hasn’t eaten since it closed.

"We called this place our kitchen," Federbusch said. "You can’t have Wilmington without Dot’s."

Joel Berg, who was recouping from bi-lateral knee surgery, got out of bed to wish his friend John and Patty success.

"I was standing with them and my wife Andrea on the day of the storm, watching it disintegrate in front of our eyes," Berg said. "We were watching their whole lives float away."

To make a donation or for more information, visit www.rebuilddots.com.

Josh Stilts can be reached at jstilts@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.