Vault in BF business' basement had not been seen since 1970s; housed suits, coats from era
A room of furs was recently uncovered in a basement vault under the Snow & Lear office supply store.
For the past 30 or so years, the furs have been hanging on their racks in a climate controlled room that was probably once owned by Royal Furriers, an area business that closed sometime in the late 1970s.
Sam Haskins, the new owner of J&H Hardware, bought the whole building that includes the hardware store this past year.
After walking around the basement Haskins guessed that there must be a couple of thousand feet of usable space hidden behind the walls.
He had not heard of Royal Furriers, and had no reason to believe that there was any hidden treasures within the wall. Instead, Haskins thought, as any good businessman would, that if he was paying for the space then he might as well put it to use.
His son, Jeremy, found some hinges bent backward where it appeared someone had tried to get in to the room.
There was no way in, so the Haskinses decided to pound their way through.
First they rented an electric hammer and started hacking away at the wall.
The next day they returned the hand-held hammer and rented a jackhammer.
They got through 18 inches of brick and mortar only to find another wall.
They kept boring through four inches of wall board, and then another wall of cement.
When they finally got through, the lights were on, the fan was spinning in the climate controlled vault, and the six-or-so furs were hanging on their racks, awaiting pick-up.
After reading through some of the records he found, Sam Haskins figured that no one had been in the room since the mid-70s.
There were also a dozen or so suits, dresses and hats.
"The fans were spinning and the furs were spotless," Haskins said. "Everything inside was very nice and clean. The fan was set on 65 degrees and that is exactly what the thermometer read. Everyone wants to know who has been paying the electricity bill."
Royal Furriers was a downtown business that cleaned and stored furs in an era when high society men and women walked around the bustling downtown, remembered Ida Goutas, who used to own the Chimes Cafe.
The Chimes Cafe was the first commercial restaurant in Vermont with air conditioning and the cafe was open 24 hours to serve the railroad, which picked up and dropped of passengers in Bellows Falls at all hours of the day.
Goutas said the owner, a Mr. Fine, also owned a fur shop in Keene, N.H.
"I used to take my raccoon coat there," she said. "I still have that raccoon coat and it looks as good as the day I bought it 60 years ago."
She spoke highly of the store owner as someone who could be trusted and who made sure that the residents of Bellows Falls were receiving only first-class treatment.
"He treated everyone like they were important," Goutas said, "You knew that if you bought something there it was the real thing."
Back then, said Goutas, ladies used to wear gowns to village events and men would always want to look their best.
Those days, she said, are gone, and gone with them went the downtown furrier.
"Bellows Falls used to be a very, very active community. People used to make a real fuss over how they looked," said Goutas. "Now, you've got these animal rights people and people just don't care how they are dressed."
Fine used to collect furs in the spring from all over Bellows Falls, and when the cold weather arrived he would deliver them again.
And when he did, he called little Tommy MacPhee, who would pick up and deliver the furs for a few bucks while he was in high school in the 1950s.
MacPhee, who is the chairman of the selectboard today, said he remembered the vault in the basement.
"We used to stash the coats down there, but it's been a long time," said MacPhee.
"He used to treat me well," he said, referring to Mr. Fine.
Ray Massucco, a Bellows Falls native and local attorney, said there are a lot of questions to answer before anyone starts fishing a ticket out of a box of memorabilia and tries to claim a jacket.
Vermont has an abandoned property law whereby anything that is unclaimed for six years gets turned over to the state.
After that the state does its best to get the property back to the rightful owner.
But the building has been owned by a few different owners since Royal Furriers left.
Royal Furriers might have had a lien on their business.
There might have been an "unclaimed coats" policy that didn't allow the owner to reclaim their clothing after a certain amount of time.
And then there are the 30 or so years of storage fees that the building owner can claim if someone comes looking for a coat.
"There are all sorts of things you would have to look at and there is no simple answer to who has a title to what" said Massucco, who had an office above the vault for 15 years but never knew the coats were stored in the floor underneath his desk. "But there is no reason why someone couldn't claim a coat if they could prove if it was theirs."
Haskins, for now, is sitting on his unearthed treasures. He wants to get the clothing appraised and wait to see what it all might be worth.
"My daughter wanted a coat for Christmas, but I want to see what we got here first," said Haskins.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.
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