POWNAL -- Over the past half-century, Mahican Moccasins has been a piece of business history in Pownal and Southern Vermont. The store cluttered with Vermont crafts, knick-knacks, Mahican style jewelry and, of course, moccasins, even became a destination for tourists vacationing in Vermont.
Whether a fire that brought the building and its contents down in flames June 21 will go down as just another chapter in the long history of Charles Gray's business, or the final chapter, has yet to be decided.
"My immediate plans are to first clean it up, salvage what I can, but most of it is in the Dumpster," Gray said Wednesday from a seat in the shed beside the charred remains, as he took a break from sorting through rubble in the summer sun. Beside him, Gray was flanked by boxes of cowboy hats, piles of dirty clothing that has been pulled from the rubble, and other trinkets.
Gray said he hopes to get the burned remains cleaned up in the near future, although the insurance check he received for the cleanup is only about one-third of the cost of estimates he received. In the meantime, as Gray ponders what to do, he has been working every day, chipping away at the remains, loading Dumpsters and separating out anything that could still be of value.
"When I get everything cleaned up, squared away, then I can make sort of a firm commitment (of whether to re-open the gift shop). We do have some items still left over that were fortunately untouched," Gray said. "I feel there is a need for tourist attractions. This is still the main route to Connecticut, and that is where we got the majority of our business."
If he decides not to give another gift shop a try, Gray said he may try to organize a cooperative effort of craftmakers to open a centralized location from which they can all sell their goods.
Gray turned 80 the same day he watched his business burn, but in speaking with him he appears as energetic as a man half his age, and his senior citizenship certainly isn't going to be the reason he stops working.
"A lot of people say you should retire. I say, well I don't feel like I want to retire. I enjoy doing this. I enjoy meeting people," he said.
A roadblock, though, may be the cost of starting a new business. Unfortunately, the business was underinsured and now Gray is trying to figure out how to pay for the cleanup costs.
His daughter Melissa Richardson has set up a fund people may donate to in order to help -- which Gray fought her on and is hesitant to even promote.
"I appreciate it but it's something I'm not comfortable with, you know?" Gray said. Although, it's apparent many in the greater Pownal area are willing to help.
Donations have been coming in from people Gray said he doesn't even know by name. People have also stopped in to tell Gray how much they enjoyed the shop and ask if they may help clean up, which Gray declines because he does not want to risk them getting injured. "(The community has) been very, very positive," he said.
Many of those people who are now coming forward, Gray said, have been visiting the shop for years. Gray said it wasn't until more recently that he began to realize Mahican Moccasins has become a destination, or a least a regular stop on the way to destinations, for many visitors. There's no doubt Gray's personality, historic knowledge and eagerness to strike up a conversation has kept people coming back as much as the merchandise.
Mahican Moccasins history
One salvaged item Gray held up to display, a wooden mallard duck on a cedar stand, bore the name of Gray's original shop, the Ethan Allen Gift Shop.
Gray bought the original gift shop on Center Street, which at the time was Route 7, from another couple in the 1950s. He operated it at that location until construction began in Pownal on Route 7, at which time he built the most recent shop along the new roadway.
"Canadian traffic used to come down (Center Street and then Route 7 when it was built) and the big items that we sold were Vermont cheese, Vermont syrup, baskets and knick-knacks. Tourist items," Gray said.
After the Green Mountain Race Track stopped holding horse racing in the early 70s, Gray said tourist traffic slowed and he changed the theme of his shop from purely Vermont tourist items to moccasins.
"When the track closed I had, in order to survive, I had to change. I was looking for an item that was sort of native to the area. I guess you can't get much more native," Gray said.
Gray made by hand many of the moccasins he sold, which attracted college students from Southern Vermont and nearby Massachusetts. Tourists also continued to come over the years, including a few famous actors such as Gregory Peck, Blythe Danner and her daughter Gweneth Paltrow, Gray said.
As stories poured out from a smile on Gray's face Wednesday, George Gazaille, a handyman who does work for Gray, searched beneath charred boards for items not destroyed in the fire.
"Want to have a yard sale?" Gazaille joked as he emerged from behind a pile holding three spring garden flags still rolled tightly in plastic wrappers.
Many may find humor hard to stomach as they pick up scraps representing 50 years of work, but Gray chuckled, telling Gazaille to put them in the pile of items to keep.
The fire is believed to have been caused by an overloaded electrical circuit in the apartment above the store. While the fire cost Gray his business, he believes some good will come out of it -- whether it is improvements to water supply or ways the fire department draws water (he said a lack of water played a role in the time it took to extinguish the flames and ponds near the shop could not be used due to the mud and shallow depths) or greater collaboration between craft makers to ensure the niche continues to present for tourism in Pownal.
"I'm convinced, some good will come out of this," he said.
Donations may be made to the Mahican Moccasin Fire Relief Fund at any TD Bank location or by mail to the Williamstown, Mass., branch at 37 Spring Street, or online at http://fnd.us/c/1Ke23
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at email@example.com