We’ve introduced a new column called “Snapshots” to celebrate the lives of people in Addison County. Every Friday, we will feature a different community member whose life story has a place in Vermont’s history. Ranging from hardworking housewives to war veterans, every life has a story worth telling.
By Chelsey Pletts
Behind the F.C. Dyer Co. Inc. counter stood Ernest Maheu’s wife, Lucienne. At around 5 feet, 3 inches tall, with thick hair that never saw a bottle of peroxide and compact teardrop teeth, Lucienne was marvelous to look at. She dressed in tailored suit jackets with slacks or skirts, a belt cinched tightly around her thin waste and a feminine cravat of paper-like scarf around her neck.
Lucienne passed away earlier this year at the age of 97 after living 80 years in the Middlebury and Salisbury areas. Loved and appreciated by all who met her, she was, like the F.C. Dyer Co. Inc, a fixture in her community.
Her husband, Ernest, was a shy, sweet man, who most would describe as a “workhorse.” The fruit of his labor was a general store called F.C. Dyer Co. Inc. on Creek Road, just after the railroad tracks in West Salisbury. Given to him by Jessie Dyer, the white two-story building with gas pumps out front was previously a carriage and blacksmith shop. Now it was the heart of the town, selling staples from grain to groceries.
To the east, Lake Dunmore runs along the foot of the Green Mountains. In 1935, this side of town was the livelier side. It still is. In the heat of summer, when the lake drew its annual crowd, the general store saw no lull in foot traffic — even though it stood far from the breeze of the water.
Early morning brought the farmers to F.C. Dyer Co. Inc. for grain. Evening shoppers came to pick up groceries before returning home to Cornwall or Middlebury. It was a one-stop shop, with clothes, food, automobile service, domestic goods and farm supplies.
Managing the store was a job unto itself. Yet Lucienne also sewed slipcovers and upholstered furniture for customers traveling from New England and New York. The seamstress trade was passed down to her from her mother, who sewed priests’ vestments. Lucienne became a master craftswoman.
She and Ernest worked well into the weekends. Some Sunday afternoons, the couple took their four children for drives in the Chrysler, bought from Ernest’s friend Edward Foster, of Foster Motors. The children begged for Lucienne to drive because she “had a lead foot, and drove faster than Dad,” recalled daughter Ann.
The year of 1962 saw the demise of small-town business. Superstores like the Grand Union and A&P sucked people from West Salisbury to the cool, aseptic isles of the grocery store. F.C. Dyer Co. Inc. went out of business.
The couple cleared out the store to make room for their amenities, and they moved into the bottom level. Commuting to Burlington, Ernest took a job as the manager of Hagar Hardware and Lucienne became head of the linen department for Abernethy’s Department Store.
Lucienne helped customers, from ordinary shoppers to the Kennedy’s, who requested her by name. Able to speak fluent French, Lucienne was born in Ontario, Canada and immigrated to Middlebury in 1928 at the age of 17. Her sophisticated dress and master of a second language was attractive to customers, but drove her coworkers mad with envy. The faintest shadow of a French accent lingered in the pronunciations of certain words like “Rita.”
Her Canadian heritage did not prevent Lucienne’s family from integrating into Middlebury. With numerous other Canadian families already in place, the Quesnel’s settled easily into a farm house on Route 7, across from what is now Connor Homes. Alphonse, Lucienne’s younger brother, was a self-taught, madcap crop duster and Vermont aviation pioneer who ran Middlebury Airport. Her younger sister, Yvette, founded Paquette Storage in Middlebury.
Lucienne fell in love with a young Middlebury College student named George (his last name was lost over the years). In a black and white photo, Lucienne sits next to George on a stump in a field. A blond bear next to a dark pixie, George envelops Lucienne’s body in a C, rounding his back around hers, his hand lightly pressed over her hand that rested on her kneecap. George dressed in a short-sleeved white collared shirt, and Lucienne in a manicured dark skirt-suit and Parisian hat.
George was Christian and Lucienne Catholic and they were not allowed to marry. The families’ beliefs forced them to separate. Heartbroken, 18-year-old Lucienne never forgot her first love. She saw George once more when he was an old man, and she an old woman. He died not too long after their final meeting.
Her devotion to Ernest and her children never faltered in lieu of her broken heart, though Lucienne referenced her first love as “my George.”
Lucienne’s devotion fell not just two ways, but four. Her family always came first. The store, even when it ceased to exist as a store, and her passion for sewing, were close contenders. Ernest passed away from a sudden heart attack in 1989, yet Lucienne stayed in the store and continued to upholster and sew slipcovers for locals.
Eventually, her knees gave way to arthritis from so many years of standing on the cement floor of the store. The limiting effects of the condition finally forced her into her daughter Ann’s house in Middlebury around 1993.
Today, the store lies vacant. The evergreens Lucienne planted in front of the store almost 45 years ago--Ernest had warned her they would never grow--now shoot up to the second floor of the building. Still within the family, Ann wonders about the fate of her mother’s store, the historical building that embodied the grit and determination of a town of true Vermonters.
“I’ve been dreaming about her a lot lately,” Ann said. “And I think part of it is that I don’t know what to do about that house, what she would want us to do.”