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A Life: Dale Hisler, 1946-2017; ‘One of the Most Honest People I’ve Ever Met in My Life’

  • Dale Hisler, right, speaks with Jari Murto, a masonry heater designer and engineer from Finland who works for Finnish fireplace and stone heater maker Tulikivi in May 2012. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Dale Hisler, with his service dog Dakota, in Oct. 2015. Friends said Hisler embodied the virtues of the Old West that he so deeply loved. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Dale Hisler at the Norwich, Vt., bread oven in Barrett Meadow, at the bottom of Bragg Hill Road in the early 1990s. Hisler built the oven in 1985. (Family photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2017

Norwich — Anyone who worked with Dale Hisler quickly learned about his uncompromising standards. A third-generation stone mason, Hisler believed there was only one way to do a job: the right way.

“We about done with this yet?” a tired John Moody remembers asking Hisler on an early fall day in 1985 when Moody was “pounding” a batch of clay and straw — known as “waddle and daub” — at the foot of Bragg Hill Road in Norwich to build the bread-baking oven that is still in use by people today.

“John,” Hisler replied, “we’re just getting started.”

“Dale had a work ethic and perfectionism that wasn’t loud and didn’t insist people follow him,” said Moody, a West Hartford resident and fellow Vietnam veteran who had befriended Hisler more than 40 years ago when the two vets were each wrestling with the psychological scars of the war.

Moody said Hisler (pronounced high-sler) had learned from Welsh masons he had consulted about the correct method to mix waddle and daub that “if you want this to be here in a thousand years, this is the way you do it.”

Hisler, a pioneer in the building of masonry heaters who grew up in New London and had lived in Norwich during the 1980s but spent the last 26 years of his life in the Blackfeet country of northwest Montana, died of complications from diabetes on Feb. 4, 2017, at the Central Montana Medical Center in Lewistown, Mont. He was 70 years old.

With a long, gray, Tolstoyan beard, Stetson hat, cowboy boots, thick plaid shirts and heavy, wide belt buckle, Hisler stood out in any group (although he did not enjoy crowds), his service dog Dakota faithfully by his side.

Independent, ruthlessly honest — his bluntness could get him into trouble sometimes — hardworking, reverent of Native American culture and folkways, learned in the crafts he practiced, Hisler embodied the virtues of the Old West that he so deeply loved, his friends said.

“He was always attracted to the Western traditions and was a strong student of Native Americans,” Moody said, especially of the Blackfeet people of the Rocky Mountain region. “He always said ‘If I’m a free man and when my kids are grown, I’m going to move there.’ Norwich was much too suburban for Dale.”

But before Hisler settled in Montana in 1991, there was a dream to become a chef, the nightmare of his Vietnam service, a venture in leather work and adventures with a hard-partying rock ‘n roll band.

“He was probably one of the most honest people I’ve ever met in my life,” said his brother, Dennis Hisler, a retired superintendent with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation who lives in Newbury, N.H., not far from where the brothers grew up in New London. “He had a natural understanding for people — way better than I do — and he didn’t classify them.”

Intending to become a chef, Hisler enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, at the time located in New Haven, Conn., after graduating from New London High School. His first job out of school was at Lou’s Restaurant & Bakery on Main Street in Hanover before jumping to the Woodstock Inn as a chef.

But in 1967 Hisler was drafted into the Army and assigned to a U.S. base in Long Binh, where he worked as a cook.

The tour of duty was a harrowing experience for Hisler, both his brother and Moody said, one that he did not talk about but had a profound effect upon him for the rest of his life.

“The only thing he ever told me about was that he was out picking up dead bodies,” Dennis Hisler said. “Whatever went on over there he never discussed. He never went back to cooking. His experience in Vietnam ended that.”

Discharged after serving two years and back stateside in 1968, Hisler became drawn to the culture and folkways of native Americans, especially the Abenaki people of New England and Canada and the Blackfeet Nation in the West.

Always a hunter who spent time in the woods around New London when he was growing up, Hisler began crafting leather accessories such as sewed pipe bags, moccasins, vests, belts and pocketbooks that he sold in a Boston leather shop.

“I’m pretty sure he made a vest for Faye Dunaway,” Dennis Hisler said.

Julie Usinger, who now lives in Hawaii, met Hisler through her boyfriend at the time and they all became part of group that hung out together with Aerosmith, whose members — including Steve Tyler and Joe Perry — Hisler had gotten to know through his high school classmate, bassist Tom Hamilton.

“He had this Indian vibe about him and lived in a teepee in the woods,” Usinger recalled. “Whenever Dale saw you, he just lit up like a cherub, he had this beautiful smile.”

Living in Danbury, N.H., Hisler soon began working as a stone mason, the trade of his father and grandfather, to which he took naturally. Among his first paid stone masonry jobs: building a cobblestone walkway at Tyler’s house on Lake Sunapee.

Together Hisler and Ginna Bourrisseau had a son, Hinmaton, born in 1972 and named after the Pacific Northwest Indian leader popularly known as Chief Joseph who was famous for eluding the U.S. military trying to displace Hinmaton’s tribe from their lands.

He later moved to Norwich with Roberta de Masellis, on Lary Lane. Moody was already living in the town, working with veterans suffering from PTSD.

“He was already working as a mason, doing chimneys, stonewalls, stuccoing and plaster work,” Moody said.

If that wasn’t enough, Hisler acquired another skill: Thatching roofs, “tight enough that the water would slide off,” Moody related.

Hisler and de Masellis had a son, Pram Dass, born in 1976.

Growing up in Norwich, the impact of the Vietnam War upon their father loomed over the family, said Hinmaton Hisler.

“It was an ever-prevalent theme in our lives but it was not talked about much,” he said. “I think we watched every single movie ever made about Vietnam.”

(The war affected Hisler in another way: exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange led to Hisler developing Type II diabetes, which plagued him the rest of his adult life).

The genesis of the Norwich bread oven — called a “beaver oven” because the oven’s shape resembles that of a beaver’s sloping neck and body — began as Pram Dass’s Cub Scout project, according to Moody.

True to his craftsman-scholar approach, Hisler first studied the stone bread ovens of the Quebecois in Canada, who had adapted the technique in the 17th century.

Norwich resident Truman Barrett granted Hisler permission to build the oven at the edge of Barrett Meadows at the foot of Bragg Hill Road.

After nearly 18 months of wrangling by Hisler with Barrett and the town over the eventual spot, the oven took about a week to build — its dry-laid foundation not requiring any mortar to hold the stones together, Moody said.

Such building techniques were Hisler’s trademark.

“He lived the old way,” Moody said.

Hisler’s masonry skills and interest in “heater ovens” eventually led him to become involved with Tulikivi, a Finish company that specialized in masonry heaters. He traveled to Finland and Sweden in the early 1980s to study Scandinavian heating traditions and then became a representative for Tulikivi in the U.S., working out of offices in Lebanon and Virginia from which he traveled around the country to train installers.

“Dale was right in there as far as developing this technology in the U.S.,” said Ron Pihl, who owns a Montana masonry building firm and who first met Hisler at a workshop on Long Island in 1982. The two masons developed a rapport and deep mutual respect and in 1991 Hisler moved to Montana to work for Pihl’s masonry business.

As a mason, Pihl said, Hisler “researched and paid attention to detail. He studied masonry from the old books of his father and grandfather. Dale was very rigid in doing things the right way and no way in-between. And the right way was his way: flashing chimneys with copper or lead, which is a lost art –— practically another trade — soldering copper, things most masons don’t know anymore. He was just an old-school craftsman.”

But by the mid-1990s, Pihl said, Hisler was so debilitated by the diabetes he contracted that the physical labor of masonry work was too demanding.

After years of fighting with the Veteran’s Administration, he was awarded a full disability pension.

Hisler loved the big skies and open country of Montana, Pihl said, and loved the life of a frontiersman.

“He did a lot of horseback riding, hunting, fishing. He shot buffalo and got the hide brain-tanned. That’s where they use the brains of the animal to tan the hide. He was into muzzle loaders. He had a bow he made of big horn sheep horns, very rare … he had a good length of time here where he was able to pursue what he wanted.”

On July 1, about 50 people, family and friends, gathered at Barrett Meadow to remember Hisler and dedicate a memorial erected in his honor on the lawn a few steps from the beaver oven he built. On the stone sunk into the ground is a metal plaque with Hisler’s image and engraved the words:

“In memory of Dale Curtis Hisler” and goes on to say “In 1985, Truman Barrett gave Dale permission to build a bread oven on Barrett Meadow in Norwich at the base of Bragg Hill Road. Dale, Brett Bourne and others laid the stone foundation, pounded the waddle and daub to perfection, and completed the oven.

“This gift to the community has been a gathering place for many in Norwich and the wider region ever since.”

Hisler’s beloved service dog, Dakota, now lives with his brother Dennis Hisler in Newbury, N.H.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

Correction

The late Dale Hisler fathered two sons, Hinmaton, in 1972, with Ginna Bourrisseau, and Pram Dass, in 1976, with Roberta de Masellis. In addition, Hisler and de Masellis lived on Lary Lane when they moved to Norwich. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reversed the two sons' mothers and named an incorrect street.