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Eaton’s Sugar House destroyed by suspicious fire

  • Connie Poulin, who has run Eaton's Sugar House for 16 years, left, hugs Debbie Coutermarsh, of Royalton, who washed dishes at the restaurant, now destroyed by a suspicious fire, in Royalton, Vt., Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. A passing driver reported the fire at about 10 p.m. Thursday night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Vermont State Police Fire Investigator Matt Hill, left, and South Royalton Fire Chief Paul Brock look over the remains of Eaton's Sugar House in Royalton, Vt., Friday morning, Nov. 1, 2019. A suspicious fire that started about 10 p.m. Thursday night destroyed the building only hours after firefighters put out a small fire on the building's front steps. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Eaton’s Sugarhouse, a longstanding diner at the intersection of Routes 14 and 107 in Royalton, Vt., was heavily damaged by fire on Oct. 31, 2019. (Bethel Fire Department photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/1/2019 7:29:55 AM
Modified: 11/1/2019 10:02:03 PM

ROYALTON — Officials are investigating a Thursday night fire that destroyed Eaton’s Sugar House, a long-standing roadside attraction along Route 14.

The sugar house, which opened to the public in 1963 and later added a restaurant, is a total loss following the blaze, according to South Royalton Fire Chief Paul Brock.

He called the fire, the second of the night, “suspicious.”

Officials with the Vermont Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit were at the scene with dogs on Friday morning looking for accelerants.

A $5,000 reward is being offered for information that leads to an arrest, according to a news release from Vermont State Police.

Fire crews first received a call around 7:45 p.m. on Thursday about someone using gasoline to set a fire on the front steps of the building, which sits at the intersection of routes 14 and 107, the release said.

A passerby had already put out the flames by the time firefighters arrived, and officials cleared the scene after a walkthrough around 8:30 p.m., Brock said.

Less than two hours later, crews were called out again for a second fire. When they arrived around 10 p.m., first responders found the “backside of the building fully engulfed and flames coming through the roof,” according to a post on the Bethel Fire Department’s Facebook page.

Firefighters tried to enter the building for “an interior attack but were forced out due to deteriorating conditions,” the post said.

South Royalton firefighters, aided by crews from six fire departments — including Barnard, Tunbridge, East Randolph and Randolph Center — spent two hours battling the flames in what Brock called a “defensive attack.”

He added that high winds that swept through the region made the fire harder for crews to get under control.

“It was stubborn because of the winds. It moved fast,” Brock said, adding that the restaurant is an “old, dry building” which added to the difficulty.

Crews got the flames under control around midnight, but they weren’t able to clear the scene until around 3 a.m. on Friday.

For building owner Cliff Eaton, the loss is devastating. Some of the original structure dates back to the late 1800s, when it was used as a cider mill, Eaton said.

When he purchased the property in 1963, with the intention of turning it into a sugar house, the only thing in it worth keeping was a 19th-century cider press.

After Thursday’s fire, that cider press was all that remained.

“I don’t know how to express it. (The building) is a part of me,” Eaton said in a phone interview Friday from Florida.

Eaton and some neighbors turned the former cider mill into a popular maple sugar house in the mid-1960s, selling syrup from local farmers and boiling their own.

A few years after opening, they started a small walk-up food stand, which Eaton expanded into a sit-down restaurant in 1998.

Prior to the fire, the building was assessed at $197,300, according to Royalton property records.

As the restaurant grew, so did its popularity, and Eaton’s Sugar House soon came to be a fixture in the community.

“It’s been here as long as I can remember,” Brock, a longtime area resident, said Friday morning.

Brock was one of the first responders at the scene Thursday to find a beloved memory from his childhood in flames.

“We used to bring apples up here to use in the press,” Brock recalled. “It’s been a pillar of the community. … It’s a landmark.”

The sentiment was echoed by South Royalton resident Chad Taylor, who said he was sad to hear about the fire.

Taylor said he always loved their breakfasts, which featured everything from the “New England Style Breakfast” with buttermilk pancakes and sausage to omelets and Belgian waffles.

“Generations have gone there and still come back to this day … even if it’s a long drive,” he said. “It’s not going to be the same passing by.”

Connie Poulin, who has run the restaurant with her son Justin for 16 years, surveyed the blackened building with its caved-in roof Friday in shock, saying that she was “shaken.” Poulin, who said she came down to the area from her home 20 miles away after learning of the fires, said what she’ll miss most is the community.

“I want everybody to know, that I love my customers,” Poulin said through tears. “It gets hard being the boss. But I loved my customers.”

Poulin’s employees came out to support her Friday morning, including cook Katherine Sweet, who has worked at the restaurant for five years.

Sweet got the call about the fire while she was asleep Thursday and immediately went out to the scene. She said she had gone to bed early that night in anticipation of an early Friday at the restaurant.

She’s used to making bacon, eggs and doughnuts for the weekday crowd, especially Green Mountain Power employees who stop by early in the morning almost every day before work.

“We joke around all the time,” Sweet said, adding that her most popular item in the mornings is the cider doughnuts.

The restaurant, which served breakfast and lunch, was closed only three days a year, meaning it was a reliable part of the community, according to waitress and cook Jessica Gokey, who’s worked there for over two years.

She said the restaurant became a kind of “home away from home” for her and for customers, adding that the sugar house was known for having the biggest pancakes in the state.

“We have lots of frequent customers and we never let anyone leave hungry,” she said.

Anyone with information on the fire can call the Vermont Arson Tip Award Program’s tip line at 1-800-32-ARSON, according to state police.

People also can reach out to the Royalton Police Department at 802-763-7776 and speak with Police Chief Loretta Stalnaker.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com.




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