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What caused the mysterious 2019 fire that destroyed Royalton's beloved Eaton's Sugar House?

Two photos side-by-side: some debris scattered around an old, overgrown building foundation on the left, and the remains of a maple syrup holder depicting the words "Eaton's Sugar House" on the right.
Myra Flynn
/
VPR
Left: A chimney, some rubble, a foundation and burnt cookware are all that remain of the beloved Eaton’s Sugar House, which had been a community landmark and diner since 1963. Right: Chris Jacobsen visited Eaton's shortly after the fire and found the remains of a maple syrup holder, crafted by a Royalton potter.

Question-asker Chris Jacobsen and reporter Myra Flynn team up to explore the mysterious circumstances surrounding the fire that burned down this delicious Vermont institution.

Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio above if you can! But we also provide a written version of the episode below.

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Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

Myra Flynn: So, Josh, Halloween is over — or is it?
Josh Crane: Yeah, I mean turkey day is right around the corner so Halloween is very much over in my mind. But why are you asking in such a creepy way, Myra?
Myra: Alright, well, full disclosure, I might sound a little creepier than usual because I lost my voice over the weekend. And got it back just in time to sound extra creepy. But also because Halloween might be over, but I still have a pretty creepy story to tell. And from what I’ve heard, this might actually be a better time to tell it. Seasonally, anyway.

Chief Loretta Stalnaker: Well, it's just now getting cold enough as that that night was. (laughter)

Myra: So this story involves just the perfect brew of suspicion, suspense… and breakfast.
Josh: Well, I love me some breakfast brew with a side order of suspicion and suspense.
Myra: I mean, who doesn’t. But yeah, breakfast is a big part of it, trust me. Here we go.

(music)

Myra (cont.): My dad used to take me for what he called “builder’s breakfasts.” They were like these massive breakfasts he’d get before going out to build a house… (fade under)

Myra Flynn: This is me chatting with my colleague Josh Crane about Eaton’s Sugar House, a diner-slash-sugarhouse in South Royalton that my dad’s wood-flooring business was around the corner from. Eaton’s has had many cool incarnations, from a cider mill to a sugar house and eventually a full-time restaurant. And that restaurant was about as Vermonty as Vermonty can get.

Connie Poulin: It kind of was like going home. I mean, it was a real friendly place, and everybody felt comfortable there.

Chris Jacobsen: I think what made Eaton’s Sugar House special for many people was the strong sense of place in history that you'd feel when you'd go there. And like many people, I remember in vivid detail what the place was like. It was this old, large sugar shack-type of building with faded wood cedar siding and a rusty green metal roof. 

Myra Flynn: So, yeah, a lot of people went for exactly this quintessential Vermont maple vibe. But if you ask folks why they really went, they’ll tell you it was the…

Sergeant Matthew Hill: … pancakes. I know it sounds cliche, but I mean the pancakes with maple syrup, [you] can't go to a place called Eaton’s Sugar Shack and not have that.

Connie Poulin: But I think if anybody has a memory of it, it's probably the pancakes.

Cliff Eaton: Pancakes, no question.

A burning building with fire trucks parked out front
Dylan Kelley/The Herald
Firefighters from Royalton, Bethel, Barnard, Sharon, East Randolph, Randolph Center, and Tunbridge battle a blaze at Eaton’s Sugar House in 2019.

Myra: The freaking pancakes were so good, Josh!
Josh: I don’t mean to out myself here, but in my mind pancakes are basically vessels for butter and maple syrup. What made them so good?
Myra: Nope. Some pancakes come with like a side of God-like experience, and trust — I have a very discerning pancake palate.
Josh: And now I’m extremely hungry
Myra: Fair enough. OK, enough about food, the pancakes were not involved in the creepy part of this story.
Josh: They’re too wholesome to be creepy.
Myra: So true. But Eaton’s Sugar House. Something really spooky did happen there.

It was Halloween night, 2019. And for Connie Poulin, owner of Eaton’s at the time, the day was already fraught.

Connie Poulin: Well, on a personal note, it was a really bad day for me because that's when my husband died, on Halloween 37 years ago. 

Myra Flynn: And the weather was bad.

Connie Poulin: It was pouring. And it was super windy; it was raining really hard. So, actually, when I was going down there... (fade under)

Myra Flynn: And yet somehow, despite a rain so hard it was difficult to drive in….

Connie Poulin: Then I got a phone call. And it was from Diane, my sister. And it was on the scan or where she works at the sugar house was on fire.

Myra: The front steps of the Sugar House were on fire.
Josh: Oh man. That’s awful.
Myra: Yeah, but then — they weren’t.
Josh: Wait … what?

Connie Poulin: So I said okay, so I got in my car and I went down there. And by that time it was out.

(beat)

Josh: Oh, okay. Well that’s good. Crisis averted?
Myra: Well, I’ll tell you, Josh. It didn’t end there.

Connie Poulin: So anyway, I went home and put my pajamas on. I was just about ready to go to bed and the phone rings again. And she said it was on fire again. And I said, “Do I really need to go down there?” She said, “Yeah, you do.”

Josh: Again?!
Myra: Yes! And the sugar house was on fire in a whole new place. It was ablaze in the back of the building, which I’ve learned really couldn’t have happened naturally. Like, it couldn’t have traveled there by wind or something. And this time, Josh, it wasn’t going out.

Connie Poulin: I could see the flames from the interstate this time.

Josh: So … it was on fire twice … in one night.
Myra: Yeah. Crazy, right? And like, in a horrible rainstorm when you’d assume it might be tough for a fire to gain traction. And at a highly visible place…

Cliff Eaton: The interstate was completed as far as exit three quite a while before it was extended north from there, so everybody was dumped off right in our dooryard.

Myra Flynn: … on a high-traffic kinda night: Halloween. And that second fire? It completely reduced the beloved breakfast landmark to ashes. So I wasn’t surprised when a question about what caused the fire won our voting round. Of course the community is curious! So I’ve spent a good amount of time sleuthing around central Vermont and the Upper Valley, and learned that there are a few theories about what happened that night:

Chief Loretta Stalnaker: I have a hunch. I have a hunch.

Myra Flynn: And even more left to the great unknown:

Chris Jacobsen: I just can't believe that it hasn't been a bigger deal than it is. 

Myra Flynn: Now, there is no shortage of rumors here. And, as we know here at BLS, sometimes we come for the stories, sometimes we come for the mystery, and sometimes…

Connie Poulin: Whoever did it was a dumb-ass.

Myra: Sometimes we come for the tea.
Josh: What is “the tea?
Myra: Gossip, Josh. It’s gossip.

Connie Poulin: I mean, who's gonna light the front of a building on Halloween night?! It was probably like a quarter after 7:30. People are out trick-or-treating. I mean, it's not like there was nobody around. Right? And then they go back and do it again.They're not the brightest Jack O' Lantern on the porch.

two people visible though a hold in a burned building.
James M. Patterson/Valley News
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 on November 1, 2019.

(Brave Little State theme music)

Angela Evancie: From Vermont Public Radio, this is Brave Little State. I’m Angela Evancie. Here on the show we answer questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, our audience, because we think our journalism is better when you’re a part of it. Today:

Chris Jacobsen: My name is Chris Jacobsen. I live in Norwich, Vermont. And I've been wondering… 

Angela Evancie: A question about a mysterious fire makes this the first-ever true crime installment of our show.

Chris Jacobsen: … What happened to the landmark Eaton’s Sugar House in Royalton? What caused this suspicious and spooky Halloween night fire that destroyed the landmark?

Angela Evancie: Producer Myra Flynn looked into it and found a lot of juicy tidbits. So, settle in while she talks through her findings with our colleague Josh Crane.

Myra: Can I say suspicious?
Josh: I would say 100% yes, you can say suspicious.
Myra: Okay, well then there are so many suspicious characters here.

Angela Evancie: We have support from VPR sustaining members. Welcome.

(Brave Little state theme music ends)

(sponsor break)

_

Myra: So, full disclosure, this episode is proof that you really can’t throw a stone in Vermont without hitting someone you know. I know some folks in this episode, and Josh, you’ve met Chris, our question-asker, right?
Josh: Yeah, I met him once via a friend of a friend. He mentioned he had a question about what happened to Eaton’s Sugar House, and I, myself, never had the honor of eating there, so I encouraged him to submit it to BLS. And here we are.
Myra: Oh I’m sorry you never got to try those pancakes! But I’m so glad you encouraged him to write us because Chris seems more than curious about what happened to Eaton’s. He is invested in getting to the bottom of the matter. He grew up going there with his grandma and, to him, it was an incredibly special place. He came to us at Brave Little State almost bewildered, and not just about the fire itself — after all, buildings burn down — but because so much about what happened that night is still unresolved.

Chris Jacobsen: Well, this is just a huge mystery for our community. And I just can't believe that it hasn't been a bigger deal than it is. I'm not sure that any of us in the community got an answer about what actually happened that night.

Myra Flynn: Chris says he felt that there was very little reporting on the Eaton’s fire — and he’s not wrong. Though, most articles written about the events do throw around impactful words like “suspicious,” “arson,” “undetermined” and “active investigation” — they tend to stop at that. So I get why the community is frustrated. The people want answers.

But, alas, I had to break it to Chris and now to all of you listeners that I am not the police. But I did talk to the police and, according to the Sgt. and Police Chief I’ll speak with later, regarding concrete answers in this case? It’s not much. However, talking about what wasn’t found is also part of my job. And on that front, I told Chris I might just know someone who can help us out.

Myra Flynn: Are you nervous? (laughter) Don’t be nervous! The microphone goes on and everyone does this.
Connie Poulin: Well, Myra, I just kinda fell into it.

Myra Flynn: That’s Connie again, owner of Eaton’s at the time of the fire. And she’s one of the people in this episode whom I know. But, like, I really know her. Her daughter has been my best friend since age 5 and that makes Connie kind of a second mom to me.

Growing up, I don’t recall Connie ever even working in a restaurant. So it was surprising, in 2003, to learn that she bought the Sugar House.But she told me that at the time she was just looking for something new, and her son had already been supplying the restaurant with his syrup for years. It was an easy fit.

Connie Poulin: And it was kind of like a turnkey operation. We just walked in and same staff, same food, same everything because, Lord forbid, if you ever change anything on that menu… people loved it.
Myra Flynn: Why do you think people loved it so much?
Connie Poulin: Because it kind of was like going home. I mean, it was a real friendly place and everybody felt comfortable there. This one kid would come in — they were Black, African-American — and I just loved these kids. And this guy loved apple crisp and I always made sure I had apple crisp for him and I'd fool around with him like I did with everybody. And, after the fire, he called me up and he said, “Thank you Connie for making me feel at home because it's hard to be a Black kid in in Vermont.” And I just started crying and I said, “I'm crying. I didn't treat you any differently than I treated anybody. I just liked you guys.” And that just made me cry.
Myra Flynn: Yeah, that's kind of how I feel about how you've always treated me too.
Connie Poulin: Well, you're Myra.

More from Brave Little State: Black comfort, or lack thereof, in Vermont

Myra Flynn: This fire devastated more than the business it contained. It broke Connie’s heart. On a personal note, I haven’t even really broached the subject with her one-on-one, ever, for fear of making her revisit this trauma. So I want to be clear that it’s because I’m Myra…

Connie Poulin: Well, you're Myra.

Myra Flynn: … that I am welcomed in this vulnerable space at all on a Friday morning, in the house her deceased husband built, awkwardly shoving my microphone in her face. I feel really honored to be here.

Connie Poulin: Sometimes I just go down and look at it. I'm like, “Oh, this was there. This was there.” It just looks so weird with just the foundation.

Myra Flynn: And I happen to know that someone else in this episode really wishes they could be here, too.

Myra Flynn: And Connie has said that she would love to meet you.
Chris Jacobsen: Oh my gosh. That'd be amazing. I will clear my schedule. We need to get to the bottom of this...

Josh: (laughing) Chris, I admire your commitment to this story.
Myra: I told you he isn’t just interested, he is invested!
Josh: Yes, he seems very excited.
Myra: Yeah, so excited AND Chris didn’t just want to pop in this episode as a question-asker. He wanted to help out with the reporting, even though he's not a reporter. So, what do you think I did?
Josh: I think you … took him up on it?
Myra: I took him up on it.

Connie Poulin: Hi, I’m Connie. Nice to meet you Chris!
Chris Jacobsen: Nice to meet you!

Myra Flynn: We meet in Royalton proper at a little coffee shop and sit outside, directly across from the town-center gazebo where — fun fact — Chris plays first chair trombone in the Royalton Town Band.

Two people clink coffee cubs at a table on the sidewalk.
Myra Flynn/VPR
Connie Poulin and Chris Jacobsen toast to treasured memories of Eaton’s Sugar House.

I let Chris and Connie know that I’m just there to support them conducting their own interview. So loud wind be damned, I do my best to be a human microphone-stand while they talk. And Chris does not come to play.

(music)

Chris Jacobsen: So, like, do you like remember? Did you hear anything about when it was burning down?
Connie Poulin: No, my sister called me and said it was on fire. I live in Brookfield, so it's pretty far. 
Chris Jacobsen: Were you working there at the time?
Connie Poulin: No, I would estimate it was probably lit around seven. But by the time I got there it was out. You know, it was lit twice, right? 
Chris Jacobsen: Yeah. 
Connie Poulin: But what happened was, someone drove by and the front steps were on fire. And they had a like a dog blanket in their car and they put it out. There were actually two people, but they're completely anonymous. I have no idea who it was. But they put it out. And they said, okay, the excitement is over, this failed arson attempt. Go home, you can open up in the morning, right?  It was two South Royalton cops in a car. And um, they said, you know, “We will patrol this.” And I said, “Okay, good.”

(beat)

Connie Poulin (cont.): I went home, put my pajamas on, climbed into bed. “Ding.” The sugar house is on fire again. I said, “Do I really need to go down?” And they're like, “Yeah, you do.” And it was completely engulfed. I couldn't even drive up. It was a five alarm fire.
Chris Jacobsen: Wow. So like, what was it like that morning when you came and there were five fire trucks? There's a bunch of fire trucks there.
Connie Poulin: It was just surreal. I just couldn't believe it. And I couldn't get close to it. And I was like, “Man, who would do this?”

(music)

Chris Jacobsen: And was somebody seen near the site with a gas can?
Connie Poulin: I heard that. I mean, I've heard all kinds of stuff. Yeah. I heard that. And I told the police that.
Chris Jacobsen: There have been recently a lot of kitchen fires at diners around here. But this feels like it's something more suspicious.
Connie Poulin: It was not a kitchen fire. One guy came with an accelerant-sniffing dog, a beautiful white lab. But this was in the back of the building. And what they do is he'll give a command and they'll go in, snif,f and then they sit if they find something and he'll get a treat. And he did that the whole length of the back of the building. So it was clear and you could smell it. You could smell gas, they just doused it.

(music)

_

Myra Flynn: So … whodunnit? When I sat down with Connie, here’s what she said:

Connie Poulin: First of all, they needed permission to do an investigation. And they asked if I had any ideas. And the only thing I could tell him was that I fired a guy like a month earlier. That's the only thing I could think of. So that's all I know.

(music)

Josh: Oh geez. The plot thickens!
Myra: Right? But if I’m honest, Josh? No one I spoke to had any names to accompany their “tea.” There’s definitely a feeling that, perhaps, folks have their guesses about who did it, but don’t want to say. It was all very hush hush.
Josh: Sure. Sure. Well, Myra, who knew a little breakfast joint could be such fodder for BLS’ first true-crime episode?
Myra: It is the first. I checked with Angela and she said yes. But like I said — they were really good pancakes. Even the local cops thought so. More on that when we come back.

(sponsor break)

Myra Flynn: Welcome back to Brave Little State, I’m Myra Flynn. And today I’m chatting with my colleague Josh Crane about the mysterious 2019 Halloween fire that burned the Vermont landmark, Eaton’s Sugar House, to the ground. Josh, are you with me so far?
Josh: Oh, yeah. I mean, you really can’t make this stuff up.
Myra: Seriously! Ok, ready for it to get even weirder?
Josh: Yes. But also … it gets weirder?
Myra: I think so! I mean, so far, you’d think someone might have seen something, right? Like passersby, or folks on the hunt for good candy, or, say, the Vermont State Police.

Chris Jacobsen: It’s right down the street from the police barracks

Myra Flynn: Whose Royalton Barracks are a mere 3-minute drive away.

Connie Poulin: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, they would come in periodically..

Chief Loretta Stalnaker: You know, they invited us in. We did “Coffee With A Cop” with them.

Myra Flynn: Coffee With A Cop was like?
Connie Poulin: If you have any questions, it's kind of a build-a-relationship-with-the-community type of thing.

Chief Loretta Stalnaker: We just had one the weekend previously. So I was like, “Oh man, this is not a good track record to set.”

Myra FLynn: The new voice you’re hearing here is Loretta Stalnaker, the Royalton Chief of Police. Loretta was on the job and in the area at the time Eaton’s burned down. And she also thinks this fire was not your average fire.

Chief Loretta Stalnaker: It's just not normal for fire to be put out and then start someplace else just by itself. (laughter)

Myra Flynn: The original detective on the case has since retired and, though I’m no Sherlock Holmes, that left Loretta to bear the brunt of my very best impersonation. I asked her some tough questions, and she did not shy away.

(music)

First up … Loretta, where were you on the night of this fire? Like, since you were so close and all.

Chief Loretta Stalnaker: So, just so you know, I wasn't personally there until later. I had two officers on that night and they assisted with traffic control with the fire department. And the arson unit came in the next day. Usually, they don't come in. The fire chief will confer and then say, “Yeah, we believe somebody set this incendiary,” and then we call in the arson unit, because that's their specialty. We don't have that training.

Myra Flynn: And then, why did this building have such an intense fire? Five fire trucks seems like a lot for any building in Royalton. Maybe even in all of Vermont.

Chief Loretta Stalnaker: Everything inside is so dry and it goes like, you know, so that was part of the problem. The inside was so dry. The wood was really old. And it just went up.

Myra Flynn: And then…

Myra Flynn: I have kind of one like, kind of tough question I'd like to ask and you.
Chief Loretta Stalnaker: Oh no! (laughter)
Myra Flynn: You know, Connie really paints the story well on tape… (fade under)

Myra Flynn: I basically just straight-up told Loretta that Connie said the cops said that they would patrol the building after the first fire. But clearly something went wrong! Because — second fire. Right?

Myra Flynn: … So I'm wondering, like, what happened with that missing time? Was it patrolled?
Chief Loretta Stalnaker: It was and so my officers, Officer Layton and Officer McCray, were on an they actually told me they had just been through there like 20 minutes previously, you know, checked the building, drove through the area, but they actually were on a call on the other end of town when this one came in. They finished up and came right over. Unfortunately, with only one cruiser on its luck of the draw if we actually see something when it's happening.

(music)

Myra: Ugh. Josh this is how this whole story goes! Like the second you think you’re getting somewhere the accountability-hot-potato just gets passed.
Josh: Yeah that’s super frustrating. Did you ask Loretta about that high visibility we keep talking about? Like that it was Halloween with a bunch of trick-or-treaters, so there must have been enough people out that night to see something?
Myra: I mean I would draw that same conclusion. But Loretta says the high-traffic evening was actually a part of the problem.

Chief Loretta Stalnaker: At a well-known place like that, that allows people to park after hours, it’s hard to know what is what.

Josh: Innnnnteresting. Ok, last question—for now. What about the person with the gas can? Was that fact or fiction?
Myra: Josh. I got you. Loretta says that was kind of a bust.

​​Chief Loretta Stalnaker: We did have a gasoline can on scene, but we weren't sure if it was from the maintenance for the lawnmower. Or if it was the building's. We we never did find that out. Or if it was somebody who brought it. There were no fingerprints on it and, you know, to take fingerprints it's very difficult because you have to have this very specific surface. Something pebbly like that [gas canister] you can't get a fingerprint off of.

Myra Flynn: And then two people actually called 911 on each other!

Chief Loretta Stalnaker: One of the persons that called 911 said she saw a car up there. Well, we were able to track that person down. And she was actually someone that was on 911 as well. She had seen the flames and then decided, oh, crap, I need to get out of here because it's on fire. So it just ended up being they were both on 911 thinking the other was, you know, kind of suspicious.
Myra Flynn: Oh! They kind of pegged each other as suspicious?
Chief Loretta Stalnaker: Yes. 

Myra Flynn: My final question to Loretta was pretty simple.

Myra Flynn: Do you have a hunch? Do you have a hunch of maybe who you think?
Chief Loretta Stalnaker: I have a hunch. I have a hunch.

Myra Flynn: But again...

Chief Loretta Stalnaker: But, unfortunately, yeah, I have no proof.

(music)

_

Josh: I feel like I’ve been on the edge of my seat this entire time.
Myra: You and me both my friend. And I hate to say it but, in spite of my best efforts, Loretta would not reveal her hunch to me. In fact, no one would reveal their hunch to me. Royalton is a small community, and it seems no one wants to “stoke the gossip flames” so to speak.
Josh: I think you mean the “tea flames.”
Myra: Nice Josh! I will, I will! Anyway, this is why this fire was never officially classified as ARSON. Instead, it was labeled an "incendiary fire."

Sergeant Matthew Hill: So I can't tell you how it started, right?

Myra Flynn: That’s Sergeant Matthew Hill. We meet up at the state trooper barracks in Williston, where he is based.

Sergeant Mathew Hill: My official title is I'm a detective sergeant. I'm assigned to the Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit.

Myra Flynn: Basically, Hill helps investigate fires all over the state. And a big part of why I want to talk to him is not only because he gets the magic of Eaton’s…

Sergeant Matthew Hill: Pancakes. I know it sounds cliche, but I mean the pancakes with maple syrup. You can't go to a place called Eaton’s Sugar Shack and not have that.

Myra Flynn: … But also because whenever we talk about this kind of investigative stuff, we wanna have a police report. And I did request one — more than once. The Vermont Department of Public Safety didn’t provide them to me before my deadline, citing: “The need for consultation, which shall be conducted with all practicable speed, with another agency having a substantial interest in the determination of the request.”

Sergeant Hill, who went to the scene of the fire to investigate it shortly after, had seen the police report. He shared some details with me. One is that the accelerant-sniffing white lab (who I learned is named Guava) sniffed gasoline all around the perimeter of the building. BUT, surprisingly, this fire still cannot technically be called arson.

Sergeant Matthew Hill: So when we do a scene examination we would classify a fire into one of four categories: 

  1. Incendiary fire: “meaning it was set intentionally”
  2. Accidental fire: “that could cover all kinds of stuff, from product failure to a smoking fire to something cooking on the stove”
  3. Natural fire: “so it'd be like a lightning strike.”
  4. Undetermined 

Josh: So which fire did this fire classify under?
Myra: This fire was deemed incendiary.
Josh: “Incendiary fire” seems like a redundant phrase to me. Why not just call it arson?
Myra: I know, right? I’ve only ever used the word incendiary in regard to soaring guitar solos. So, an incendiary fire is the result of direct human involvement, where someone lights a fire where they shouldn’t. In order to call it arson — you need the someone.

Sergeant Matthew Hill: So an arson is a charge. Unless you have somebody that comes forward, you have eyewitnesses or you have somebody on tape doing something… 

Myra Flynn: … then it can’t be called arson. I just had to ask Sergeant Hill: It’s been three years since this fire. What’s the holdup on finding the human? Why didn’t this ever make it to official arson?

Sergeant Matthew Hill: People just stopped talking, didn’t wanna talk to us anymore about it.

Mark Davis: Right. Not terribly surprising.

Myra: Speaking of head people in charge, Josh, do you recognize this voice?
Josh: I think… yes.
Myra: Well you should, because that’s one of our bosses!

Mark Davis: I'm Mark Davis. I'm an editor in the newsroom.

Myra Flynn: I wanted to talk to Mark because prior to being VPR’s managing editor, he was a crime guy.

Mark Davis: We called it “cops and courts.” So crimes, accidents, fires, that kind of thing. And the bulk of that time was spent in the Upper Valley. I was a reporter at the Valley News.

Myra Flynn: Not far from South Royalton. And Mark also thinks this was a strange fire for all the same reasons we do.

Mark Davis: What I was struck by was, on the surface, you might think that this is a case that would get solved easily for a few reasons. One, Eaton's is like a super prominent place. This is not some random home off a dirt road off a dirt road. Eaton's is a community institution. There's also a prominent location: it's right off the interstate, like you can actually see it, there's an exit right there. And then the third piece of it is literally the state police barracks just happens to be, it's got to be like two miles away. So the people investigating this, they're right there, they may have even been able to smell it that night. You might sit back and say, “Well, if there's ever a fire that’s going to get solved, it's going to be this one.” But experience tells you that a lot of these cases just never get solved. It's a lot harder than you might think.

Myra Flynn: And I think that this point Mark makes is a good one. In a culture of true-crime TV and (podcasts), should we be more patient when it comes to solving mysteries? I guess 2019 really wasn’t that long ago.

Mark Davis: I mean, there is a thing in the police world, there is something known as “the CSI effect.” They have to deal with jurors who have this expectation that everything is neat and solved in an hour. For lots of reasons, things aren't solved as easily as I think people might assume they are.

Myra Flynn: And Connie Poulin says something else feels strange to her about this case: that she wasn’t more closely investigated.

Connie Poulin: Another thing that really blew my mind is I thought they would ask me questions. And they didn't never, never. I mean, because it's usually the owner. 
Myra Flynn: Oh, they didn't investigate you?
Connie Poulin: No. No. Nobody ever questioned me. I was like, wow, that's weird.

Myra Flynn: I asked Loretta Stalnaker if, indeed, Connie was not investigated. Her official answer? “I don’t know.” Though she does note something must have been done to look into the situation as it’s standard protocol, she also notes — and I quote: “I’ve known Connie forever. I would have been very surprised if she were the one."

Myra: Josh, I feel like you’re going to be using the word “tea” from here on out.
Josh: I can’t promise that I will… but I also can’t promise that I won’t.
Myra: Now tell me you know what an OG is?
Josh: (laughter) I mean, c’mon, I’m not a total alien. It’s an original gangsta.

Cliff Eaton: I was born October 3rd, 1927. I can't help you because I don't know.

Myra Flynn: That’s Cliff Eaton. The OG. The Eaton of Eaton’s Sugar House. And he’s 94 years-old.

Cliff purchased the Sugar House in 1963 and started it as a cider mill. He went on to run it as a sugar house, then a restaurant and, eventually, some combination of the two. Though in the end he says the pancakes won.

Cliff Eaton: It's not an easy business to run, you know. But what we found was that the restaurant became more and more popular over the years. This is really the bottom line, to where the tail was wagging the dog. And that's perfectly fine.

A man sits on a couch and poses for a picture.
Myra Flynn/VPR
Cliff Eaton of South Royalton is 94 years old. He owned Eaton’s Sugar House for 40 of those years and saw it through many incarnations, including a cider mill and a breakfast joint.

Josh: So Connie owned the Sugar House for 16 years, but Cliff owned it for 40.
Myra: Exactly. So I figured, it’s possible that Connie wasn’t the target for this incendiary fire, right? Maybe it was Cliff? But again…

Cliff Eaton: I don't know of anyone that would have had a grudge against me. Who would have wanted to do that. I have no idea.   

Myra Flynn: And I’ll step in here to say that for all we don’t know in this episode, the lack of someone to blame certainly does not mitigate the collective loss.

(music)

Myra Flynn: How did it make you feel?
Cliff Eaton: Wow. How can you express that? I mean, it's been my baby from day one.

(music)

Cliff Eaton: I was born October 3rd, 1927. And in March of 1928, my mother my father was running a sawmill. And my mother was gathering the sap my father boiled at night… (fade under)

Myra Flynn: After speaking with Cliff, it’s easy to understand why the sugar house was such a success over the years. He basically has maple running through his veins.

Cliff Eaton: It must have got into my blood. I'm still doing maple today.

(music)

Myra: Are you disappointed, Josh?
Josh: I mean, I'm disappointed I never got to try Eaton's pancakes. But what do you mean, specifically?
Myra: Like, all of the not-knowing? There is so much we still don’t know in regards to this question, about what happened.
Josh: Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to know. But it’s also pretty cool to just learn about all the history here… and also speculate a little bit. Plus, how cool would it be if somehow this episode just cracked the case wide open or something?
Myra: Agreed. That would be ideal. And I guess I don’t mind not-knowing so much. You know what a whole lotta not-knowing can prepare you for, right?
Josh: The apocalypse?
Myra: I mean some do call it that. But, in general, I’d say for Connie, this was all good practice for the uncertainty that all of us would be dealing with. After all, there’s more than one way to burn a business down.

Myra Flynn: Fast forward to now. We have a pandemic and restaurants are closing left and right. Is there some part of you that feels like … ?
Connie Poulin: Yes. I know what you're going to say.
Myra Flynn: What?
Connie Poulin: That it was a blessing.

Myra Flynn: Connie received an insurance settlement after Eaton’s burned down. I asked her what the amount was and she told me she didn’t really think that was anyone’s business.

Connie Poulin: It is a hard thing to verbalize, but we would not have survived the pandemic. Yeah. I mean, who's gonna get pancakes to go?
Myra Flynn: (laughter) I mean … those were good pancakes!
Connie Pouliun: They were, but they're better hot.

(music)

If you have any information about the Eaton’s fire, you can call the Vermont Arson Tip Award Program at 1-800-32-ARSON. That’s 1-800-322-7766.

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Credits

This episode was produced and mixed by Myra Flynn with digital production by Josh Crane. Editing by Angela Evancie and Josh Crane, with additional guidance from our colleague Mark Davis. Special thanks to Alicia Carter, First Branch Coffee in Royalton and Alex Burns. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

You can send us a note any time at hello@bravelittlestate.org.

As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio.

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Myra Flynn joined VPR as an engagement producer in March 2021. Raised in Vermont, Myra Flynn is an accomplished musician who has come to know the lay of dirt-road land that much more intimately through touring both well-known and obscure stages all around the state and beyond. She also has experience as a teaching artist and wore many hats at the Burlington Free Press, including features reporter and correspondent, before her pursuits took her deep into the arts world. Prior to joining VPR, Myra spent eight years in the Los Angeles music industry.