Piece of Manchester's history brought back to life

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MANCHESTER — For years, a unique work of commercial art — part diner placemat, part travel guide, and 100 percent post-World War II Vermont charm — sat behind a section of drywall in a gas station and convenience store on Main Street.

Even when it was rescued from the wrecking ball, it went to a barn, where it sat in pieces for several years.

But it wasn't forgotten.

Now, the 16-foot mural, painted on plaster and drywall by local architect and ski instructor Fritz Dillmann in 1951, has a prominent place of honor where it can be seen and appreciated: the Commons at Manchester Community Library.

On Sunday, two of Fritz and Mary "Bunny" Dillmann's children, twin sisters Kathe and Lisa Dillmann, helped Shawn Harrington of the Manchester Historical Society unveil the newly restored mural. The women said their late father, who moved from Germany to the U.S. in 1936, served in the 10th Mountain Division in World War II and settled his family in Vermont, would be mystified by all the attention.

"He'd be about as overwhelmed as we are," Kathe Dillmann told the small crowd that gathered for the unveiling. "He was not looking for fame and glory but he'd be happy to know this was here, and we're pretty proud of our dad."

"To the people involved, thank you so much. It's very meaningful to us and we're very proud of it," she said.

While architecture was his main vocation — his designs included furniture, second homes and the lodge at the former Snow Valley ski area in Winhall — Dillmann was an avid painter and a member of Southern Vermont Arts Center, Kathe and Lisa Dillmann said.

"My father was artistic and very talented but very humble, and he would flabbergasted to know we're having this little celebration here," Lisa Dillmann said.

His artwork was well enough known that the Manchester Journal wrote about the mural when it went up in what was then Oscar Johnson's brand-new Shell station on Main Street. The Journal said this of the mural in its Jan. 18, 1951 edition: "Fritz Dillmann has been painting an extremely interesting and novel mural map on the upper part of one of the walls in the new Johnson Shell service station. The map depicts U.S. Route 7 through this area and the various connecting routes. The map is embellished with characteristic Dillmann sketches."

Lyman Orton, whose family donated the Commons at the library and who suggested its walls as a place where the mural could hang, spoke of Fritz Dillmann as a pioneer in promoting ski tourism in the region. He said Dillmann's cartoon characters were "instantly recognizable" and promoted of the various pastimes found in Southern Vermont as approachable participation activities, rather than the realm of experts.

"He had this jolly kind of humor to them," Orton said of Dillmann's characters. "This wasn't showing the expert skiers. I think this had a great impact in pulling people in because it looked like a fun thing to do."

The sisters were too young to remember when Dillmann, looking for work at a time there weren't many jobs locally in his chosen field of architecture, painted the 16-foot-long mural for the then brand-new Johnson's Shell service station on Main Street, where a Dunkin' Dounts, self-serve gas pumps and car wash now stand.

"It was post-war and most men had to do whatever they could do earn a living," Kathe Dillmann said. "There wasn't a lot going on around here."

It was 1951, when television was still new and the internet did not exist. Visual advertising — in newspapers, magazines and billboards — was how businesses got their messages across to customers. So Dillmann's mural, representing things visitors could see and do up and down U.S. Route 7 from Bennington to Rutland, served as a sort of travel brochure for customers who stopped into Johnson's Shell for service and a break from the road.

The station changed hands a number of times, and eventually was slated for demolition to make way for the Dunkin' Donuts that stands on the site now.

Over the years, the mural wound up hidden behind additional drywall as the service station Oscar Johnson built in 1951 changed hands and evolved. When it was time for what was the Abbott and Staples gas station to be demolished to make way for Dunkin' Donuts, local contractor Brent Herrmann remembered the mural was there. He carefully used an excavator to peel back the drywall, and having found the mural, he and his crew cut it out of the wall in eight pieces, and stored in a barn on Airport Road, Harrington said.

Years later, the Historical Society turned to Richard Farley of Wood & Signs in East Dorset to bring Dillmann's work back to life. He mounted and restored the mural, with help from Anne Morrell of Manchester matching paint colors and lettering where needed. Farley mounted the massive mural to a combination of wood and aluminum framing to keep it aligned and stable, and patched sections that had been lost or damaged over time.

" It was a challenge but a lot of fun as well. I felt honored to be able to contribute towards its restoration," Morrell said. "Te background grey-green was not a consistent color across the length of the mural, so getting a good match was time consuming."

The mural got onto the wall with the help of the Manchester Fire Department, which sent a large number of volunteers to Farley's workshop on Friday afternoon to deliver the 350-pound artwork to the library.

"It's really been quite a journey for the mural," Harrington said. "Our mission has been to preserve and present the history of Manchester ... and we appreciate everyone's support."

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com or at 802-490-6000.

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