Editor’s note: This commentary is by Peter Miller, a photographer and author, who is 83 years old and lives in Colbyville. This interview is an excerpt from his new book, “Vanishing Vermonters … Loss of a Rural Culture,” that will be published this summer. The book will include interviews and photographs of rural Vermonters who talk about the changes in Vermont and how it is affecting their thoughts, lives and our state. The book will also include photographs from Miller’s archives that portray the changes in the state. Mr. Miller intends to raise the money for printing through crowdfunding.
Clem Despault is short, walks with a cant to the left side (I don’t know why) and is better known as “Desperate Despault” by his stock-car racing buddies. He has won “hundreds of races,” he says, during a half-century at Thunder Road SpeedBowl in Barre; his name is engraved on the two granite monuments erected there that honor overall champions.
He’s 80 and lives for stock-car racing. Loves it. It’s his life, but he has done something else that he’s not recognized for: He helps the average — let’s say sort-of broke — Vermont Woodchuck.
Clem runs a salvage yard of dead cars and parts. He is one of the few left who sells cheap. “I will buy cars at auction, bring them home, fix ’em, get them ready to be inspected and sell ’em.” He works on Route 2 west of Waterbury in a jumble of a garage that is surrounded by dismembered junks that he has cannibalized, mounds of tires and five apartments he has added on to his home. He lives upstairs, above the garage with Donna, blessed Donna. For 57 years she has worked for the Vermont State Hospital. It used to be called The Vermont State Insane Asylum. Oh, Donna has a lot to say about the way the government functions but she stays mum, good state employee that she is. Donna manages everything except Clem’s addiction to racing.
CLEM DESPAULT: Them Motor Vehicle people got this new car-inspection system and that’s it — the state don’t want us in business! We got to buy this computer and hook it up to your car and to the state and company that makes it in California so they can get their money real quick. The cost of this new inspection is $85 to $100 depending upon the station. Last year it was $40 to $50. It checks every sensor point in your car that needs inspection and if your car fails, it’s got to be fixed and the inspection has to be done again, with the added cost of the garage work and a new fee of $85. You know, to replace a gas and brake line is gonna cost you $1,500 to $2,000 and then you got rocker panels, even those pesky tire sensors that never work. It’s terrible! WHAT IN HELL ARE THEY THINKING OF? I got people who can’t afford to hardly live and they need a car just to drive a couple of miles to work or to buy food. This is a rural state, we’re poor and everyone’s got to drive, DON’T THEY KNOW THAT FOR GOD’S SAKE?
I buy cars for about $400 to $700 and after I do what I have to do, I sell them for $750 to $2,000. Many people pay me $100 down and so much a week because … they can’t afford more. I get some good cars that run fine but now I got to spend $1,800 for a state computer and if I don’t fix it right and they inspect me doing the inspection and don’t like what I do then I could get a huge fine and I’m out $3,000 and you know the state will do anything to get money out of us, YESSIR!
I’m not doing inspections and all the used cars I buy now will already be inspected. I’m auctioning off my auto parts and much of my equipment. What am I supposed to do? My customers don’t have any money. This state is broke. Thirty years working and it ends like this. WHY ARE THEY DOING THIS TO US?
Before the state had the new computer set-up I fixed up my leftover old cars that had some life in them and if they were inspected before the deadline, that car is good for a year before the next inspection. What’s wrong with that? I had people ordering cars right and left to save money they didn’t have. Do you wonder why so many people are leaving the state? My friend who ran a body shop gave up, sold his business and home, moved to North Carolina. He’s paying $250 a year in property taxes — $250 a year! I paid $250 property tax in 1970. Now I pay $6,500. I’m not making more money. YOU KNOW? YOU KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING! THEY DON’T WANT US IN THIS STATE. YESSIR!
(Clem has to calm down or his triple bypass will blow. He collapses into an old stuffed rocking chair beside a pile of tires. Just sits there and rocks a bit. Says nothing.—PM)
CLEM continues: I grew up on a farm north of here. We had a four-holer outhouse with small holes for the kids on the left with a Monkey Ward catalog hanging from the wall and we used the other end with a Sears Roebuck catalog doing the honors. You haven’t lived until you have used an outhouse when it is 30 degrees below zero! We cleaned it out in the spring and fertilized our fields.
“A lot of businesses are moving away, but I can’t retire because of taxes. I can’t move and I can’t sell my place so I’m stuck.”
I worked a couple years in a body shop and wanted to do something on my own. Went to trade school in St. Johnsbury and then I worked as a tool-and-die man in Connecticut. Came back and worked with Bill Jennison who had a tree service and he hired me for $100 six days a week. Then the feds came, locked up his trucks and equipment in the Armory for taxes and I was out of a job and didn’t know what to do. So I went to the feds and asked what they wanted for it all. They said $8,000. I didn’t have it and asked uncles, a brother-in-law, mother and father, the dog for loans and got enough to buy the equipment. Then the bank said they would finance the garage building and that I had a sponsor. I didn’t know who it was but he admired the way I handled people who couldn’t pay me. I signed the papers and paid $250 a month. Then I found I was bidding for work against much bigger companies and I couldn’t make it. I asked my wife Donna if she could get a loan from the family and she did and I bought a salvage yard license and a couple of cars. I was 24 years old and the youngest used-car dealer in the state. My first car I paid $75 for, fixed it up and sold it for $200. That’s how I got my start 40 years ago.
In 1970, I bought the Route 2 property and moved my junkyard and garage and set up an apartment for me and Donna, then added on the five apartments. If it wasn’t for racing I’d be a millionaire. Must have spent a couple hundred thousand on buying and selling racecars over the 56 years I have been racing.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
I was 23 or 24 when I got into racing. A friend, I called him Peanut, visited and asked me to sponsor a car. I knew nothing about racing but a lot about engines, so I said okay and he brought down one that had been wrecked racing in the Milk Bowl at Thunder Road. I straightened it out and he found a driver and I was his crew. I worked for two years and then told Peanut, before a big race, “Peanut, I’m not going to be your sponsor anymore. I’m not working on that car. Hank doesn’t know how to drive a stock car. I can drive it better than him.”
He thought about that. “You worked on it for two years,” he said, “so you drive it.”
I fine tuned that car and raced in the Milk Bowl. First time I was in a race. Round and round I went and then a car flipped in front of me and I hit a tree and completely totaled Peanut’s car! There it was smashed into that tree all folded up and the engine hanging out like a wet tongue. Peanut was walking in from the pit with his wife and kids and he looked at the car and then looked at me. “Clem, I guess you are going to be a race-car driver,” he said.
And that started my career.
The next year, Ken Squier, the owner of the track, bought me an old Studebaker and asked me to set up a race with Hurricanes. So I got 13 racers and Hurricanes and in that first race, in 1962, I took the Triple Crown. Last race I won was a few years ago. Yes, I can still crawl through the window to get into the seat.
I’m still racing. This is my last year. I will be 80 years old. YESSIR! <em<(Clem says that every year.)
A lot of businesses are moving away, but I can’t retire because of taxes. I can’t move and I can’t sell my place so I’m stuck.
I’ve built a lot of motors — good strong motors. I love racing more than anything in my whole life. I would be in my grave if I didn’t race.
I don’t want to leave Vermont. Not I. Dozens of people have left that I know. Most are 60 and 70 years old and some can’t afford to leave. So many out-of-staters have moved in and got a little money and want to run the town and that pushes out the Vermonter so they don’t have a say anymore in our government.
There’s few young people to take over a business like I have and I learned from older people. I’m too old to get a loan. I’m a bad risk. I KNOW WE’RE NOT APPRECIATED ANYMORE!
As Clem was saying this, he was tuning a new engine to race in Thunder Road. “Thought you said you were going to retire,” I ask.
“Well,” he said and grinned, more at himself than me. “Maybe next year.”