Jane DeWolf: A life in service to Lyme

Jane Reynolds Rowland DeWolf was born in Lyme in 1931 and died in Lyme on Nov. 18 of last year. She was 88 and, despite periodic forays to places like Hartford and Boston and Europe, Lyme was where she made her life and raised two daughters. Generations of townspeople were grateful that she stayed.

When Jane DeWolf died, she took a piece of Lyme with her. She had been a fixture in town for 66 years, since 1953, when Eisenhower was in the White House. That was the year her father died, and she and her mother, Harriet Reynolds Rowland, took over the operation of H.L. Reynolds Co. 

Before long, the general store was known simply as Jane’s. Her mother was the postmistress — the post office was inside the store back then, and there were gas pumps out front, too, and had been since 1910. Jane’s great-grandfather, Ephraim Otis Reynolds, opened the store in 1859. It has served townspeople, boaters moored in Hamburg Cove, and passersby ever since.

The noun “store,” even the broader term “general store” don't do justice to Jane’s establishment — and Jane was no mere shop keep. If a person hereabouts needed something, or wanted to know something about Lyme, they’d go see Jane. It might be to pick up a quart of milk or the local newspapers, The Day or the weekly Gazette, or to get the news that the papers had missed. Everyone in town went to Jane’s to share or get the latest. She had a scanner crackling away behind the counter.

People also could get a bushel or a peck of town history at the store. She was the curator of a living museum, replete with old photographs, memorabilia and knickknacks from previous centuries, from the days when crackers came in barrels and lard, barbwire, and salt mackerel were big sellers. Does anyone remember Postum? Way back, customers often paid for such commodities with other commodities, such as eggs, lumber and vegetables. Lyme wasn’t flush back then.

Jane was the town docent, the keeper of stories. She could tell you about the hard winter when her uncle took a shortcut from Hamburg Cove to Essex in his Model A Ford to beat then traffic: he drove across the Connecticut River. Next to the groceries are shelves of books on town history and memoirs by Lyme residents; paintings by local artists adorn the walls.

In one corner of the store sits a stately two-story Victorian dollhouse that her daughters gave her. It inspired Jane to open up a new line of merchandise, complete with miniature figures and accessories. People came from all over to buy them.

Under Jane’s tenure, townspeople might drop by to pick up, among other necessities, their offspring. The school bus would drop off a scholar or two who’d hang out with Jane until their parents fetched them. The store was open until 8 p.m. back then. Jane made sure her charges started their homework before they got a piece of candy or whatnot.

People also stopped by just to sit and talk: to share news of a new grandchild, a wedding, or the passing of a parent. Or just to talk. They might want to brag about the gigantic gourd they were growing for the Hadlyme Pumpkin Derby. Some had personal problems to work out. Jane was a good listener and she liked to talk, too.

Donnie Babcock, a veteran of the Korean War, would stop by every morning before work just to shoot the breeze. Dr. Julian Ely, who made house calls and would accept bags of potatoes in payment, would call on Jane. He greeted her with “Hello, Sunshine.” Jack Tiffany, the dairy farmer and state representative, came by, as did Roger Hilsman, who served high up in the Kennedy Administration. Jane treated everyone the same, high or low.

Some of the regulars needed help. Gib Miller had fought in World War II, and his battles hadn’t ended when the war did. Gib worked on the Lyme highway crew and liked his daily ration of beer. He sometimes needed help with the basic requirements of daily life, like getting home safely at night or having enough food to eat. Jane made sure Gib got by, even though he wasn’t always good for business.

Once, decades ago, when this author pulled up to get gas at Jane’s, Gib leaned through the car window up to his elbows and inquired in bleary-eyed wonderment, “Who are you?” It was a fair question: the scribe was from out of town.

In a wonderful article about her store that Jane wrote for Tidings Magazine in 1989, she described Gib this way: “(He) was one of the old-timers who imbibed a little too much. He would arrive with daffodils and forsythia when he walked through the woods, and he hid cans of beer in the stream nearby so they would be there the next day. He would stop by and keep me company and entertain the customers with his war stories about Rommel.”

Donnie Babcock remembers Gib. “Jane took care of him, she surely did,” he said. “She took care of a lot of people; she was good at that. She was kind to everybody. She didn’t have a bad bone in her body."

Jane’s social services extended to others. Maria McCusker, who worked as Jane’s bookkeeper for nearly 40 years, can testify to that: “I don’t think people realize how different it will be without her being there. She helped out a lot of different people. Anytime there was a storm, especially in the wintertime, she had her list of elderly and sick people in town who she knew weren’t doing very well, and she’d get together food to hold them over till the storm ended. The guys from the town crew would delivery it. She didn’t charge. She just wanted to make sure everyone was all right.”

Jane served Lyme in other ways. She was one of the first dispatchers for the Hadlyme Fire House. She also helped to start the Lyme Ambulance Association and to establish the Lyme Public Hall, whose archives include her collection of historical postcards. In a snowstorm, she was a first responder, opening the store, whatever the hour, to provide gas for the town trucks and coffee and snacks for the highway crew. She was a member of the Lyme Grange for 70 years.

She helped so many people that some people, naturally enough, tried to help her back. For example, Donnie Babcock washed the store’s ceiling one Sunday afternoon 50 years ago. It was yellow and brown from decades of pipe, cigar and cigarette smoke. When the men in town finished farming or hammering or cutting firewood, they’d gather at the store and smoke or chew tobacco, have a cold beverage, and ruminate. They called themselves the Nail Keg Boys.

Mike Pesco has been going to Jane’s for 38 years, since he was 15. When he was having some issues a while back, he got right talking to Jane and helping her out around the store, even picking up groceries in his truck. He liked helping her so much that he started volunteering at the food pantry at the Old Lyme Congregational Church. When Jane got sick last April, Mike volunteered to man the store when he could. Helping others, it turns out, is contagious. 

The store isn’t opened regularly now. Jane’s daughter Diana Carfi, who is an art teacher, is there some weekend days and has plans to reopen it later this year as a hybrid general store/art gallery. She is the fifth generation of her family to operate the store. She said a memorial service for her mother is being organized for May 30. Her sister, Cynthia Bliven, owns a horse farm in Lyme. Both live in town. Diana’s daughter Skylar is Jane’s granddaughter.

Diana, Cynthia and Skylar spent more than a little time at the store while they were growing up. They learned math and manners checking out customers at the cash register. When Jane’s daughters were older, they would run the store when she had other things to do, like riding the tag sale circuit. The store sold antiques at one time.

Diana was at the store several years back, at closing time, when she and her mother got robbed at gunpoint. Diana made the thief mad when she looked at him and asked, incredulously, “Really?”

Cynthia said she inherited her mother’s work ethic and nose for business. Diana pointed out that her mother also had studied to be a teacher, at Wheelock College, and did her student teaching in a tough Boston neighborhood. Jane also worked for a Hartford insurance company but returned to Lyme when she was needed at the store.

Perhaps the most important thing that Jane taught her daughters, and others, was how to be kind and helpful.

When local folks see Diana’s car in front of the store now, they stop in to pay their respects. They may buy something, or just sit and chat.

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