Vermont for Vermonters – The ‘Jamaica Cottages’ Tale

Don Sawyer – June 2009

Can those of us “from away” conceivably become real Vermonters? Hop in the Diner Guy’s new van, we’ll soon find out. A scenic drive up Route 100 from the south to its sharp bend in Rawsonville, then two miles and a right onto Winhall Station Road will answer the question. Welcome to Jamaica Cottage Shop and its “Real Vermont” transplanted owner Domenic Mangano.

39-year-old Domenic is shrewd, imaginative, industrious and rugged – the way we idealize old time Vermonters to be. It is not surprising that this cottage-builders best selling model is entitled “The Vermonter.” It is rough hewn, basic and strong.

Domenic Mangano grew up in the burbs of Beantown in North Andover, niched between gritty Lawrence and Lowell. His family home was perched on some of the last farm acreage in the area, so his lack of nearby playmates was replaced by an appreciation for nature. While congested Route 495 thundered in the distance, Domenic climbed trees and sold raspberries by the roadside with his sister.

Ten-year-old Domenic’s first construction project was a treehouse-gone-bad. He sequestered a hammer and nails from his father then wailed away on a tempting tree. Horrified was Domenic when virtually every nail curled over carpenter’s lesson #1, don’t hammer into oak! A wiser kid and craftsman, his next treehouse was truly an uplifting success – 40 feet high, affixed to a soft spruce tree. His parents were petrified.

When construction began on a 50-lot town subdivision, 15-year-old Domenic leaped into line for a laborer’s job. He was duly impressed by framing and instinctively sought a carpentry position. The experience served him well, then and now, as did the salesmanship of his second high school career as a “Ding Dong Man” – selling ice cream to screaming children and fending off skateboarders gripped to his rear bumper!

College-bound Domenic applied unique standards when selecting a school: it had to be in Vermont and it had to be a place where people smiled. That institution was Green Mountain College in Poultney. Here he majored in business, delighted in campus social life, and fell in love with Vermont.

Though happy in Vermont, Domenic embarked on the second phase of his education – a four-year cross-country junket with his two dogs and carpentry equipment in an old Subaru. He literally framed his way from a “spit” in Alaska to Sun Valley and Scottsdale. Vivid memories include a tire falling off in the remote Canadian wilderness and cowboy verbal harangues for his east coast lumber thriftiness and dependence on coffee.

Returning “home” to Vermont in 1995, Domenic rented a farmhouse in Rawsonville from the Tifft family. He immediately put his skills to work and sold doghouses off his front lawn. His future was thus crafted from doghouses to sheds to cabins. Domenic’s first shed, a 6-foot by 10-foot “basic,” required a crew of eight, a Bobcat, and most of the day just to move across town (as evidence of growth, he now boasts two forklifts, two transport trucks, and a trailer, all hydraulically customized)!

When I first met Domenic five years ago at his previous three-acre lot in Rawsonville, I was captivated. Sheds, boxes, cabins, et al were abutted and stacked so closely that it resembled a simulated city, a wooden world. You could leap over, around and through this “village” like an amusement park of outhouses, wood boxes, gabled cabins, dollhouses and artist havens as long as you avoided the prize chickens who also had reign to roam!

Predictably, the “village” outgrew its boundries Domenic moved Jamaica Cottages to its present location at 170 Winhall Station Road (technically in South Londonderry). The grounds are spacious and several outbuildings allow construction through the winter. Distinct stations exist, from cutting room to assembly, shipping, etc. Compared to the hurly-burly of the “village” the new facility is smooth, orderly and high tech. Fear not, the chickens still wander freely and Domenic’s preference for funk over formality still prevails.

Employees (eight to twenty, depending on the season) still wield their nail guns diligently with contented countenance. They take conspicuous pride in the their product. With Domenic’s “one man, one project” policy, each shed is constructed start to finish by a single carpenter. Workers don’t leave; they relish the laid back Vermont tone Domenic has infused. Of course, lighthearted activities like Hillbilly Biathlon contribute to group-sync!

In its product genre, Jamaica Cottage Shop has no peers (though copied by many). Models are constantly refined and evolving. Domenic’s post and beam design utilizes rough hemlock and Eastern white pine, milled predominately in Vermont sawmills. Only superior hardware is used. Some models feature wrought iron by Gary Cheney and stained glass by Hank and Toby’s Hot Glass or Manchester Hot Glass. Product sizes vary from 3-by 5-foot garbage bins to 16-by 20-foot cottages.

Jamaica Cottages are wonderfully creative, most exhibiting Domenic’s “reverse cross gable” signature. You can order a simple wood bin, a classic doghouse, a chicken coop, a circular wishing well, a traditional saltbox, a porched cabin or even a structure of your own whim. Some buildings come fully insulated, others offer sinks and toilets.

It is indeed the creative element of his trade that compels Domenic: “I like the artistic side of it, as well as the salesmanship.” Though he never took design courses or served draftsman apprenticeship, Domenic learned by doing and was fascinated by genius architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He even visited a number of Wright’s buildings to study the master’s design innovations.

During the past ten years Domenic has developed kit products for adventurous, thrifty or geographically distant customers. Since Jamaica Cottages’ truck delivery of fully assembled sheds is limited to the Northeast, many kit models are shipped to the West and Canada in single, self-contained, shrinkwrapped “bricks.” Even mechanically helpless Diner Don could assemble one of these packaged shelters by simply laying out the pieces and following the numbered, colored, coded, easy-to-read plans.

Like successful but unassuming Manchester business icon Donald Dorr (profiled in the Shires of Vermont magazine portion of this publication), Domenic will never be spotted in a pitchman’s tie and jacket; casual work attire best bedecks a human dynamo who sprints incessantly from computer to nail gun. Also like noble Don Dorr, Domenic is proud to have achieved success solely by his own efforts: “My parents paid for my education, everything else I’ve done totally on my own.”

Domenic does find time to amuse himself and tend to others. This inveterate Vermonter enjoys snowmobiling, four-wheeling, and communing with the wilderness. He’s been generous with cottage help for numerous schools and has supported the Women’s Crisis Center. He has built a home in Jamaica and has become a respected Vermont personality. This Vermonter’s here to stay!

When I queried Domenic about future plans, he shared a goal of building bigger and bolder products, perhaps full-size cabins and barns. He also admitted a yen to travel to Europe, the Orient, the Islands. Yet Domenic Mangano seems happiest here, in his Vermont sanctuary, where he has given more than he has taken and has adopted Green Mountain values.

Can an outsider become a real Vermonter? You betcha. A trip to Jamaica Cottage Shop will provide testimony.