Kerry “Paco” Ellison is used to giving to the Campbells Creek community.
Each year for more than a decade, Ellison has hosted a free Thanksgiving turkey dinner at his Dairy Winkle restaurant. He provided free meals in August when dozens of Campbells Creek homes were flooded. His restaurant served as a hub for community donations.
Ellison’s neighborhood is returning the favor after a fire destroyed the restaurant. With the community’s help, Ellison said, he hopes to rebuild and reopen Dairy Winkle.
“I don’t have anything concrete; I’ve still not sorted out how,” Ellison said. “I was drastically uninsured, and I’m 68.
“But I’ll tell you what, just the people that have called me and wanted to encourage me to open back up, that has tipped the scales back the other way. I said there’s a lot of reasons why I couldn’t and shouldn’t redo it. But that just keeps haunting me. And that was home to me.”
Ellison said he’s had everyone from “Joe Nobodys” to Sen. Joe Manchin reach out and encourage him to reopen.
“The fact that I’m that much of a footprint in the community, that means a lot to me. I mean, I’m a Joe Nobody myself ... I’ve had, Lord, doctors and lawyers and professional people offer [saying] ‘I’ve got my own shovel. Let me know when you get the dumpster.’”
As of Friday morning, an online fundraiser established for the restaurant and employees had received more than $12,000 from 122 donors.
Two Kanawha County commissioners — Kent Carper and Ben Salango — personally donated $1,000 each to the GoFundMe.
“That really is almost a community center,” Carper said of Dairy Winkle. “In fact, it is a community center. Paco, without anyone asking, has donated money time after time to those in need of food to survive.”
Carper added that he hopes Ellison will reopen. He thinks it might be eligible for assistance from one of the commission’s small business grant programs.
“If there’s ever been a need to keep a business in the Upper Kanawha Valley, this is it,” Carper said.
At least two fundraising events, including an ATV trail ride Sunday, are scheduled to benefit Dairy Winkle. Campbells Creek Cares, a nonprofit organization that started in the wake of the floods last year, is planning a Feb. 11 community-wide event called “Show the love” to benefit the restaurant.
People also chipped in money toward a reward for the safe return of “Wienerman,” the restaurant’s famed hot dog statue. The statue was the only thing Ellison could determine was taken when someone broke in the front door following the blaze, he said.
After Ellison’s initial offering of $400 as a reward for its return, community contributions pushed it to more than $1,000. The statue was recovered and returned Thursday.
The Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release that deputies received a tip that led to the 200 block of Gap View Drive, where they located the statue. Deputies said they have not identified a suspect in the theft or break-in.
Ellison was baffled as to why anyone would take it in the first place. He bought the statue from a friend for $150. He’s been in the restaurant since the year it opened. It was the second time someone had kidnapped the statue, he said.
“It’s something that’s useless unless you display it, and how’s he going to display it?” Ellison said.
This week, Ellison brought dumpsters to start clean-up. Customers and friends showed up to help. The charred building was full of people pitching in on Tuesday, he said.
Even the restaurant’s 90-something-old neighbor came over with her own shovel and asked what she could do to help.
“I said, ‘Just don’t get hurt,’” Ellison said. “And she swept out all my window sills with a dust pan and carried stuff out.”
On Wednesday, a small group of volunteers continued the cleanup. Bit by bit, they piled the remnants of walls, ceiling and equipment into a dumpster in the parking lot.
Among the volunteers was Danny Bowles, who grew up in Campbells Creek, and operates Bowles Boyz BBQ, one of the few other eateries in the area. To Bowles, Ellison isn’t a competitor; he’s a neighbor. And Dairy Winkle is a community landmark, he said.
“We want [Dairy Winkle] to open back up,” Bowles said. “Every kid should be able to come to Dairy Winkle and get an ice cream cone after a ballgame. That’s just the way it is.”
The more businesses in Campbells Creek, the better off the neighborhood is, he said.
“It gives the people places to work close to home that might have problems with getting rides and things like that,” Bowles said. “You have a good place of employment. It helps bring the community up ... The more you have, the better off you are.”
A school buddy of Ellison’s, Dave Murphy of Kanawha City volunteered Wednesday. He said he and his brother stop at Dairy Winkle after hunting trips at the head of Campbells Creek.
“I think Paco would do anything in the world for you if he thought you needed it,” he said. “And probably whether you needed it or not. He’s helped a lot of people in Campbells Creek.”
Danielle Collins of Rand also helped Wednesday. A Dairy Winkle employee of nearly four years, Collins describes herself as the restaurant owner’s right-hand man.
“I’ve been here every day — anything he needs me to do,” Collins said. “I’m just here, I’m just in it... in it to win it. I feel like if I’m in it, we’re going to win Dairy Winkle back.”
Collins got to the fire that day before firefighters did. Her son heard the call about the blaze come over the radio of a firefighting instructor at Carver Career Center, where he attends class. He called and woke Collins with the news. She hung up and headed there.
“I was freaking out,” she said. “I don’t like fire. Fire scares me. Anytime I see fire, I run the other way until — when Dairy Winkle’s on fire. I wanted to run right into it and put it out. It didn’t scare me that day, but I was here and just being here. I wanted to make sure he’s all right.”
Collins said she’s been “flabbergasted” by the generous response from the community.
“I’m not an emotional person, but all of my emotions have come to surface since this happened,” she said. “This is my home.
“The first day-and-a-half, maybe even the first two days, it was a solid ‘no’. He was not rebuilding. He was done. There was no way,” she said.
Then came community support and encouragement. Ellison and the staff may have to argue over who gets the money from the online fundraiser.
Ellison said he wanted to give the money from the online fundraiser to his employees. Collins said the employees want him to use it to reopen.
“We all decided and we all agreed we don’t want any of that money,” she said. “We need it to go to Dairy Winkle. We don’t want it to go to Dairy Winkle, we need it to go to Dairy Winkle — a strong word — need it to go to Dairy Winkle.”
Ellison said he now hopes to reopen by the restaurant’s next anniversary. June 7 will make 12 years in business. Reopening by then is a lofty goal, he said.
“I want to thank everybody for the love and support they’ve given Dairy Winkle,” Collins said. “This community, I didn’t realize how strong a bond these people have with this community. And I love being a part of it. And I’m glad to see everybody’s pulling together. It’s just beautiful.”