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Locals reflect after more of Madame Sherri's Castle falls to ruin
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CHESTERFIELD — The remains of Madame Sherri’s Castle have attracted visitors for decades, with the stone ruins being almost as captivating as the stories — and rumors — about the woman the home once belonged to. In the wake of the staircase’s partial collapse this weekend, locals are reflecting on the landmark and what to make of the loss.

The upper arch of the staircase toppled sometime between Saturday evening and Sunday morning, according to numerous reports from visitors who posted about it on Facebook.

Lynne Borofsky, chairwoman of the Chesterfield Conservation Commission, said she hopes the collapse will caution future visitors.

“I think this will draw attention to the fact the staircase should not be climbed on,” she said, describing how she’s seen people scaling the structure despite signs prohibiting it. “That’s a good thing to come from this.”

The steps are all that remain of Madame Sherri’s Castle, which was built in 1931. Audrey Ericson, the historian of the Chesterfield Historical Society, described Madame Sherri as akin to a “folk hero,” as it’s difficult to distinguish which stories about the woman are true.

What's left of a landmark

“We have few people in town we could call more famous,” Ericson said.

The property, in the woods off Gulf Road, is owned by the Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests, and the conservation commission has long helped maintain the site.

Carrie Deegan, reservation stewardship and engagement director for the Forest Society, drove out to Chesterfield on Monday to assess the stability of what’s left. While the partial loss of the stairs is unfortunate, she said, there is still plenty of reason to visit Madame Sherri Forest, and she hopes people will start to notice the beauty beyond the ruins.

“The property itself has some spectacular hiking,” she said.

But for Cody Barcomb of Winchester, who has been trying to photograph the staircase in every season — and just had winter to go — the loss hurts.

“Something like this collapsing, it just reminds me of when the Old Man [of] the Mountain collapsed,” he said, referring to the iconic collection of cliffs on Cannon Mountain that fell in 2003. ”It’s just one less beautiful thing in the state.”

Though it’s still not clear what exactly caused the arch to collapse, Deegan said it appeared the mortar between the stones had disintegrated.

There hadn’t been any indication that the arch would collapse imminently, she noted.

“It surprised us as much as anyone,” she said. “It’s a cool and much beloved site in New Hampshire, but it is a 90-year-old stone ruin — this was always a possibility that we knew might happen.”

Borofsky, of the conservation commission, had also long anticipated the structure’s toppling.

“I had been watching it crack for really the last 25 years,” she said. “I’ve watched the staircase and other pieces of the structure slowly go back into nature.”

The Chesterfield Conservation Commission cordoned off a section of the area on Sunday, and the Forest Society expanded the restricted area on Monday. Ensuring safety is the Concord-based organization’s primary concern right now, Deegan said, as it’s still unclear how unstable the ruins are.

Forest Society President Jack Savage said there aren’t currently any plans to reinforce the rest of the staircase.

According to the Chesterfield Historical Society, Madame Sherri was born Antoinette Bramare in Paris in 1878. In 1909, she met her husband — who was an expatriate and fugitive from the law named Anthony Macaluso — and the couple moved to New York City in 1911. Once in the Big Apple, they opened a costume design shop, and Bramare changed her name to the flashier-sounding Madame Sherri to promote business. They fostered the talents of a young Charles LeMaire, who would later receive three Oscars for costume design. The couple enjoyed their successes until Macaluso’s untimely death in 1924.

As Madame Sherri struggled with the loss of her husband, her friend and Hollywood actor Jack Henderson invited her to visit his home in Chesterfield, where he held extravagant parties. Madame Sherri enjoyed the area so much, she became a New Hampshire resident in 1929 and purchased 600 acres of land, according to the historical society.

When it came time to build her mansion, she did not have blueprints. Instead, she stuck sticks in the ground to outline the foundation, and the structure’s design existed only in her head — much to the contractors’ frustration.

The complete structure had 15 rooms, a table to seat 40 people and a swimming pool, according to an article by Lisa Bergeron that ran in The Sentinel in 2004.

But just after World War II, LeMaire, who had been supporting Madame Sherri, stopped sending money to fund her luxurious habits. The house fell into disrepair, and on the same day that Madame Sherri died, philanthropist and artist Ann Stokes purchased the land.

Stokes oversaw the land for more than 30 years before transferring it to the Forest Society.

Ericson, 89, has lived in Chesterfield most of her life. She said she met Madame Sherri once while assisting her mother, Imogene Chickering — who was town clerk at the time — at the town office.

“She certainly was a very strange woman for people who lived on the farms,” Ericson said.

The Chesterfield Historical Society’s website recounts many tales about Madame Sherri: that she rarely wore any clothing beneath her fur coat; that she had a pet monkey she kept on a leash; that she would use one match to light her first cigarette in the morning and from there would chainsmoke, lighting each new cigarette with the end of the last. But Ericson said the stories seemed to have been embellished over the years.

“I’m not sure she was quite as bad as she was said to be.”

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Conant science teacher recounts experience flying at 43,000 feet
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Susan Rolke was flying high last week — literally and figuratively.

The science teacher at Conant High School in Jaffrey traveled to Palmdale, Calif., where she took part in two overnight flights onboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) during a weeklong trip that also included meetings with engineers who work on the project. The world’s only flying observatory, SOFIA is a modified 747 equipped with a specialized infrared telescope.

“Definitely the flights are the highlight of the experience,” said Rolke, 51, of Fitzwilliam.

Her trips on SOFIA, which reached altitudes of 43,000 feet (several thousand feet higher than commercial airliners), were part of NASA’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, a professional development experience for high school teachers administered by the SETI Institute, a California-based nonprofit research and education organization.

She was one of 28 educators nationwide selected in February 2020 to participate in the program, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed her flight week from that June. With her trip now complete, Rolke said she’s excited to share the experience with her students.

For example, Rolke said the NASA crew members she met offer great examples of career paths students can follow if they study math and science.

“Just about everybody who works there, none of them really foresaw, as they were going through school, that NASA was what they wanted to work for at the end,” she said. “All of them went through different paths.”

Some crew members, Rolke said, came from a military background. Others worked as mechanical or electrical engineers before being selected to join the crew on SOFIA, which travels above 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere to do research not possible with ground-based telescopes, according to NASA. Scientists who work on SOFIA research a variety of topics, including the birth and death of stars, formation of new solar systems and black holes.

“And through a variety of opportunities that arose in their lives, they eventually found themselves at SOFIA because they were prepared to take advantage of those opportunities as they presented themselves,” Rolke said.

During the flights, which took off around 8 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday nights and landed around 5:30 the following mornings, Rolke said these crew members also demonstrated excellent teamwork and problem-solving skills, which she said will also be valuable examples for her students.

Early in the first flight, which traveled primarily over the Pacific Ocean, Rolke said the pilots got word that there was a temporary no-fly zone over part of the planned flight path, and had to react quickly to figure out how to get the plane to certain destinations before the objects they were planning to observe would no longer be visible.

They worked together to make those on-the-fly adjustments, Rolke said, and were able to gather data on a variety of research topics, including why there isn’t more star formation at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and whether the asteroid Hestia formed in the asteroid belt or if it originated elsewhere and migrated there.

Rolke witnessed quick problem-solving again on the second flight, which took the plane over the western U.S. and Canada, when the telescope unexpectedly went offline.

“So it went down, and it was suddenly, ‘Oh no. How much are we going to lose? Are we going to lose the rest of the night?’ ” Rolke said. “And in the three minutes, they had come together, and they had it back up and working again, and they were collecting data. So they only lost three minutes. So it was really key to have that teamwork and problem-solving happening.”

These stories, she added, provide her with real-world examples of these principles, which Rolke plans to incorporate into her curriculum.

“My physics classes have a lot of open-ended questions that they have to solve, where my students do have to come together as a team to try to figure out what information do they need to know and how are they going to get to the answer and work through it together,” she said. “And I’m working on trying to incorporate more of that stuff into my chemistry class.”

Rolke, who grew up in Keene and holds a bachelor’s degree in math and physics from Keene State College, has also taught an astronomy course at Conant before. And in all of her courses, Principal David Dustin said, Rolke is a champion of STEM education.

“Our school is developing integrated opportunities and a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and Ms. Rolke has been a continued advocate for expanding access to rigorous and high quality opportunities in those areas,” Dustin said in a written statement.

In addition to the weeklong research trip to California, teachers in the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program receive training on a two-week curriculum developed by NASA to bring back to their schools. Rolke offered the unit on the electromagnetic spectrum, using examples from SOFIA, last November in her physics and chemistry classes at Conant, where she has taught for three years.

And now with her own personal examples from SOFIA, Rolke said she plans to incorporate even more of this experience into her courses during lessons on topics like mass and inertia, aerodynamics and infrared light.

“So I’m really looking forward to bringing these things back to my students, and getting them excited,” she said.

A former mill town takes control of the future of its power supply

In May, the town of Harrisville started to write the next chapter for its energy future. Harrisville voters approved the second community power plan in the state (the city of Keene was first).

With a community power plan, the town will purchase power on behalf of residents and businesses. Advocates say this system lets towns choose to get more energy from renewable resources, some of them local, and at a possibly lower cost to ratepayers. Utilities would still distribute that energy to homes and businesses. Town officials hope the community power plan will help Harrisville withstand anticipated and unanticipated service disruptions in the face of climate change.

“You don’t need to just passively pay your [power] bill once a month,” town selectboard Chair Andrea Hodson says. “You can ask, ‘Why aren’t we getting more renewable power and why isn’t it less expensive? And what more can we do to really take control, local control over addressing climate change?’ ”

The decision to pursue renewable energy has deep roots in Harrisville. The town’s location was specifically designed to capitalize on water power, according to Erin Hammerstedt, the executive director of Historic Harrisville, a local nonprofit. The town’s heart is its mill complex, which dates back to the 19th century. Red brick buildings surround a pond and brook in the center of town.

Like many of New Hampshire’s towns, Harrisville’s water-powered sawmills and the wool industry. But those industries declined and the Cheshire Mill complex closed in 1970. But water still provides energy, because in 2018, Historic Harrisville installed a 38-kilowatt turbine to power the five buildings in the mill complex.

Getting back to these roots of renewable energy was a priority for the nonprofit, Hammerstedt says, because a greater focus on renewable energy helps keep costs down for complex tenants. But she says self-reliance is also an important community value. “It’s who we are,” she says.

Ned Hulbert, a member of Harrisville’s planning board, agrees. He first heard about community power in late fall 2019, soon after a law passed that made it easier for communities to enroll residents in these aggregation programs by creating an opt-out system.

He pitched it to the selectboard as something this small town should explore.

He says he saw connections between the town’s master plan and community power. Harrisville wants to become more independent and resilient because they already know the damage severe weather can create. In 2008, an ice storm left the town without power for two weeks. Already, climate change is bringing more extreme weather, which adds stress on an electricity grid that’s seeing higher demand.

When Hulbert brought up community power to selectboard Chair Hodson, she looked closely at her electricity bill for the first time.

She says she realized that community power could offer cheaper electricity and access to sustainable energy, along with the possibility of developing local solar and battery storage. Both could serve as an important backup in case another ice storm comes.

One of the town’s first goals is to get energy supply at a rate that’s equal to or cheaper than the default utility electricity service. Harrisville’s community power plan currently offers two pricier tiers above that.

Hulbert says those include a higher proportion of green energy for people who want it. But he says that if they can’t meet or beat the utility’s default service, Harrisville won’t move forward with its plan.

Hulbert, Hodson and other members of the town’s electric aggregation committee hosted community information sessions on Zoom, walked around town with copies of the plan to hand out, and sent out postcards.

Residents asked about cost, whether this would hurt their current relationship with Eversource, and whether pursuing this plan was too complicated for a town with fewer than 100 residents.

Earlier this year, utilities and some state representatives expressed concerns during public hearings for HB 315 that community power programs would have a negative effect on customers who remained on the utility default service. Eventually utilities, legislators and advocates agreed on a compromise to the bill, which kept community power programs intact and addresses some technical questions in the original 2019 law.

The amended bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.

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State housing panel calls for 13,500 new units by 2024

CONCORD — In its first strategic plan, the N.H. Council on Housing Stability says it intends to spur the creation of at least 13,500 new residential units in the state within three years.

The council, which Gov. Chris Sununu convened late last year to replace the N.H. Interagency Council on Homelessness, also set a number of policy objectives for the next three years aimed at improving housing stability and reducing homelessness.

The recommended policies include easing regulatory barriers to new development, protecting tenants from eviction and using federal funds to help build new units and upgrade shelter operations.

In a letter published with the report, which was issued Friday, Sununu called housing stability a “significant challenge,” noting New Hampshire’s low rental vacancy rate. At 1.8 percent last year, per the independent state agency N.H. Housing, that rate is much lower than the 4-5 percent experts consider healthy. Creating more affordable housing, Sununu said, would help grow the state’s economy by offering new job opportunities and attracting a workforce for area businesses.

“Access to safe, stable, and affordable housing has lasting impacts, creating stability for children, adults, and families,” he wrote.

Keene Mayor George Hansel is a member of the housing stability council, which Sununu created after Hansel and New Hampshire’s other mayors asked the governor last year to create an updated blueprint for reducing homelessness.

The council’s new strategic plan, which follows a report it issued last December calling for the state to invest an additional $10 million in affordable housing, sets its primary goals as increasing the state’s housing stock and ensuring that homelessness is “rare, brief and one-time.”

That includes adding 13,500 units to the total stock by 2024, which, if achieved, would mark a significant step toward the 20,000 new units that N.H. Housing has said are needed to create a balanced housing market. The state had 642,000 units in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Creating more housing would improve availability and also reduce costs to homebuyers and renters by raising supply, experts say.

The council — which comprises housing advocates, local officials and representatives of many state agencies — also established a one-year “action plan” suggesting some initial steps toward its goals. Those include extending the time a tenant has to pay any missing rent before an eviction case, using federal funds to turn vacant commercial real estate into residential units and improving the referral process for displaced families that need health services or educational support.

Similar measures are also recommended in the council’s full three-year strategic plan, as are policies like easing local regulations that block new housing and barring landlords from reporting eviction activity to credit bureaus or other services without noting the result of an eviction case. That plan will be reviewed on an annual basis, according to the council’s report.

Hansel said the strategic plan reflects a new focus on cooperation between state and local officials, explaining that “everyone recognizes housing and homelessness as an issue for the state.”

“There was a real lack of coordination,” he said. “I think that this group and this strategic plan sets us up to be really more collaborative and to have the state take more of a leadership role.”

Hansel, a member of the council’s subcommittee on data analytics, has said in the past that cities like Keene often bear responsibility for hosting displaced people from area towns because those services are typically in urban areas. One measure recommended in the new plan, he said Monday, would tell local officials how the state has allocated its housing-related funds.

“We need to see where those resources are going so we can coordinate our local welfare efforts in the right way,” he said. “Because, at the end of the day, the local towns and cities are the ones who have to provide a lot of the services to these folks.”

Citing data showing that more than 4,000 households in New Hampshire experience homelessness each year, the council also adopted a new strategy to reduce that number, replacing a 2006 plan it said was the state’s last formal effort to address homelessness.

The new plan calls on state officials to allocate more federal funds for homelessness prevention and for shelters. It also recommends additional support for children and young adults experiencing homelessness, as well as the creation of a rental assistance program to help displaced people afford new housing.

“We know we need to add housing units in the state,” Hansel said. “... This sets the stage, so to speak. It’s going to take continued leadership and continued attention.”