Even in rural New Hampshire, most of us are creatures of our modern-day landscape. We live in cities and towns and, for the most part, cluster together there, the better to share services and resources. When we have to travel, we drive, almost always on paved, maintained roads, in machines built for speed and comfort. We eat food others have produced, or even prepared.
There is a part of us, though, that is drawn to the wild — or at least, the less tamed — where a chance encounter with a fox or owl isn’t an astonishing occurrence; where the sounds of the highway or industrial-sized compressors are lost amidst the breeze in the leaves; and where it’s easy to imagine an earlier day, when car-filled paved roads and supermarkets were science fiction fancy, if they could even be envisioned at all.
There are amazing things to be seen in nature. Things we’ve become unused to in our daily lives. So we — some of us more than others — see refuge in the woods from the stress and pressures of modern existence. And sometimes, when we do, an even more amazing thing happens. We stumble across a wonderful treasure: The remains of a past civilization.
Maybe it’s an arrowhead or a rusty tin can or bottle. It could be a battered stone wall or the foundation to what was once a barn or mill or home. OK, we’re not talking the lost city of gold here, but even a small discovery, out of nowhere, can bring out the Indiana Jones in all of us.
Imagining the lives of those who — decades, even centuries, ago — lived, worked, hunted off what’s now the beaten path is simply fun.
Better, consider that the find is actually impressive; not just a half-buried wall or fence post with wire wrapped around it, but something that immediately makes you say: “What? Out here?”
Finally, add in that the story behind the find is itself compelling.
And there you have the allure of the Madame Sherri “castle,” the one-of-a-kind home built by an eccentric French immigrant-turned-Broadway performer and seamstress. Married to a purported mobster on the run, she moved to Chesterfield after his death and purchased 600 acres of forest and farmland, upon which she commissioned a party house.
The entertaining story of Madame Sherri, though, is secondary here. It’s been told locally many times and is available in multiple forms from the Chesterfield Historical Society. The Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests now owns the forest in which her former home sits.
We say “sits,” although “slowly succumbs” might be more accurate. What’s left of the once grand chateau is now mostly rubble, with one significant exception.
This is the description of the home on the Chesterfield Conservation Commission’s website:
“The unique style was reminiscent of a Roman ruin and a French chalet. The cellar held a cozy bistro with tables draped in red cloths. The main floor contained a large bar framed by live trees that poked through the roof. Portraits of famous people hung from the walls, animal furs were scattered across the floors, and bathrooms were lined with mirrors. The third floor was Sherri’s private quarters made accessible only by a stone staircase that ran up the side of the building.”
It is that staircase that continues to draw hikers to the site. It is the bulk of what remains. Three stories high, curving, Roman-arched, made of stone.
Finding it in the middle of the Chesterfield woods is inspiring. It evokes the idea of coming upon the ruins of a medieval castle.
Of course, most people now who visit the site are expecting to see it. It’s become a landmark of the region, maybe not as recognizable as Mount Monadnock, but a draw nonetheless.
So it was disappointing, if somewhat inevitable, that the highest of the arches in Madame Sherri’s famed staircase collapsed earlier this month. It surely serves as a dual reminder that nothing lasts forever and, on a more practical note, that it’s unsafe to go climbing on or under relics found in the woods.
Fortunately, no one was injured when the arch fell during a rainy Saturday. The grandeur of the ruin, however, took a definite hit. It is less imposing, perhaps slightly less inviting.
All in all, however, it remains quite an impressive find to happen upon while getting away from it all.