Friday, September 28, 2012

Haskins Park gets a cleaning.

I blame it all on D.

She is the one who originally got interested in Haskins Park, which sits on a hilltop not far from where we live. Through the local Historical Society -- where she is a volunteer and board member -- she has unearthed a great deal of information on the Park and its creator, Leander M. Haskins.

While you can (and should) read about it hereherehere and here in D.'s blog, I'll give you the shorthand version: Leander Haskins grew up in this town and made a fortune after the Civil War. He purchased 70 acres on Poole's Hill and built an estate in 1892, which he left to the town (to use as a hospital or park) when he died in 1905. The main buildings were made into a public hospital, which eventually closed circa 1920 after the Spanish Flu epidemic. A local physician, Dr. Heberle, leased the place in 1932, and ran it as a combination sanitarium and hospital until 1938. The buildings were then abandoned and, in 1960, burned as a "training exercise" by the local fire department. Since that time, much of the site has steadily been swallowed up by vines, trees, catbrier and other obnoxious wild growth. Only the hilltop, though more heavily wooded than it was in 1905, and the area taken by the town to build a massive tank for the water system, are readily accessible. People like to take their dogs up there for exercise.

D. decided that something more was necessary. If the Haskins estate couldn't be rebuilt -- and it can't -- at least the grounds should serve two purposes: to be more accessible and attractive for use as a park, and to expose people to the history and generosity of Leander Haskins. Others in the Historical Society readily agreed and, after some time-consuming and careful preparatory work by D., so did the town's Board of Selectmen.

The plans even attracted the notice of the newspaper in the next town, which sent a reporter and photographer to do a story. While I generally find the paper to be mainly a source for bizarre typographical errors and new forms of improper English -- many articles read as if they are Google translations into English from Urdu, with side trips through Russian, Japanese and, perhaps, Tagalog -- the writer was reasonably accurate and comprehensible.

Last Saturday was the first Haskins Park Clean-up Day. Volunteers showed up starting at 8:00 A.M. with clippers, rakes, gloves and -- most vital -- insect repellent. By 3:00 that afternoon, more than 20 people had gone to work. And "work" is an understatement: We gathered up three dump-truck and two pickup truck loads of brush, leaves and other debris.

And whence, you might ask, came the dump truck we filled? From the town's Department of Public works, which sent a crew out do do some of the heavy cleaning on Friday...

...and returned the truck to be filled three times by the volunteers on Saturday.

Though contact had been made -- and posters were put out -- in a variety of places, we did not get any volunteers from the schools or other organizations we thought would be interested. D. calculated that the average age of the crew was 62. Hmmmm....

The "morning crew" -- a total of 24 showed up

And they worked! Harder and more effectively than we could have hoped. Some ugly overgrown areas were cut away, leaving open space and attractive plants. What was more surprising, all of them seemed to enjoy the work. No one complained -- not even me.

At the end of the day, Haskins Park looked better than it has in years. It looked a bit better still three days later, when we met four of our friends at the park so they could do their bit as well. And I cleared away a little more of the unattractive overgrowth.

This photo doesn't show any benefits of the clean-up, but I like it.

There was a secondary motive to getting the place spruced up a bit now: the sons of Dr. Heberle, who ran the place as Restcroft Sanitarium, will be visiting next week. D. wanted it to be as nice as possible for them. I think she succeeded.

In future, the hope is that a suitable memorial plaque will be placed to honor Leander Haskins, along with some new benches and some other appropriate amenities. D. is also working to see that the stone entrance pillars are restored, along with a couple of special (though not well known) features from the Haskins era that are tucked away in an inaccessible part of the property.

Me? I ache. If Restcroft was still in operation, I'd head up there for one of Doctor Heberle's electrical treatments (yes, he had some strange ideas, not unlike those employed by John Harvey Kellogg at his sanitarium) in hopes it would burn away the pain.

I will admit this is not the way I think history should be treated. I am not in favor of plaques and museum exhibits, preferring instead to keep historical objects large and small in usable, original condition.

PARENTHETICAL I'M-BEING-CONSIDERATE THOUGHT: You do not want to start me on a rant about historical homes and structures, or certain old and valuable objects of various kinds. I could launch into a 12-hour nonstop rant about the destruction caused by inattention, greed and ham-fisted, uneducated "restorers." But I have learned that it's a thankless task, and that's as true here as anywhere.

But Haskins Park is a lovely place and, after being introduced to its story by D., I am captivated by it. I'll be ready for the next phase of the work. I hope my muscles will be, too.