Weird South Hero
I love the Champlain Islands. One of the most unique regions in the state, the islands have the special distinction of being the only region in Vermont that are truly isolated – only accessible from 3 bridges. Because of this, the islands have been able to maintain a unique image and way of life – complimented by scenic lake and mountain vistas, verdant pastures and small towns rooted in local tradition.
One of my favorite drives is South Hero’s West Shore Road, a narrow dirt road which winds its way along the many bays of South Hero’s west coast, framed by classic old summer camps, stony beaches, multi-million dollar McMansions and some of the most beautiful farmland anywhere. There’s even a vineyard, with eclectic summer evening concerts on their sprawling front lawn. In the summer months, there is perhaps no place more fitting for a leisurely cruise as the soft summer breezes gently blow summer dresses hanging on clotheslines. But the scenery isn’t the only draw to this road. There are a few quirky yet fascinating sites if you know where to look.
Bird House Forest
Located in the swamps just north of Whites Beach, just feet from the roadside, are hundreds of brilliantly colored Bird Houses that hang from the many hardwood trees in the thick marshland. It’s almost impossible not to notice, and on summer days, it’s not uncommon to see someone slow down to get a better look at them. I’ve driven by them several times and knew of their existence, but I never had taken the opportunity to actually stop and get a good look at them. That summer evening, I had my chance, and my curiosity was piqued. Why are they here? Do they have a story? Why are there so many? It’s not abnormal for someone to own a bird house or 2, but hundreds? As luck would have it, the owner of the birdhouses was actually out wood working on his front lawn, and must have noticed me standing there with my camera.
The story was actually quite to the point. “Well, as you can see, we’re surrounded by swamp” he said, gesturing to the swamps surrounding his house. “So there are a lot of mosquitoes here. Or at least there were before we put these up” He probably saw the amused look on my face, because he laughed and explained further. The bird houses are home to tree swallows, and tree swallows eat mosquitoes. “They make it so me and my wife can sit outside on the lawn in the evening and enjoy ourselves. We don’t get eaten alive” He told me he started this project 15 years ago, with only 20 bird houses. His wife was the one who convinced him to paint them the striking bold colors. “They really stand out” he said while laughing. He said after a year, he went to check on them and found that each one was occupied. So he built more. Now he has over 400 of them. I asked him if he was planning on building more. “We’ll see” he said chuckling.
The gentleman who made the birdhouse forest also has a knack for wood working, and it’s really cool. You can see his various driftwood creations along the road near White’s Beach and around his yard – including this giant driftwood monster.
Did you know that there are several miniature castles scattered around South Hero? I didn’t, until one unseasonably warm spring day, I found myself taking a picture of a dilapidated old barn near Whites Beach. It was around evening, and there was a brilliant sunset, a harsh wind was blowing in from the lake. As I was setting up for my picture, I met an elderly couple who were out enjoying an evening walk down the road, which was completely free from traffic. “Pretty cool, huh?” The elderly gentleman greeted me in a thick Vermont accent and pointed towards the old barn. I told him it was, and introduced myself. Because he was an old Vermonter, he carried on a good conversation, and asked me a lot of questions about myself. When I told him I was into local history and weird points of interest, he pointed over to the white farmhouse directly across from us and asked if I had seen the castles yet. I had no idea what he was talking about, so he motioned me to follow him and lead me behind the house.
Well, I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at. It looked like the crumbling remains of some sort of fountain, maybe a bird bath? But it had been made entirely out of field stone. Admittedly, my first impression wasn’t all that great. “This is one of the original Barber projects” he said. “Used to be a Castle somewhere on the property, but they got rid of it when they added the porch onto the house”. Now he had my attention. I had never heard of Harry Barber before, or his castles, and I wanted to know more about this mysterious gentleman.
Through talking to the kind old man, and doing some additional research online, I was able to put together the pieces to this great story.
Harry Barber was born in Switzerland and as he grew up, he developed a strong fondness for the castles found throughout the country. Sometime in the 1920s, he was injured in a mining accident and lost the a piece of his finger. Receiving a large settlement from the government as compensation, he decided to utilize his new found wealth and travel to the Americas. He made it to New York at the age of 21, and from there, eventually made his way up to Vermont and ended up in South Hero.
It was here where he fell in love with a local girl and married her, settling in Grand Isle. He was able to find work as a caretaker and maintenance man on nearby Providence Island, just off the coast of South Hero. Harry worked several jobs through his life, but his true passion was always the beloved castles from his homeland. He was a passionate gardener and groundskeeper, and often loved to enhance the look of his properties by constructing beautiful castles, fountains and stone walls made from local field stone. The castles of course were all modeled after the castles of his homeland, which he had always been taken by.
Harry was known as a likable guy in general and was known for his kind heart and sense of humor. But it was his fine craftsmanship that the locals were inspired by the most, and as a result, many patrons asked him to build castles for their properties. There are no records of if he actually profited from them, and for how much.
It was said that every castle he built had a different story behind it, and featured lavish details such as glass windows, flags and even drawbridges. Local lore even has it that some would use the castles for trade or bartering. I heard one story of a neighbor offering a bed and breakfast one of the castles in return for free trash removal service. The castle was later moved to the inn’s property where it rests today.
Despite his amiable personality, tragedy was also woven into his framework. For reasons unknown, he committed suicide in 1966 at the age of 66.
Many of his original castles can still be seen scattered around South Hero today. The exact number of structures he built, and the number of ones that are surviving are unknown – but some tell me that there is in fact a number – there are seven of them, and they are called “the seven castles”. One can be found as far away as mainland Milton. And a few months ago, I was able to confirm this on a chance encounter with the owner of the castles – and he was kind enough to show me around his property so I could get a look at them.
Some of the castles on private property, and trespassing is frowned upon, and others are hidden behind other obstructions such as plants. But a few remains visible from the road, and are easy to photograph.
Compelling monuments of man, dreams and the cold hand of tragedy.
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