The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 8, 2007


Community spirit raised Carlisle Castle 20 years ago

Twenty years ago a huge project was begun that would culminate a year later in the raising of Carlisle Castle, all by volunteers, on the Carlisle School property. The project took immense planning, fundraising, and volunteer hours, much like a community barn-raising. General Coordinator Darlene Robertson Grove (now living in Fort Wayne, Texas) said in a recent e-mail, "The playground committee did more than just build a playground — we instilled a new spirit in Carlisle — one of shared experience (between the 'townies' and the 'transplants'), and a sense that anything is possible if everyone feels they are part of the process."

The Castle today is a huge collection of interconnecting wooden towers, tunnels, walkways, and slides and built in the woods on the side of the Spalding Building.

By the 1980s the town population had increased (see chart), and there was a need for a larger and more engaging play space for the school and the community. "The previous playground was a disaster," said Grove. "It must have been in place with the first building on campus!" One small climbing structure, the metal Mexico Forge, was moved from the current Castle spot and set up as a kindergarten playground (it has since been replaced). Construction on the Carlisle School's Corey Building had begun, and it was clear that the school and town could not afford to fund a professionally installed play unit, costing over $100,000.

In 1986 the Carlisle School Association "formed a committee to research new playground equipment," explained Grove. "Only four people showed up for the first committee meeting." Grove had moved to Carlisle from Great Falls, Virginia, "where a Leathers playground was built in my town." She suggested the committee look into the company. "The first response was skepticism — too costly, was the wood and preservative safe, how could we get the volunteers, site problems (ledge and the trees) and me!" Some wanted to expand the Mexico Forge, which the Recreation Commission had purchased a number of years before. "But, once committees were formed and we had organization day, people started believing that we could do it and the enthusiasm for the project just grew and grew and so did our confidence. The harder we worked, the more successful we became."

"Rosie the Riveter," aka Ann James, one of the Castle construction
foremen, drills holes for wood screws. (File photo by Glenn Callahan)

Leathers & Associates, based in Ithaca, New York, is a family-owned business that has "worked closely with communities to build more than 1,600 unique, one-of-a-kind projects," according to their web site,

Unique approach

Leathers Associates worked with the Castle construction volunteers during a "Design Day" in March of 1987, developing ideas for a playground. According to the April 3, 1987 Mosquito, Robert Leathers and John Dean "spent the day meeting with students, parents, teachers, administration and staff. By the Design Day evening meeting, Leathers and Dean had drawn the schematic design for the future ideal playground." After gathering ideas all day, Leathers and Dean met that evening with over 275 parents and students to present the Castle plan.

Next step—raising money

The town included the playground cost with the Corey construction in the state reimbursement application, expecting to have 70% of the cost reimbursed. "Our school board president at the time realized we could get some financial relief if we added it to the list of things the school needed, and she was so right," she explained.

After the Design Day, the school was assigned a Leathers project manager who assisted in finalizing the proposal, making design changes, listing materials, and reviewing plans for the construction. The fundraising began immediately, with the first event scheduled for April 12, 1987. The goal was to raise $5,000 by the fall of 1987, a sum required by Leathers in order to arrange a construction day, originally planned for May 1988.

Angela Smith, who was in charge of corporate donations, remembers the various ways money was raised. "I had a group of five or six," she explained. While her other committee members raised funds from local businesses, she applied for larger grants. Explaining that some grants she applied to were targeted for specific uses, she said she would emphasize the amphitheater for one grant, the educational connection for another, exercise and fitness for a third, using "whatever angle I could" to raise funds. According to Grove's records, the playground committee raised $41,607 $17,736 of that sum was corporate donations, fundraising projects raised $27,243, and the state contributed $35,000. The funds raised by the playground committee helped to pay for removal of trees, extra landscaping, and to set up a $5,000 maintenance fund.

As soon as the playground was completed, Carlisle kids tried out the new equipment. (File photo by Glenn Callahan)

Fundraising efforts, said Smith, included a large auction, bake sales, and student- collected pennies. Kids also sold slips of paper for $2, which were placed on a map in spots where the lumber was going to be mounted. She said, "My team was so creative and so resourceful. I remember getting some grants for over $1,000." At times it was challenging to justify to some companies why Carlisle needed donations, she added. "It was a solid work, over a year's worth of work to get the money."

Five busy days

On June 17, 1988 three representatives from Leathers arrived for the construction day, and stayed throughout most of the construction. They "explained, re-explained and coordinated hundreds of volunteers while maintaining their senses of humor," according to the June 24, 1988 Mosquito. The Carlisle School campus was turned into a work zone, with wood, tires, and tools supplies stacked on the Plaza. The Corey Building construction was still in progress. "Fortunately, the timing was such that the new cafeteria was completed literally the week construction began," explained Grove, "and approved for use the day before! We were a little crazed, because we couldn't get approval to use the water — I think I called the mayor of Boston to get action, but it worked." A tool shed was erected. Heavy equipment like the boom loggers and drills were brought in to place massive poles. Over 300 tons of pea stone were delivered to spread under the structure.

Volunteers from the community

Each volunteer was assigned to a foreman. Ann James, retired Carlisle teacher and one of the "construction foremen, remembers it was "a lot of fun because it pulled a lot of people from town together. It was a huge project." She said she did a lot of bolting, but "we did all sorts of things." There is an excellent photo of James, who was nicknamed "Rosie the Riveter," in the June 24, 1988 Mosquito, as she "drills holes for the five-inch lag screws" (A lag screw is a wood screw with a square bolt head). Kids were put to work scrubbing huge tires. James, noting it was a multi-generational project, said, "It was nice because the kids in school would come over and look at the project. A lot of kids helped along with their parents."

Army and Navy volunteers

In addition to Carlisle volunteers, the project was assisted by over 40 Army reservists from the Army's 39th Engineer Battalion from Fort Devens, and fifty US Navy Reserve Seabees (Construction Battalion). Tom Raftery was the Commanding Officer of his CB units, and asked men for volunteers. The military men visited the classrooms, which the students enjoyed. The Food Committee served refreshments throughout the five days.

"I remember the Army," said James. "That was a big hit especially with the kids." Raftery agrees. "I got a big kick out of that fact that my guys were working." He remembers seeing the kids around, and everybody enjoying the experience. "It was very memorable. The Castle should be kept, it's a delightful facility." He especially likes the amphitheater, similar to Greek amphitheaters. He said his CBs were told to come back anytime to use the facility, and a few of them did.

Keith Greer, pastor of the Carlisle Congregational Church, worked on constructing a swing set with his son, Peter. "My overall impression is that it was fun," he said. Even the planning meetings were fun, he added. "Everyone worked hard, worked well together, similar to a community barn-raising." He still uses the Castle. "I have the privilege of taking my grandchildren when they are visiting. I remember one time after the construction. My folks were visiting us. We went there, and I have some little movies of my mom swinging on the swings. I really have a sense of ongoing, spanning generations."

Besides raising money, she said, Smith also worked on construction. "It was amazing, there were so many people, and it went very smoothly." Her life changed quite a bit during the two years of the project. "When I started on the project I didn't have a child" and by 1988 she had an infant. "We had volunteers to be babysitters," she remembers. "It is heartwarming that the Castle is still there."

James keeps a memento of the project at her house. "I used to have a scrap piece of the Castle posts on my porch," James said. The event is immortalized on a brass plaque mounted at the Castle, thanking all the volunteers and major donors. The plaque is decorated with a line of pine trees. "Each tree around the perimeter of the plaque represents one name on the plaque," explained Grove.

Celebrations at the end

A week after the construction was completed, a ceremony was held to dedicate the Castle and recognize all the volunteers. School Superintendent Mathew King wrote in his 1988 report to the School Committee that the volunteer effort "captured the community's imagination and energy and left us with a magnificent recreational facility. While literally hundreds of people collaborated to make this project happen, special appreciation goes to Darlene Robertson who was the driving force behind the project from its inception."

Robertson said, "As a result of this effort I made lasting friendships that continue to connect me to Carlisle." She concluded, "It was truly an incredible experience."

Today, the much-loved dragon has weathered almost 20 years of use at the Castle without falling into disrepair. (Photo by Cynthia Sorn)

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito