A Passion for Possibilities
Haverhill Native, 85, Steers Town’s Historic Preservation Efforts
Edith Celley stands in one of the classrooms in Pearson Hall, a Haverhill grade school Celley attended as a girl. The Haverhill Historical Society is restoring the building. Celley is president of the historical society. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Edith Celley stands outside Alumni Hall in Haverhill. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Edith Celley's mother is shown in front of Alumni Hall as an 8-year-old in an undated photograph. (Courtesy photograph) Purchase photo reprints »
The next project for the Haverhill Historical Society is Pearson Hall, a former school building that will be the society’s new home. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Edith Celley leaves Alumni Hall on a warm afternoon in Haverhill. Celley spearheaded an effort to restore the building. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Edith Celley chats with Keisha Luce, the executive director of Alumni Hall in Haverhill. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Edith Celley, center, attends one of the society’s meetings at Haverhill Middle School in North Haverhill last month. Attendees were discussing how to save and use Pearson Hall. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
The North Common in Haverhill Corner has changed a little bit since 1890. "(The) houses to the left and right of Pearson are no longer there, and Haverhill Academy had yet to be built," said Edith Celley, who has led restoration efforts in the village. Purchase photo reprints »
Haverhill — On the first warm, sunny weekend of spring, about 30 people sat inside Haverhill Cooperative Middle School brainstorming about the best use for Pearson Hall, the 197-year-old Federal-style building that once housed Haverhill Academy and the Grafton County Court. Among them was 85-year-old Edith Celley, who’s leading the efforts to preserve Haverhill’s oldest surviving public building.
A consultant facilitated the meeting, but Celley steered from the sidelines.
After an hour or so, Debby Bergh paused to sum up the group’s visions for the building, which is in the process of being renovated. The ideas included a history museum, a public meeting space and partnerships with local and regional organizations.
Then, Celley brought the group back to more prosaic matters.
“We have to raise the money for the capital project,” the Haverhill native said.
The crowd laughed.
“Cuts right to the chase,” said Jim Alexander, an architect who’s donating his services to the restoration.
Known for her knack for leadership, Celley has been working for more than a decade to preserve the town’s history.
Pearson Hall, on the green in Haverhill Corner, is the second historic building Celley’s had a hand in renovating. The former president of Haverhill Heritage Inc., she also led the restoration of Alumni Hall, a Greek Revival-style building just off the green in Haverhill Corner. The brick structure was built in 1846 as the Grafton County Courthouse and later served as the auditorium and gym for Haverhill Academy. It was shuttered in 1992 when a new school was built in North Haverhill. Following extensive renovations, the building reopened in 2005 as an arts center.
Celley was recently named citizen of the year by the Cohase Chamber of Commerce for her historic preservation work. Roger Warren was at a chamber meeting where she gave a short speech.
“She didn’t talk at all about what she’d done already,” said Warren, who serves on the board of Haverhill Heritage, Inc., which owns Alumni Hall “She just talked about what she wanted to do with Pearson Hall.”
A former bicycle tour leader and seasoned traveler, it’s unnatural for her to stand still.
Celley, a slender woman with a ready laugh, grew up in Haverhill Corner but left after high school, her sense of adventure leading her on a rambling path across five continents.
She studied psychology at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., which was “quite an eye opener in 1945,” Celley said. “It was the big wide world, and I was the innocent from a small town.”
After graduating, she took a job teaching elementary school.
“I wasn’t sure what I had aimed to do,” she said, but “it taught me that I wasn’t interested in working with 6-year-olds.”
She took a job in Connecticut as a service representative for a telephone company, “another good experience,” she said. “I enjoyed the work, and I learned how to deal with the public.”
But then a romantic interest who was from Switzerland invited her to visit his family.
“I borrowed money, much to my father’s horror,” she said, with a chuckle, and off she went.
They toured Switzerland, and Celley traveled alone through Italy, France and England. By the time she left, the romance with “Heinz” was over, but her love affair with Europe had just begun.
“It’s an entirely different feel,” she said. “It has a little more depth, I found. Everything is historical, and cities are more beautiful.”
Eager for more travel, she spotted her chance advertised in The New York Times. She applied for and got the job as a civilian recreation leader for the Army. The work took her around the United States and to Germany and Korea, where she ran the soldiers’ service club a mile from the DMZ.
“I saw Korea from the front seat of a Jeep,” she said, her pale blue eyes sparkling.
“We were treated royally. There weren’t very many women there.”
While living overseas, Celley visited her parents every year, but she hadn’t planned to return to Haverhill for good. But in 1971, her father, Lehman Celley, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and she flew home from Germany on a few hours’ notice. He died soon after surgery, and Celley, then 43, stayed to take care of her mother, Elsie Celley, who had suffered a debilitating stroke years earlier.
Back home, she had a hard time finding a job and asked an employment service for help. Their suggestion surprised her: There was an opening for a female probation and parole officer in Northern New Hampshire, and she would qualify.
Celley started off working with women and young boys in Grafton, Coos and Sullivan counties, and later became the first female probation officer in the state to work with men as well as women.
The job, which she held for 15 years, suited her.
“I was paid as well as the men were, the exact same salary,” she said, and she liked working with the parolees. “They had problems, which made them interesting. … If I could help them solve those problems, it was rewarding.”
But then the state decided to arm the officers.
“I spent a year agonizing over what would happen,” Celley said. “I knew some really tough people down in Lebanon, and I could just imagine that if there were any confrontation … they would be the one who ended up with my pistol.”
Rather than carry a gun, she retired in l986. But it wasn’t long before she started working again.
“It was healthier for me to go somewhere and work in an office with people around me,” she said. “I learned about myself that I am not going to go out and make social contacts without some other reason.”
She took a job with RSVP, a program that matches seniors with volunteer jobs. She started off as a coordinator and later became director. At 71, she retired again. Remembering the lesson of her first retirement, and loath to see the old building crumble, she joined the effort to preserve Alumni Hall. The work eventually led her to Pearson Hall, where she was once a student.
‘A Good Organizer’
Pearson Hall was built in 1816 to house Haverhill Academy and the Grafton County Court. Like Alumni Hall, it later became part of the Haverhill public school system and closed in 1992 when a new middle school was built in North Haverhill. The building, which made New Hampshire Preservation Alliance’s 2011 “Seven to Save” list, is now owned by Haverhill Historical Society.
It’s one of a handful of 19th-century brick buildings on the commons, twin greens enclosed by a white split rail fence. With its tidy white clapboard houses, historic features and spacious greens, the common, part of the Haverhill Corner Historic District, often catches the eyes of passersby.
“There’s a wow factor,” said Mike Marshall, a retired state trooper who serves on the board of the historical society. “There just aren’t many places like this left.”
On a recent afternoon, Sandy Sarlo and his daughter, Jennifer Allen, of Massachusetts, wandered around the greens. Sarlo, who lives in Arkansas, had come to Haverhill for job interview. He was driving down Route 10 when he spotted the historic district.
In Little Rock, very few buildings survived the Civil War, said Sarlo, who was snapping photographs of the commons. “I’m sending these home to my friends.”
Haverhill Historical Society has raised almost $200,000 in grants and donations to renovate the two-story Pearson Hall. Most of the exterior has been repaired, but work hasn’t started inside.
Celley, the historical society president, estimates the remaining repairs will total more than $500,000.
It’s a rough climate for grant writing. But people who know Celley say if anyone can come up with the money she can.
“She’s probably the best grant writer in town,” said longtime Town Manager Glenn English, who worked with Celley to find grants to restore Alumni Hall. She is very focused, a good organizer and “never asks someone to do something she wouldn’t do herself. That gives you a lot of credibility.”
The Big Picture: Recreation, Preservation and Development
Haverhill, home to about 4,800 people, is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. The recent restorations line up with the community’s three top goals, which English lists as providing recreation, preserving historic properties and promoting economic development.
Manufacturing has stayed pretty constant and retail has expanded, he said. The Woodsville July 4 parade and North Haverhill Fair draw thousands of people to the town every year. Still, tourism is “a tough sell,” English said.
The new arts center is helping.
It “provides a great resource for residents to see performing arts and experience the arts,” English said, and visitors come into the community and spend money.
The offerings include concerts, art classes and summer camps. The hall also serves as an interpretive center on the Connecticut River Byway, part of a chain of stopping-off places in towns along the river.
“The idea is to get people to come to waypoint centers and then explore locally,” English explained.
In 2011, Court Street Arts held its first Festival of Earthly Delights, a “tasting” event featuring live music and local foods, beers and wines.
Last year’s festival drew 750 people from almost 100 towns, said Keisha Luce, the nonprofit’s director, and their spring concert series is also catching on.
So far this year, three of five concerts have sold out, with concertgoers coming from as far away as Pennsylvania, Delaware and Canada, Luce said. The hall seats 165 people.
Luce, whom Celley hired when she was president of Haverhill Heritage, called her “remarkable.”
“She had a great career and retired and could have just traveled or done things for herself,” she said. “Instead, she decided to do something really significant for this community.”
Luce, who keeps in touch with Celley, said she is “not rigid,” which allows for a lot of possibilities. “When I started here, she just gave me the lay of the land and said, ‘Do what you need to do.’ ”
That openness to possibilities is also evident in Celley’s work with Pearson Hall.
“She comes at this with a passion for the history of the building, for the potential of what it could be in the future,” said Bergh, the project consultant.
The hall will be home to the historical society office and display its collections, including photographs and documents, which will be accessible for research, Celley said. It may also include regional history displays and partnerships with local organizations, such as schools.
Time to Delegate
As president of the historical society, Celley is forging ahead with the dream of her predecessor, the late John Page. Under her leadership, the historical society has kicked off the strategic planning process for Pearson Hall and brought in Bergh to help. They have also begun holding monthly meetings.
“She just keeps all these issues alive, and we talk about them all the time,” Marshall said.
Even at 85, her hair white, her walk slowed, there’s an energetic lightness to Celley. A woman at ease in her body and life, it’s easy to imagine her in years past, cresting mountains on her bicycle, playing basketball and tap dancing at Alumni Hall. But facing health problems and failing hearing, Celley finds herself slowing down.
As president of Haverhill Heritage Inc., she did everything from type meeting minutes to make mailing labels. This time around, she’s delegating.
“I’m not doing as much hands on,” she said. “That’s why I am so interested in getting board members who have skills and who will do things.”
After the Pearson Hall meeting, Marshall sent personalized thank-you notes to each attendee, a task Celley couldn’t have managed.
“He was able to mention things that I may have heard in a general way,” she said. “I couldn’t have said what he said.”
For a woman accustomed to having unlimited energy, the change is frustrating.
“I’ve found that if I have one major thing to do each day, I’ll probably have to take a nap after I do it,” she said.
Celley, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a heart condition, attends cardiac rehab twice a week. Once an avid swimmer, she now opts for the treadmill and exercise bike at home in the room she jokingly calls her “gym.”
Her beloved bicycles, three of them, hang in the garage. She’s considering taking them to the Old Spokes Home, a shop in Burlington, to be rehabbed and sold.
“I’m perfectly happy not to go to social gatherings because of my hearing,” said Celley, who keeps in touch with friends and family via email.
Otherwise, she stays active as she can, having lunch and walking with friends, those who are still around.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends,” she said.
‘Nobody Ever Told Me What I Should Grow Up to Be’
Celley has lived alone since her mother died in 1976. An only child, she has few living relatives — just a cousin and her family. She never married or had children. And that’s fine with her.
“I dated, but I dated these impossible men,” she said, like the brilliant doctor she met on a bike tour in California.
He was interesting, but unstable, “just flash and dash,” she said. “He was very nice to know and pal around with for a while.”
Others were also smart and interesting, but there was no one she could imagine herself with over the long haul.
“I didn’t seem to attract nice, stable men,” she said, laughing. But then again, she said, she wasn’t really looking. “When my friends started getting married and having babies, I thought, ‘I don’t want a child,’ ” she said. “I just didn’t like children that much, frankly.”
In addition to working abroad, Celley also explored the world by bicycle. She took cycling trips across United States and in Canada, Yugoslavia, New Zealand, Germany and France.
“I’m very happy that I’ve stayed independent and single,” she said. “I couldn’t have done the things I did.”
She may have gotten the travel bug from her mother, who in 1925, drove across the country with a friend.
“It was quite an adventure,” she said. “They put the Model T on a ship in California and traveled home … through the Panama Canal.”
Her parents had encouraged her to think for herself.
“Nobody ever told me what I should grow up to be,” she said. “I never have been (afraid to try new things), and I’m not afraid to go different places.”
Her lifestyle may have raised a few eyebrows among her friends’ mothers, Celley said, but otherwise she didn’t catch much flak. And even if she had, she doesn’t appear to trouble herself about what is or is not done. In fact, she seems just about fearless. Except, maybe, for one thing.
Celley, who loves to dance, recently went to some parties at Alumni Hall. But she never made it to the dance floor.
“Everybody was coming with a partner,” she explained.
Her neighbor, who also went to the hall alone, got up and danced anyway, Celley said.
“I didn’t quite have the confidence to do that.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.