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A Life: Geraldine Estelle Deal Searles; ‘She was a dynamo’

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    Gerry Searles, right, of Lebanon, N.H., and Gordon Thomas look at the mural painted by Peter Michael Gish in the Vermont Room at the Coolidge Hotel in White River Junction, Vt., during an opening of the artist's work Friday, June 5, 2009. "Every time I come back, I've got to come and look at these because I think these murals are exceptionally good," said Thomas, a Dartmouth classmate of Gish. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Joseph Su and his daughter Anwen, of Nashua, N.H., look around Ruggles Mine in Grafton, N.H., on June 15, 2016. They had come to the mine not knowing it was closed. A real estate agent overseeing the mine property was there when they arrived so they were able to see the site. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Gerry Searles in an undated family photograph. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/28/2021 8:13:23 PM
Modified: 2/28/2021 8:33:35 PM

GRAFTON — Many ex-spouses get a home, a car or a boat in a divorce. Gerry Searles got a mine.

Searles, the former owner of Ruggles Mine in Grafton, took ownership of the former feldspar and mica pit which she and her husband at the time, Arvid Wahlstrom, had turned into a flourishing tourist attraction, after they were divorced in the early 1970s.

To outsiders, the deeply excavated crater in the earth on the top of Isinglass Mountain that had been a working mine dating back to 1803 might look like an eyesore. But for Searles, who died on Dec. 29, 2020, at 95 at Hanover Terrace, the craggy pit was a beauteous wonder.

“She thought the mine was absolutely gorgeous,” said Searles’ daughter, Andrea Brownell, who assisted her mother in running the tourist destination from when she was a little girl until the site closed in 2015. “She loved being on top of that mountain and looking at Mount Cardigan to the north and Mount Kearsarge to the south.”

Searles did not set out to own a mine.

Growing up outside of Boston, Gerry Deal (Searles was the name of her second husband) dreamed of attending art school. But her engineer father said that would not be practical — it was the late 1930s and the Great Depression — and she instead was steered toward secretarial school.

Searles did, for a time, get to exercise her artistic talent as a colorist for a portrait photographer in Boston — for whom she got to touch up photos of the Kennedy family — but when she married Wahlstrom, a Boston University graduate with an eye on business ventures, they purchased a mica mine near Plymouth, N.H.

That didn’t work out, but, undeterred, the couple — by this time they had a son, John, 2, and newly-born Andrea — next purchased Ruggles Mine from a soap company in 1961 for $20,000.

When the government stopped stockpiling mica a couple years later, Wahlstrom decided there were probably enough amateur geologists — some 60 different minerals were found at the site, from albite to uranium to zircon — and sightseers around to turn the 160-year old mine into a tourist attraction.

“My dad just looked at the enormity of it and saw the potential and said, ‘if we can’t make it in the mining business, we can make it in the tourist business,’ ” recounted Brownell. “It was my dad’s idea.”

“Everybody kind of laughed at them, especially when they called it ‘World Famous Ruggles Mine,’ ” said their son, John Wahlstrom. “The first day they made three bucks. From there it took off. We’d get 200 people on a weekend. People stopped laughing.”

The concept was simple: sell tickets for entry and provide a hammer and bucket for sightseers to descend into the open pit and chip away at the rocks. Later, when she was running Ruggles Mine and the 230-acre property on her own, Searles added a gift shop and “museum” which she curated with old mining industry tools and equipment such as miner’s lanterns, old detonators and antique dump carts and a mineral collection.

Searles relished the smiles on children’s faces as they scampered back from the pit, their buckets filled with rocks.

“The children are wonderful,” Searles told the Valley News in 2016, when the family had put the property up for sale. “Especially the little boys with their buckets full of rocks. They get so excited about them. The schools do a good job of teaching them about these things, and they come in very knowledgeable about what they’re looking for.”

There was no aspect of the business that Searles shied away from, according to family members.

“She taught herself to use the computer so she could do all her own books,” said her son John. “Once a year she’d take them to the accountant to make sure everything was cool. She was thrifty.”

Despite the rustic nature of Ruggles Mine, Searles always appeared more like she belonged on the sales floor in the couture department than behind the counter of a rocks display and tourist gift shop.

“She was very particular about her appearance,” said daughter Andrea Brownell.

“Make-up and hair, like every day,” recalled granddaughter Rhiannon Brownell.

“The most amazing outfits and jewelry,” Rhiannon’s sister, Robyn Tragresser, said of their grandmother.

But Searles didn’t hold herself above other people and did what was required to make ends meet when in the early years Ruggles Mine was struggling financially and it would be closed during winter.

“She was very serious about work. We lived in Boston for awhile and Gerry worked at Jordan Marsh and Filene’s Basement as a cashier. She wasn’t too proud to do anything,” said John.

There were little life lessons Searles believed were important to remind her children and grandchildren.

“If I was bummed out about something, she’d say ‘put a smile on your pretty face,’ Andrea remembers.

“She’d say, ‘sit up straight.’ Gram had incredible manners and was always reminding us to be gracious,” Rhiannon Brownell said. “Her house was immaculate.”

But Searles could also be the tough as the New Hampshire outdoors.

When he was 11 years old, “she took me hunting,” Searles’ son, John related, when his father had been absent.

” ‘Here’s your gun,’ ” John remembers his mother telling him handing him a rifle. “She wanted me to be a man.”

Later, in her 40s, when she married Cardigan Mountain School English teacher Bob Searles, an avid skier, Gerry Searles took up the sport for the first time. Nothing stopped her — even breaking her leg four times.

“She just kept at it,” said John. “She was a dynamo.”

Rekindling her youthful passion in art, Searles painted watercolors as an adult. She participated in weekly classes for 20 years with Meriden painter Aidron Duckworth and had a painting studio built at her home in Lebanon she shared with husband Bob Searles, who died in 2003.

“She loved landscapes,” said Grace Harde, a close friend and fellow artist. “She produced watercolors as easily as water runs down a river. She was brilliant at painting flowers.”

(Some of Searles’ paintings can be can be seen on the website of the Aidron Duckworth Art Museum.)

John Wahlstrom said a variety of factors led his mother to close Ruggles Mine in 2015. Insurance was becoming difficult to get because the only source of power was an on-site generator. And tourists — Wahlstrom believes because of the rise of digital entertainment that has felled once popular family activities like roller skating rinks and bowling alleys — stopped showing up in the numbers they used to.

The family sold the mine to Exciglow LLC for an estimated $500,000 in 2019.

Daughter Andrea Brownell, who helped run Ruggles Mine until it closed and now resides in Florida where her two daughters also live, said she can never forget the words she often heard her mother sigh.

“It was ‘I love my mountain,’ ” Brownell said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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