The Lake Champlain Islands are well-known for their water sports, fishing and spectacular sunsets but they have something a casual tourist (or local) might not expect… castles. In the town of South Hero stone castles are scattered throughout, but they are very small and are hard to find.
I remember driving along West Shore Road in South Hero about 25 years ago and seeing miniature castles, bird feeders, planters and fountains made of stone. I wondered why there were so many of these works of art in such a small area. Was this a local custom, or were they the work of one person?
Well, here’s the story:
Harry Barber was born in Switzerland and always had a strong fondness for the castles found throughout the country. After he was injured in a mining accident, and received a large settlement from the government in the 1920’s, he decided he wanted to travel to Chile in South America. On his way through France he was robbed, and decided he would work his way to the Americas aboard a freighter. The only one that he could find was bound for Montreal – a long way from his dream of Chile.
After arriving in Montreal, he began his journey to Chile on foot, and traveled south into Vermont. When he reached Grand Isle he met a young woman selling fruit. She saw that he was hungry, and offered him an orange.
Appreciative of her kindness, Harry decided to stay in the Islands for a while. With the woman’s help, he found work as a farm hand on nearby Providence Island, just off the coast of South Hero. He continued to see the girl, and fell in love with her. They eventually married and bought a home in South Hero.
Harry worked at a variety of jobs, but his true passion was always the castles that he remembered from his homeland. He created miniature buildings from local Vermont field stone. 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 South Hero stone castles, of course, were all modeled after the castles of his homeland. He put such craftsmanship and detail into them, that he soon developed a reputation. Soon, he worked for wealthy patrons – building his miniature castles on their lawns or near their gardens. He also built a few fountains.
Harry became truly inspired by his passion of constructing these castles, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade a local museum to display some of his work. But the museum turned him down, and told him they were not interested. Devastated, he committed suicide in 1966 at the age of 66. Though his motives were unclear, some say it was due to a broken heart. He deemed himself a failure after being rejected.
But Harry’s passion lives on. There are still some of these fountains and planters displayed on the lawns of several homes in South Hero. You can see examples of his passionate craftsmanship by touring the south end of South Hero, especially along West Shore Road.
Many of his original stone castles in South Hero, along with his planters and water fountains can still be seen scattered around many lawns or properties. The exact number of structures he built, and the number of those that survive are unknown. Most are on private property, and trespassing is inappropriate; others are hidden behind obstructions like plants. They are beautiful and unique reminders of a man with a dream and a fascinating story.
“Five castles, three houses, and several garden structures remain in the Islands. They vary in complexity. Some castles feature glazed windows, interior fireplaces, or dungeons. Others are wired for electricity and have the capability of running water in the moat. … All his creations are privately owned, and public access is not permitted; however four out of the five castles can be seen from the road.” – From a brochure issued by the Lake Champlain Bikeways.
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