The History of Cedarcrest
In the summer of 1947, Dorothy “Dot” Sawyer, a retired occupational therapist, and Eleanor “Clemmie” Clement, a retired registered nurse, responded to a call for help from neighbors. Dot and Clemmie welcomed Judy, a six-year old with medical disabilities, into their old, six-room New Hampshire farmhouse at the top of a steep, dusty Westmoreland road.
The idea of a home and school for services for children with disabilities was a radical concept in a time when such children were often hidden away by their families. But the need was real and Cedarcrest was born.
Our first chapter begins in 1947. It is summertime in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, so the steep dirt road up to a six-room farmhouse is dusty but passable; spring and winter are two entirely different matters. The farmhouse is ordinary, but two extraordinary women are making a momentous decision inside it. A local family needs help with their child and the women decide to offer the family the help that they need. Dorothy “Dot” Sawyer and Eleanor “Clemmie” Clement were these two women, and their old farmhouse, originally called “Flying Pig Farm,” became what we know today as Cedarcrest.
Dot’s and Clemmie’s idea of a home for services for children with disabilities was a radical concept in a time when there was limited information on how to provide care to children with complex diagnoses. Many families struggled to find support. Approached by a friend of a local family to request care for a neighbor, six-year-old Judy joined them as the first resident. Word spread about Cedarcrest, and the resident population quickly grew. Starting with Flying Pig Farm and its 100-odd acres, Dot and Clemmie gradually bought more neighboring buildings. In 1950, Cedarcrest moved down the road to a bigger farmhouse, where it remained until 1990. Dot’s father built a house across the road from the Cedarcrest dormitory building. He called it “See-View,” and it later housed Cedarcrest’s first school. Food was prepared at the “big farm” (Dot’s and Clemmie’s house) and carried down to Cedarcrest; the laundry was done the same way. Until they hired Marolyn White as Cedarcrest’s first employee in 1951, Dot and Clemmie did most of the work themselves. Both were on call 24 hours a day providing services for children with disabilities.
Despite the generosity of private donors, by 1952, Cedarcrest’s financial needs were outstripping Dot and Clemmie’s valiant fund-raising efforts. Dr. Thomas Lacey was actively involved with Cedarcrest by this time, and he convinced the ladies that incorporating would help their fund-raising efforts. They agreed, and Cedarcrest was incorporated as a non profit organization on June 28, 1952. The new board of trustees elected Dorothy Sawyer as president, Eleanor Clement as secretary/treasurer, and Dr. Lacey as vice president.
As Cedarcrest’s population grew, so did the need for more space. The first expansion took place in 1959. Thanks to the generosity of individual and corporate donors, Cedarcrest was then able to accommodate twenty children. Five years after this first successful building drive, more room was needed. Again, the public response exceeded expectations. Cedarcrest was able to add a dormitory, two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, storage room, and an office, accommodating care for 25 children. Cooking and laundry could now be done in-house.
Medical care has always been a key component of everyday life at Cedarcrest, and the children served have been most fortunate over the years to have the loving expertise of dedicated physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals. In the 1950s, Doctors Lacey, Snowman and Laidlaw cared for the children. In 1960, Dr. Charles H. McMurphy made his first house call at Cedarcrest. With the exception of time out for his own vacations and illness, these visits continued regularly for the next 35 years. In 1969, Dr. McMurphy convinced a young nurse at Cheshire Hospital to visit Cedarcrest and to consider working there part-time. This nurse, Peg Knox, became Director of Nursing and served Cedarcrest for 43 years until her retirement. Another nurse, Sharon Kaiser, was looking for a part-time job, and Dot Sawyer suggested Cedarcrest. Sharon accepted the position at Cedarcrest in 1969. Dot passed away a short time later, and Clemmie, wishing to retire, asked Sharon to try the administrator’s job on a “trial basis.” Sharon’s “trial basis” lasted 26 years, until her retirement in 1995.
Cedarcrest’s history is studded with the kindness of many friends. Area snowmobilers held an annual “ride-in” to raise money for Cedarcrest. They would give the children rides on their machines, and the day would conclude with a winter barbecue back at Cedarcrest. This became a favorite Cedarcrest tradition. “Sugaring Time” was also a wonderful time for residents and visitors alike. The irresistible aroma of boiling sap would waft out the doors of the Cedarcrest sugarhouse as residents and volunteers helped boil sap and sample the finished product. Summer heralded the reopening of the swimming pool, Cedarcrest’s greatest luxury. The generosity and hard work of many volunteers kept the pool in working order for many years. Until the early 1970s Cedarcrest was a working farm, and residents helped care for sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, and ponies. The Cedarcrest children so enjoyed riding the ponies that community volunteers built them a pony-riding ring. The Cheshiremen Barbershoppers shared a very special holiday celebration each year with the children and their families. Sewing and quilting groups of the Monadnock Region lovingly create the home-like touches that help Cedarcrest feel like home to the children and families alike.
Cedarcrest’s first school opened in 1971 and classes were held in the basement of “See-View.” Four years later, the classes were moved into a 24×50 foot trailer adjacent to the main building, and there it remained until the move to Keene in 1990. A state-approved school within the building has been a tremendous asset for both the children and their teachers. In 1999, Cedarcrest extended its education services to include day students. The school program integrates special education services with the therapy and nursing support services.
The Cedarcrest population changed dramatically because of the federal laws passed in the 1970s. While previous residents were often able to perform simple chores, now most had significant disabilities. Many residents were unable to walk or feed themselves and were dependent upon their caregivers. The physical limitations of the three-floor, 200-year-old farmhouse became increasingly apparent.
At the same time, the role of the Cedarcrest Board of Trustees was evolving from advisory to hands-on leadership. Under the guidance of trustees Jim Barnes and Dick Snowman, the board started seriously discussing a capital campaign to either completely renovate the old building or purchase property at a new site. After much discussion and study, the Board decided that it would be more cost-effective to build a new facility, preferably a more accessible property. After ten years of campaigning by phone and making personal contacts, $1 million was raised and the Cedarcrest trustees purchased five acres on Maple Avenue in Keene, New Hampshire. The official groundbreaking for a new facility took place on June 28, 1989. Construction proceeded smoothly, and on June 9, 1990, the children of Cedarcrest moved into their new home and school. In 1995, after guiding the organization through this major transition, Sharon Kaiser stepped down as administrator. Catherine “Cathy” Gray was recruited from a similar organization in Vermont. She led the organization for 26 years until she retired in 2021. Jay Hayston succeeded her as president and CEO.
Given the increasing complexity of the children’s medical needs, the improved access to medical services for children with disabilities in Keene has been a distinct advantage. A future search planning process in 1998 helped set the course for the future to ensure that children with complex medical and/or developmental needs and their families continue to have an option for quality care in a safe, loving, and professional environment.
Cedarcrest’s rich history has laid a solid foundation for today’s work. A firm commitment to meet the needs of the children and their families; strong nursing, educational, and therapy programs and services; and a warm, homelike environment are Cedarcrest’s building blocks, but the mortar is the caring, dedicated people who have brought Cedarcrest this far. It is people such as these who will also guide Cedarcrest into an exciting, challenging future.