Ray Duckler: Pittsfield honors Schroth, kind, colorful
It turns out, maybe Dan Schroth isn’t crazy like the cuckoo birds that run free on his property.
Then again, maybe he is, indeed, a cuckoo bird.
Just one with a big heart.
View him anyway you’d like, but there’s no arguing that the town’s most polarizing, colorful, opinionated resident is the latest winner of Pittsfield’s Citizen of the Year award, announced this month in the town’s weekly paper.
Schroth is a local story merely through his behavior. He’s the guy who extends town meetings, making voters roll their eyes. He thumbs his nose at local officials, calls marijuana “grass” and thinks it should be legal.
He’s the guy with more stories than Hans Christian
Andersen, telling anyone within earshot about the time he went AWOL from the Navy, and the time he told his superiors to shoot him.
And now, with a reputation as a feisty rebel with lots of causes, a panel of past Citizen of the Year winners has chosen Schroth to join their select group.
“If you do enough for the town and work hard enough and do it long enough, you might get recognized,” Schroth says. “Then again, you might not.”
His stone-wall building, done on a volunteer basis, is what got him recognized. His wife, Nancy, estimates her husband has donated up to $500,000 worth of work and materials to spruce up the town he loves.
There’s the stone wall running the length of the tree line in the outfield of the new ball field, the stone wall forming the backdrop at Lyman Park and the stone triangles sprinkled around town, with yellow and purple and green flowers.
“I think he certainly deserves it,” said local dentist Cedric Dustin III, president of the town’s historical society. “I just wasn’t sure if he’d ever get named, but he’s fully deserving of the honor.
“I don’t know if controversial is the right word for him, but his history in town is such that there are some people who aren’t going to be able to separate that from his deeds that he’s done around town as a volunteer,” Dustin continued. “That was my thought, but obviously there were a number of people who could see that he deserved it.”
Through the years, no one could have seen this coming.
Wasn’t Schroth the one who got caught smoking pot in the engine room of a submarine, back in the Navy? And wasn’t Schroth the one who couldn’t handle military service after three years, eventually running off to work at Sprague Electric before turning himself in?
That’s what he says happened.
And he swears by it.
“I spent three years trying to prove I was bad enough to get out of the Navy,” says Schroth, 57. “Eventually, I ended up asking for a firing squad. I told them I wanted to die, but I didn’t want to kill myself, and I finally got sent home.”
He settled in Pittsfield after the Navy, moving his old trailer there from Connecticut. It’s where he and Nancy now live, down a rocky, bumpy road, 3 miles from downtown, on 10 acres of land with horses and roosters and chicks and dogs and cats and those nutty cuckoo birds, which is what they’re actually called.
And around 1999, about a year before Schroth became a selectman, the kookiness he’d grown accustomed to surfaced in town.
When a friend and neighbor tried to open a truck repair business from his old garage, the zoning board said “no,” Schroth, rushing to his friend’s defense, said “yes,” and the feud was on.
“That’s when the town split,” Schroth says.
Schroth gathered names on a petition and made noise outside the town meeting. The town voted in favor of individual property rights, the lawsuits flew from both sides and, to this day, Schroth continues to fight over zoning laws he says are unconstitutional.
In recent years, Schroth has fought for the legalization of “grass.” And, after the tornado of 2008 ripped through Pittsfield and surrounding areas, Schroth collected the downed trees and branches in his backyard, carved them into what he called “Tornadowood” benches and sold them.
Of course, the town’s building inspector and selectmen said Schroth’s retail business was illegal, calling it a zoning violation.
Fast forward to the present, and a few benches remain in front of Schroth’s mobile home, a big sign announcing their sale.
“I ignore all zoning laws,” Schroth declared.
Through the controversy, Schroth kept a thick skin. “A backbone,” was how Nancy described it.
Nancy, though, heard the whispers about her husband, which at times weren’t exactly whispers.
“When he was a selectman, I went to the store and I heard people bad-mouthing him in the parking lot,” Nancy said. “I started crying. I bought a new car so I wouldn’t be recognized.”
My, how things have changed.
At the Pittsfield Youth Athletic Field yesterday, where that stone wall stretches beyond the left field fence, local businessman and former Pittsfield resident Fuzz Freese, now of Gilmanton, stopped by.
He’s helped Schroth on a project or two.
“The guy is so generous with his time,” Freese said. “I started working with him in the mid 1990s. He’s always jumping into something. He can be very polarizing, but this stuff out here stands on its own.”
Freese continued, talking about how Schroth builds his walls as deep as they are tall. “High quality,” he said, adding that Schroth and his crews use tractors, crowbars and muscle to move the rocks into place.
The town, apparently, noticed.
Schroth was honored recently at the annual Old Home Day Parade in downtown Pittsfield. He waved from the back of a convertible, part of a long line of bands and fire trucks and floats.
He wore a hard hat for what critics have said is his hard head. The hard hat had Ron Paul stickers on it.
“I felt like a movie star,” Schroth said. “I could not have been happier. Like I said, sometimes you get recognized, sometime you don’t.”