Nothing would have disappointed and offended Mrs. Elizabeth Cowledge more than the knowledge that some people in Valley Falls found her ongoing efforts at humanitarianism and benefaction a bit snobbish and condescending. The Butterfly Collector was not necessarily among them of course but then he had a way of seeing things from multiple perspectives, ever the devil’s advocate. He and Mrs. Cowledge, or Beth as he called her sometimes were about the same age but on the surface that’s where the similarities ended. She was the great-granddaughter of the town’s most famous citizen, and for the most part its chief architect and founder, Ulysses J. Barley. She traced a fine lineage of upstanding citizens and pillars of the community through a well-pruned family tree right to the hearth of her beautiful fourth-generation, Victorian home at the corner of Main St. and Huron Lane. She lived there alone and as far as anyone could remember always had since her parents had died in a tragic car accident in 1959 on their way to a business trip to Manhattan.
Her uncle, Huff Browning had been the president of the local branch of the Upper Hudson Savings and Loan and a member of the Board of Trustees at the Valley Falls Memorial Hospital. The pennywise, balance sheet world of municipal finance was of no interest to the young, high-minded Beth Cowledge… but the hospital offered her an opportunity which was to shape and redirect her own life after the loss of her parents as well as the lives of many other young women, decidedly for the better. She had then almost single-handedly created a school of nursing at Valley Falls Memorial and had helped graduate countless capable and enthusiastic nurses into the medical profession beginning in 1962, despite having no background or training in medicine herself. Huff recommended her for his replacement on the hospital board when his own health concerns began to demand his greater attention and she found in the politics of small town hospital administration a certain kind of calling. Of course where there were gaps or oversights in the budget of the hospital’s day to day maintenance, she was all too willing to quietly write a check from her own account. This happened more than anyone could have imagined and there were only a few people who took particular note. Most of Valley Falls assumed that the state of New York in its infinite wisdom made their constant medical shortcomings go away magically and only Beth Cowledge’s personal accountant knew the full story.
It was not until the hospital closed its doors in 1997 and fell into receivership that Beth Cowledge realized she could not carry the burden of an insolvent hospital on her ageing shoulders any longer. The building was shuttered, the grounds closed by order of the local police department and the whole sad affair was put to auction. Valley Falls’ only hospital and chief employer was simply gone after 70 years of serving the community. Then, after nearly 10 years of descending rung by desperate rung a sad, vicious chain of bottom-feeding, greedy real-estate speculators, the hospital was purchased by an upstate land trust corporation. Long after the stripping and sale of every bit of medical equipment, filing cabinets, beds, desks, chairs, light fixtures, flagstones and copper wiring, the new owners were presented with a problem. What now? What to do with the poor old derelict hulk perched on the crest of Memorial Hill and falling steadily into disrepair with the passing of every unforgiving, harsh upstate winter.
Mrs. Elizabeth Cowledge met formally and informally with practically everyone who had had ever had anything to do with the once great hospital, including its former chief surgeon, the Butterfly Collector but to no avail. Finally, as a favor to its new owners she organized a town meeting. “What To Do With Valley Falls Memorial Hospital” was the headline on the flyers that circulated town leading up to the meeting. The rumor mill could hardly have outpaced the actual reality of what was happening by that point and the rumor mill in Valley Falls was a full tilt, 24 hour, 3-shift factory of unrestricted cruelty of imagination.
A web site was commissioned for the express purpose of pitching the hospital and its grounds to movie makers looking for a potential set for a sci-fi thriller. “A haunted insane asylum just waiting for the magic of Hollywood“ read the copy in red Helvetica html. How the creative minds behind that idea dismissed the less respectable genres of pornography, low-budget slasher, zombie apocalypse, paintball and laser tag was never fully explained. Mrs. Cowledge was nearly at her wit’s end when she a simple phone call to her first floor home office brought her in from tending her roses. It was a Thursday, the 18th of June. A warm day, but the deep rich southern-inflected voice on the other end of the crackly line warmed her more than the very spring sun itself. Something impossible to hope for was about to happen.