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George Leslie is 77 now, but he's been obsessed with the life cycle of butterflies since childhood. "I used to grow two and three hundred Monarchs every summer, just for fun, and let them go," Leslie remembers.
When Leslie was 59, he turned his hobby into a family business after reading about English butterfly houses. He bought five acres of land in Westford, where he designed and built a 3,000-square-foot atrium made of wood, glass and steel. Leslie then filled it with nectar-rich plants to feed up to 500 butterflies at a time.
But two weeks ago a major supporting beam splintered.
"The roof fell in. That's all I heard and all I could think of was, somebody is under that — that's all I thought of coming in the door," Leslie says, "And I came in and everybody was safe. And I think the first thing that came out of my mouth was, 'That's it, we're done. We're done. It's over.' "
Then, Leslie alerted the Department of Agriculture, which provides permits for The Butterfly Place. Next, Leslie says he and his three employees grabbed nets to capture the delicate creatures that escaped.
"We had Monarchs, Morning Cloaks, Question Marks, Commas," Leslie lists off, "some Cabbage Whites — which are very common — a number of local Swallowtails."
They recovered as many as they could. Leslie estimates that, of the 200 or so that got out, a dozen or two got away. The rest were sent to another butterfly conservatory.
Now, at Leslie's place, there is nothing but piles of dirt and broken glass because a bulldozer razed the wrecked atrium earlier this week. Still, the learning center and gift shop are open for visitors, which number about 40,000 a year.
Leslie's daughter Sylvia runs the store. She remembers a childhood filled with winged things and says she's in shock over the collapse. All week she's had to spread the word to schools that were planning to bring students in the fall.
"We really hated disappointing people," Sylvia says. "We had to call people this year and say, 'I'm so sorry, we don't know what's going to happen, so we can't have you arrange a bus and think you're going to come on a field trip.' Same thing with our wedding ceremonies."
And birthday parties. Joyce Badard of nearby Nashua celebrated her five-year-old's birthday here last September. After hearing about the collapse, she brought pictures from the party to The Butterfly Place. Badard says she hopes owner George Leslie will rebuild the butterfly atrium.
Leslie says that's what he wants, too. "If we can possibly do it, we'll do it," he says. "But we don't have any capital set aside to do anything like that. If we don't get it from insurance and donations, we don't do it. Simple as that."
Leslie estimates it could cost more than $200,000 to construct a new pavilion, and he hopes to have answers in the next few weeks. But he said he has faith in the possibility of transformation.
"I've probably watched butterflies hatch 100,000 times, probably, in my lifetime , and that's probably not an exaggeration," Leslie says, "and I still find it fascinating when a butterfly is about to come out of that chrysalis, I gotta watch it."
If all goes as he hopes, George Leslie will be able to watch that metamorphosis in his transformed Butterfly Place sometime within the next year.
This program aired on August 13, 2009.
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