UNITY — Earlier this month Mike Ahern of Plymouth returned to his childhood home with his three youngest children to show them where he had grown up and to try to solve the mystery of the missing jail keys.
Ahern, 47, grew up in the Sullivan County Home in Unity where his father, Omer Ahern Sr., had been the superintendent and his mother, Rosa Ahern, had been the matron. He was the youngest of seven children.
From his birth in Claremont till the day he left for college, the property that included the county's jail, nursing home and farm had been his home. He delivered newspapers to residents of the nursing home after Mass on Sunday mornings, would make ice cream from the milk inmates collected from the farm's dairy herd, and lived in a large house that had separate accommodations for those in the community who couldn't quite make it in society and would live and work on the farm.
"It was like the 'Shining.' The third floor was just these rows of rooms with two bathrooms on the ends. The house was huge," Ahern said. "It was the most incredible childhood growing up there with my six brothers and sisters. It was just amazing to live there and to grow up there. And we were one of the last families to live like that."
They were one of the last husband-and-wife teams to run such an institution, he said.
When his parents retired in 1984, the couple was replaced with three people who then separately ran the county farm, jail and nursing home, Ahern said.
The county farm that the inmates worked is no longer there, but the nursing home now called Sullivan County Health Care and the jail, the Sullivan County House of Corrections, are still there.
His retired parents returned to their farm in Plymouth, where today Ahern owns and runs Glove Hollow Christmas Tree Farm.
His father died in 2008 and then his mother in 2009. But before his father's death, Ahern had asked a friend to interview his father and write up his memories of working at the county home.
"My dad was an incredible man; he was part of that greatest generation," Ahern said.
It had been many years ago, but last fall his friend found audio recordings of the interview that Ahern had not known about. He didn't have a cassette player, so he had to have the cassettes converted to CDs.
In the recordings Ahern has been able to learn things about his father's work that he had never known, such as the mystery of the missing jail keys.
"Listening to the tapes ... there were just some amazing stories about the jail and the county home," he said.
The story of the missing keys started one night when a prison guard reported being overpowered and knocked out by four inmates. Omer Ahern Sr. got his revolver and went to search for the men in the woods. Finding the inmates, though he was alone, he shouted to them that they were surrounded and that they had better come out with their hands up.
"They came out of the woods and he walked them at gunpoint back to their cells," Ahern said. "And he finished the story by saying, 'We never found the keys,' and I thought, 'Wow, now the grandchildren can help the grandfather.'"
So on June 2, with metal detector in hand, Ahern and his children Julia, 10, Cole, 8, and Amanda, 5, went searching for the keys.
"It was the neatest trip. My kids had a blast," he said.
Before searching the woods, they walked the grounds. His old family home was no longer there, but he found another building on the property that had been named after his parents.
"We're walking around and all of a sudden they see this sign that has their name on it," Ahern said.
In the nursing home he found the tunnel that went under the road from his house to the nursing home and walked it with his children till they found it had been cemented off halfway through.
It was an exciting trip, but they did not find the keys when they searched the woods and an oncoming storm caused them to cut their time in the woods short. They plan to return, though, and search again.
Ahern said growing up living next to a jail, he felt perfectly safe.
His older sister Karen Arel, 61, of Kennebunk, Maine, though, said she remembers several instances of inmates getting away and of one time when a former inmate, who wanted to kill her father, came back with a gun looking for him.
The man was caught, before he found her father, she said. "There was always someone, a Guardian Angel, looking out for him," she said of her father.
"Every time there was a prison break my dad would take his revolver out of the locked file cabinet and take a look and my mother had us all praying. It was scary for us," Arel said. "I didn't remember the keys getting lost, but I remember how many times he went out and got them back to the jail. He went out a lot."
Arel, who was the second oldest child in the family, said she loved her childhood at the county home.
She could see her father talking four inmates out of the woods, by himself, she said, "He was very mild-mannered and calm."
For the most part the inmates were not hardened criminals. Her father knew them all by name and they worked on the property, on the farm or in the nursing home, in a minimum security situation.
"My mom used to say the world is made up of a lot of different people and you have to learn to get along with all of them," Arel said.
She remembered one inmate who got into an altercation with her father. The inmate threw her father against a wall, which caused her father to hit his head and suffer a concussion.
Her father didn't report the incident because that would have meant a state prison sentence for the inmate and her father didn't think the man was beyond redemption.
"He would always look for the good in people and always tried to make it work," she said. "The guy ended up turning his life around and helping kids on the streets and actually saved some lives."
Arel said she got a great deal of work experience at the county home, working in almost every aspect of the home.
By the time she grew up she could hook rugs, cane chairs, run a laundry room or kitchen and was a certified nurse's aide. She also would help her parents put together the facility's budget.
She went on to be a nursing home administrator in Goffstown.
“Today she is a president of the Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce and can practically put budgets together in her head, she said.
"I am a better person for having grown up there and having worked there," Arel said. "We had a very good life. We had our parents around us and we got to see people who hardly had anything. We learned how to be more compassionate and understanding of people."
If you've seen any keys ...