Thursday, August 16, 2012

Trappers at Slab Castle


This photo of seven men and more than 50 fox pelts in front of a rustic cabin came to the Lucas County Historical Society a couple of years ago without identification, as many photos do, and we spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out who everyone was. This involved cornering anyone who seemed old enough to remember and asking, "Who are these guys?" and "What was going on?"

When all was said and done, everyone agreed that the guy in the middle was Jerry Wells, that it probably dated from the 1950s when trapping was engaged in with more enthusiasm than it is now and that the location might have been Slab Castle, a near-legendary name applied to a couple of buildings on the same site down along the Chariton River southeast of here. We had tentative identifications on the other men, but no guarantees.

Then I posted the photo yesterday to the Facebook page "You grew up in Chariton, Iowa, if you remember..." and before the day was done (a) Jim Taylor, whose dad, Bernard Taylor, owned the castle when the photo was taken, told me all I wanted to know about the photo and (b) identified all seven men. Now that's a success story.

Jim identified the men as (from left) Dick Beem, Verle Shimp, Pat Robinson, Jerry Wells, Hewitt Stout, Leo Foster and Bernard Taylor. Beem and Taylor had trapped the foxes and the photo was taken sometime during the late 1950s at Slab Castle.

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Slab Castle, both the original and this later more modest version, was located about a mile south of Salem Church (no longer standing) and cemetery, just east on a lane off the Blue Grass Road atop wooded bluffs rising there from the north bank of the Chariton River.

It was built near the turn of the 20th century by the Penick family, then movers and shakers in Chariton, as a retreat. It was not uncommon then, before recreational vehicles and easy access to lakeside cottages many miles away, for aspiring Chariton families to build rustic retreats a few miles from town as places to get away from it all.

The designation "castle" was tongue-in-cheek, although the original apparently was a substantial building, much more elaborate than the later cabin. "Slab," according to my dad --- who remembered the place --- referred to the fact the original was built of rough-sawn native lumber, or "slabs."

If you read the early newspapers, you'll find accounts of families and groups of young people driving out from Chariton by horse and buggy for picnics and other social gatherings at the "castle." Most likely the Penick family retreated there at times for longer stays when the weather was pleasant.

By some accounts, items of unwanted furniture from the Ilion, or Mallory's Castle, were utilized there after Annie Mallory and her daughter, Jessie (Mallory) Thayer, fled Chariton in 1909, taking most of that castle's contents with them to Orlando.

The original castle burned sometime during the late 1920s or 1930s, according to my dad --- who remembered the impressive blaze.

After that, the castle was rebuilt on the more modest scale seen here and became more of a hunting and trapping (and some say party) retreat for groups of men. According to Jim Taylor, his father had acquired the castle after the death during 1954 of its previous owner, Miller Ream.

The land around the castle was purchased for public use during the early 1960s as a part of the Rathbun Lake project because of liability and control issues, it became part of the Chariton River Greenbelt and the cabin was demolished.

For many years, the castle site was part of a public access area, but then the manufacture of methamphetamine became a growth industry and the remote location, a popular site for that. So the entrance was chained and I haven't looked lately to see if has been reopened.

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If you have links to Chariton and have never looked at the "If you member" site, you should. It's lots of fun, and Sanda Bland Stump has been posting many, many photos rescued from the Chariton newspapers' trash can there in recent weeks. If you'd like to stick around, the site now has 990 members and is growing. So I'll bet you could join if you'd like to. We've been playing the identification game quite a lot lately.

If you join, there's only one warning. Don't post unkind comments about Chariton. I've watched a couple of hapless snarks who tried that be chewed up by the general membership and spat out in small pieces. Other than that, everyone's friendly and well-behaved.

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