Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The original Slab Castle, 1900-1924 (Part 2)

The three-story Manning & Penick building on the west side of the square housed the Penick family bank, Chariton National; The two-story brick building to the south (now the Stanton Building) housed Smith H. Mallory's rival bank, First National.
The original Slab Castle, built during 1900 on bluffs along the Chariton River in Benton Township, can't be separated from its builder, Harry Otho Penick, so it's useful to know more about this self-assured young man and his family. 

His parents were William Calvin and Martha (Thompson) Penick, who arrived in Eddyville, Iowa, from Ohio during 1853. William was a school teacher who went to work for Edwin Manning, southeast Iowa merchant prince headquartered in Keosauqua, at his Eddyville store; became a partner in the firm and, during 1862, moved to Chariton to open a Manning & Penick branch.

The venture prospered and during 1869, Manning & Penick built the three-story brick building that still stands (although shorn of its historic facade) just north of the alley on the west side of Chariton's square.

In 1876, Manning & Penick ended its retail operation and bought controlling interest in The Chariton Bank, which had been operating out of one of its business rooms. The partners continued to operate the bank, later reorganized as Chariton National Bank, until 1901, when Edwin Manning died and the Penicks assumed full ownership.

Harry O. Penick was born in Chariton on Oct. 7, 1867, the youngest of the Penick children. The family home was, at the time, one of the grandest houses in town, located on the hilltop where a much newer house now stands, lot bounded by the L-shaped Southgate Apartments parking lot and the uphill curve a brief segment of South Main that climbs northward from Highway 14 to become Woodlawn Avenue.

After attending Chariton schools, Harry was dispatched in 1884 at the age of 17 eastward to Rockland College in Nyak, New York, which advertised itself as a "Ladies' and Gentlemen's Seminary." That lasted a year before he transferred to St. Paul's School at Garden City, Long Island, an all-boys prep school operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. He put in two years there, then transferred again --- this time to Riverview Academy, another prep school in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Now 20 and on the verge of becoming a professional student, he was nominated by politician friends of his father to become a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point --- and was admitted. Assigned initially to the West Point Class of 1894, lengthy sick leave during his second year resulted in reassignment to the Class of 1895.

Although Harry implied at times that he was a West Point graduate, he was not. He resigned during 1894 and soon was back in Chariton and at work in the family bank.

There's little doubt that young Penick became a skillful businessman and accomplished banker as the years passed, but it had taken a while to reach the starting gate. As the 19th Century ended, he advanced to assistant cashier, cashier, then cashier and vice-president of the bank. He also launched a lucrative career in real estate, dealing in land not only in Iowa but also in Louisiana and other points South where there still was money to be made in the depressed post-Civil War economy.

It also is quite possible that Harry was an annoying young man, or at least such a possibility is suggested by the opening paragraph he commissioned, when he was 29, for his "vanity" biography in the 1896 Memorial and Biographical Record of Iowa. Here's how it reads:

"Harry O. Penick is one of the most popular, prominent and honored young men of Chariton, and the record of his life is one that will interest many. A perfect specimen of physical manhood, endowed with superior mental capacities, furnished with the advantages that  wealth can procure and social standing give, he certainly has a brilliant future before him and with his endowments will grace any position that he may accept or to which he may be called."

Don't you just want to smack him?

Harry also parlayed his military training at West Point into a modest military career. On April 22, 1895, he was commissioned as captain of the new Iowa National Guard unit headquartered in Chariton: Company H, Second Infantry Regiment. Two years later, on January 11, 1897, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and named assistant adjutant general of the First Brigade, headquartered in Burlington and including both the Second and Third reigments.

During January of 1898, Harry married Mabel Bradbury Wadleigh in a glittering society wedding at Christ Church Episcopal in Burlington, then moved into a new home on east Auburn Avenue and, in 1900, built Slab Castle as a rustic retreat for themselves, daughter Mildred, family members and friends.

Chariton newspapers of 1901 and early 1902 are peppered with accounts of outings to Slab Castle by the Penicks and their friends.

Then, tragedy struck. During early May of 1902, Mabel Penick returned to Chariton mildly ill after a visit with her parents in Burlington. The illness grew more severe as the month passed, specialists were brought in from Chicago after Chariton physicians had been baffled and on May 17, Mabel died of what her obituary declared was "a clog in the action of the liver, resulting in blood poisoning." She had just turned 28 on May 7.

After the funeral, little Mildred was sent home with her maternal grandparents to Burlington while Harry got on with life. In 1903, he sold the family home to George W. and Emma Larimer, who remodeled it to fit their needs and moved in.

During the same year, Harry built a fine new home for himself in Chariton's brand new Spring Lake subdivision --- formerly a corn field in south Chariton developed by his brother, William B. Penick, and platted with streets intersecting South Eighth bearing family names --- Grace for a daughter, Penick for his family and Stuart, for his sister and brother-in-law, Ida M. (Penick) and Frank Q. Stuart. Other impressive family homes were built in the new neighborhood, equipped with its own water and sewer systems, lacking elsewhere in Chariton.

Slab Castle continued to be a destination for outings by family and friends, but an annoyance crept in --- the unauthorized curious and others in search of a place to gather and picnic began to use the castle's park-like grounds, too, even explore its buildings. As a result, Harry published a series of notices in Chariton newspapers during the latter half of 1903 informing the public that "All persons are forbidden to enter the grounds or building known as Slab Castle unless by personal invitation from me. H.O. Penick."

Harry also became during 1903 more deeply involved in the real estate end of his financial operations, investing heavily in both Iowa and Louisiana land. In doing the latter, he became acquainted with one of Louisiana's most powerful and affluent men --- former Louisiana Gov. and current U.S. Sen. Murphy James Foster.

He also began to court Foster's 20-year-old daughter, Elizabeth --- and that would change both the course of his life and the future of Slab Castle.

--- Stay Tuned for Part 3

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