Thursday, June 11, 2015

From Slab Castle to Cliff Rest (Part 3)

The Slab Castle entrance drive, blocked now by heavy cable, once was framed by a rustic wooden arch.

To recap a little, Harry O. and Mabel Penick built Slab Castle on bluffs above the Chariton River in Benton Township as a rustic retreat from city life in Chariton during 1900, two years after their 1898 marriage. Then, in May of 1902, Mabel died unexpectedly at age 28; their infant daughter, Mildred, was sent off to Burlington to live with her maternal grandparents; and Harry got on with life.

He continued to work in the family bank, Chariton National, but expanded his real estate dealings --- especially in Louisiana, Arkansas and elsewhere in the South. In Chariton, during 1903, he sold the home he had shared with Mabel and Mildred and built a grand new one in the Spring Lake subdivision --- and at some point during that year began to court Elizabeth Foster, at 19 some 16 years his junior, whose home base was the family plantation, Dixie, near Franklin, Louisiana.

They were married at Dixie Plantation on Jan. 26, 1904, roughly a year and a half after the unfortunate Mabel's death. Quite a number of prominent Louisianians were present, but very few Lucas Countyans other than Ed Lockwood, his groomsman, who had served in the same capacity at his first marriage ceremony in Burlington in 1898.


Harry married into an interesting --- and useful --- family. Elizabeth's father was Murphy James Foster (left), born during 1849 on a family plantation near Franklin but too young for Civil War service. Educated at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, Cumberland University in Lebanon, Kentucky, and the University of Louisiana (now Tulane) in New Orleans, he was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1871.

Foster grew rich as a planter, businessman and politician during the Reconstruction era in Louisiana and in 1892 was elected governor, then re-elected in 1896, narrowly defeating a Republican populist opponent --- sort of. There was so much fraud involved in the election that an accurate vote count never was possible.

During his second term, Foster helped ensure that close elections like that wouldn't happen again by endorsing in 1898 a new state constitution that disenfranchised for generations the state's black population --- most of whom had voted Republican. He also oversaw the institutionalization of segregation in his home state as the Legislature enacted a series of Jim Crow laws.

After leaving office in 1900, Foster was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Louisiana Legislature, served in that position until 1913 and thereafter was appointed customs collector in New Orleans by President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, as a reward for helping to hobble the Republican party in the South by disenfranchising blacks. Throughout all of this, money poured in.


Harry and Elizabeth, who had honeymooned in Washington, D.C., and New York City, arrived in Chariton during late February of 1904 and settled into the new Spring Lake home that Harry had built the preceding year. By this time, Harry was both vice-president and a director of Chariton National Bank, owned entirely by the Penicks since the 1901 death of Edwin Manning.

During the next year, there was a good deal of back and forth travel between Louisiana and Chariton. The Penicks headed south frequently to spend holidays and other occasions at Dixie Plantation; Elizabeth's parents, sisters and friends traveled north at other times to check out Chariton.

Elizabeth's mother and other family members from Louisiana arrived in Chariton for a visit during early May of 1905 and on Wednesday morning, May 18, set out to spend a few days and nights at Slab Castle. At 4:45 a.m. Thursday, neighbors in Chariton awoke and discovered the Penicks' new Spring Lake home fully engulfed in flames.

It burned to the ground with all its contents. The cause was declared "mysterious" and never discovered. "Was it the work of some dastardly incendiary who took advantage of the family's absence to destroy their home and property?" The Patriot asked in its report.

The Penick loss was estimated at between $12,000 and $14,000 including contents, including "hundreds of dollars worth of silverware, cut-glass and countless other articles of great value, many of which were presents to them at their wedding." Harry, whose bank was in the insurance business, too, described the loss as "partially insured."

Questions about whether the Penicks planned to rebuild were soon answered --- when they left town for good.

Within a month, Harry had secured a position as treasurer of the Whitney Trust Co., headquartered in New Orleans and described as the largest trust company in the South. He and Elizabeth boarded a train in Chariton on Sunday, June 11, bound for Louisiana and a new life. Harry's daughter, Mildred, joined them there.

In the months that followed, Harry resigned his positions at Chariton National Bank, sold his interest in that institution and disposed of a variety of other Lucas County assets.

In New Orleans, he soon was appointed cashier of Central Trust and Savings Bank, 121 Camp Street --- and prospered.


Back in Lucas County, Slab Castle --- although still used for occasional outings by the extended Penick family and their friends --- languished.

A causeway has replaced the crude bridge that once bridged a deep ravine between the New York Road and the castle site. The causeway also has lessened the incline of the final approach to the castle site. Water in a former Chariton River meander is barely visible far below.

The grounds were used more often by those who had no legal right to be there --- to picnic, to camp and to poke around inside the "rustic retreat" itself.

By 1912, however, Harry had begun to show renewed interest in his former retreat and the following notice was published on June 13 of that year in The Chariton Patriot:

Slab Castle Notice: This delightful old camping place, which has been so misused by the public who have been allowed to go there, free of charge, has been repaired and put in good order once more, will no longer be open to the public, but will hereafter be private picnicking grounds. The owners of the property will prosecute anyone breaking or attempting to break into the castle. They also wish to announce that anyone desiring to camp at the castle and abide by the rules governing the same, may do so by paying a small sum for the use of it. The money obtained from renting to be used in repairing the castle and improving the grounds. Anyone who desires to rent the castle hereafter may do so by first paying for the use of it and then obtaining the keys from Prof. J.E. Lukens. 

During late 1915 and early 1916, Harry and Elizabeth commissioned a number of improvements to Slab Castle, designed to turn it into a more permanent --- and suitable --- vacation home and a retreat from Louisiana's oppressive summer heat for themselves and the extended Foster family. A travel pattern that would last for several years was established --- leave New Orleans in early summer (with a full retinue of household servants) and travel by train to Chariton to open Slab Castle, remain a few weeks, then continue north to spend the hottest months of the summer near Lake Superior, then return to Slab Castle for a few weeks in the fall to enjoy the autumn before returning to the South. 

The aggrandized "castle" also was given a new name more in line with the family's aspirations: Cliff Rest.

The current drive turns into this clearing which, if not the site of the original castle, is close. 

During July of 1916, Henry Gittinger, editor of The Chariton Leader, was invited to lunch at the newly christened Cliff Rest and published the following giddy report in his edition of July 6:

At Cliff Rest: A Visit to H.O. Penick's Rustic Summer Home.

Mr. Eli Manning and the editor of the Leader were pleased to accept an invitation on Friday to visit Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Penick and partake of hospitality at the dinner hour, at Cliff Rest. The Penicks, with other members of the family, came up from their homes in New Orleans to remain during the summer at this cool rustic retreat. Certainly the visit on Friday was highly enjoyed by the guests of the occasion, where all the restraints of formality were dispensed with and the conversations had free range. The repast was a most enjoyable feature and somewhat elaborate, especially for the two denizens of the village, who are somewhat abstemious in their proclivities (except on these inviting occasions).

Cliff Rest was formerly known as "Slab Castle," but Mr. Penick has had the castle enlarged and made many improvements, and so decided to modernize the name as well, but with this rebuilding and improvement nothing has been done to mar the rustic effect of the place or to detract from the primitive comfort, which is surrounded by a wooded park consisting of a twenty-acre tract, with keeper's cottage, etc. It is high up on the banks of the Chariton river, and the timber undulations roll far away like a fascinating dream, and this is perhaps what suggested the name of Cliff Rest.

The primitive castle is but a short distance east of the main Benton township thoroughfare, but is hidden away so snugly that one would scarcely expect to find such a well appointed habitation so near, but a roadway leads under the enclosure arch, thence across a bridge of rugged form, up the cliff and a sudden turn brings you there.

Mr. Penick is true to his boyhood instincts, but when he told the writer a year or two since, that he intended to improve the place, enjoy his summer vacations here amid the environs of his youthful achievements and with his early friends, we thought it was merely a momentary return of sentiment and would never be put into execution, but here is the evidence that it was serious and Mrs. Penick entered into the spirit of the enterprise as heartily as her husband, although so different from the Southern life to which she had been accustomed, except as to what we term household help, including chauffeur, all of which they brought with them.

These summer-long expeditions became progressively more elaborate as the time passed --- and innovations were added during 1919 after Harry had given up his day jobs in banking to devote his full attention to other assets and pursuits.

The trek north was made by motor rather than train that year and whilst driving through Leon, Harry and his companions stopped to visit with an acquaintance, then editor of The Leon Reporter. The editor published a brief report of that meeting in his edition of August 7:

H. O. Penick, of New Orleans, Louisiana, a boyhood schoolmate of The Reporter editor, passed through Leon Sunday with an auto outfit which attracted considerable attention. He had two Ford trucks, on which were built special bodies, as large as a small house, and equipped for comfort, having beds, refrigerator, gas stove and all conveniences for camp life. He had a companion, Mr. Kendall, of Mansfield, Louisiana, and two colored chauffeurs, and was enroute to his former home at Chariton, where his family has preceded him by train for a visit, and from there they will go away up in Canada for the balance of the summer, driving the trucks back late this fall as far as Chariton, where he has a summer home in the woods south of that city, and leave them there for the winter. Mr. Penick is a prominent businessman in New Orleans, but has decided to retire now from active work, and says he expects to spend a good portion of this time just roaming around over the country, where his fancy takes him.

The trek seems to have gone well and by mid-fall, 1919, the expedition had returned to Chariton and everyone other than Harry, still at Cliff Rest (now equipped with a furnace), had returned to Louisiana. During late November, Harry entertained a group of gentlemen friends at Cliff Rest/Slab Castle --- and Henry Gittinger was invtited out again. Here is another of his giddy reports, published in The Leader of November 27.

Feasted His Friends: In Firelight Glow They Talked the Evening Through.

H.O. Penick entertained a large company of his gentlemen friends at Cliff Rest, up from the Chariton river brink, on Saturday evening, and it was far in the evening ere they bade their host adieu and went forth into the night. Near seven o'clock a bountiful repast was served in the "dining lean-to" and the menu was just such as the guests of the occasion would have selected, and a merry feast it proved to be, for there was a most hearty fellowship abounding. No epicures could have complimented more highly, though the supply of edibles seemed to be inexhaustible. In other words, each banqueter "don his durndest" and the host was pleased.

After the last climax had been reached, which means the limit of capacity, all repaired to the big room in the rustic palace, and sat themselves about to converse and enjoy the getting together. Years ago Mr. Penick erected this wilderness lodge in order to commune with nature on annual occasions, to remind himself of the wilds.

This is a large room and nothing was spared to promote comfort, and on Saturday night it was truly fascinating to one who has not too refined a sense of the civilized. The rugged walls are grand in their simplicity, the picturesqueness of the rafters are unobscured and forest bric-a-brac was conspicious. The big canoe, from the Maine woods, suspended above the joists, suggests the navigation of swift flowing rivers and shooting the rapids in quick moving waters, while tackle and gun tell the tale of big fish and the chase. At one side is an old fashioned fireplace and the flames cast picturesque shadows about the apartment which the chandeliers failed to dissipate and invested all in the various groups into pictures of grim comfort and the converse and recount of experience went the rounds for there were present good conversationalists and splendid listeners --- and they took their turns --- nor did they trespass upon each other.

Especially were the "tales told" by the host in the far north country interesting --- and his travels at sight-seeing and pleasure, for he has a rare faculty of getting the most out of life and mingling with his friends --- and this is why he delights to return to Chariton each year and spend either the spring time or the beautiful Indian summer days at his boyhood haunts.

Several weeks since, Mrs. Penick and daughter returned to their home in New Orleans, and Mr. Penick expects to start south on Friday, so this was a sort of "goodbye" occasion and he said it would last until he returned next April or May, but said he was bound to spend another Thanksgiving Day at Cliff Rest.

Harry's annual visits to Cliff Rest, with and without his family, continued until about 1922, by which time circumstances had changed. During this period, 1916-1922, Slab Castle (aka Cliff Rest) was at its best.

--- Stay tuned for Part 4


Mary Mart said...

Love reading these articles on "Cliff Rest" as I do all stories of days gone by. Thanks for sharing.

Brenda said...

Oh, how I would love to travel back into time for a glimpse of Slab Castle/Cliff Rest! I am hoping that some photos of the place will surface. Fingers crossed.