Friday, June 12, 2015

Slab Castle's second incarnation, 1924-2015 (Part 4)

Bernard Taylor, Slab Castle's last private owner, and friends outside the building's final incarnation during the late 1950s. Taylor's son, Jim, identified the men as (from left) Dick Beem, Verle Shimp, Pat Robinson, Jerry Wells, Hewitt Stout, Leo Foster and Bernard Taylor. 

The high life at Cliff Rest, previously known as Slab Castle, continued through 1922, a year when Harry O. Penick arrived to open the house in June, traveled on into Canada after a few weeks, then paused again that fall en route south.

There had been a number of changes in Louisiana as the years passed and they affected how the castle was used. In 1920, Harry's daughter, Mildred, married in New Orleans and moved to Omaha. Elizabeth's father, U.S. Sen. Murphy James Foster, died at Dixie Plantation during 1921.

In addition, Elizabeth and Harry, now retired from banking in New Orleans, had purchased during April of 1920 an estate known as Wildwood along the Gulf Coast at Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and moved there.

But retirement wasn't suiting Harry and for one reason another he was in the mood for a major change of scenery. As a result, in 1924, he purchased controlling interest in The Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Seattle. The Penicks moved from Ocean Springs to Seattle during March of 1924 and sold Wildwood a year later.

Also during 1924, Harry and Elizabeth --- now half a continent away --- sold Cliff Rest and its now 40 acres of land along the Chariton River in Benton Township to Grant and Mary Catharine (Sprague) Stuart.


Edwin Grant Stuart was another of Chariton's golden boys --- youngest son of Theodore M. Stuart (1837-1922) and his wife, Sarah (Walker) Stuart, founders of a line of Lucas County Stuart attorneys that ended with the death of Judge Bill Stuart in 2010. A 1910 graduate of Dartmouth College and a stellar athlete, Grant bucked the family trend toward law and went to work as a civil engineer. During June of 1915, he married Mary Catharine Sprague of Russell.

In 1918, Grant was stricken with tuberculosis and became progressively disabled. By 1923, he could no longer work and, in 1924, the Stuarts moved from Des Moines to Cliff Rest, perhaps hoping fresh air, rest and an outdoor life would improve his health.

Disaster struck on Wednesday, July 2, 1924, according to this report from the Russell Union of that date:

While doing some shopping in Russell this afternoon, Mrs. Grant Stuart was called to a telephone and informed by a neighbor that her home about six miles southwest of Russell was being destroyed by fire. She immediately started home while several men secured cars and fire extinguishers and followed, but the house was practically consumed by the flames upon their arrival.

Mr. Stuart, who had remained at home, stated that he was in one part of the house reading when he was aroused by a crackling noise and upon investigating discovered another part of the house in flames. He phoned neighbors nearby and began removing such household articles as he could but owing to the dense smoke was unable to save but a few things. It is thought the fire was started from an overheated oil stove. This is a severe loss to Mr. and Mrs. Stuart as neither the house nor contents were insured.

And that was the end of Harry O. Penick's "rustic retreat" which, by the time it went up in flames had become rather grand.

My dad was 10 at the time of the fire and working outside on the family farm a mile and a half south. He was not allowed to accompany his dad to the fire, but remembered the smoke billowing above the river to the north.

It was not the end, however, of Slab Castle. A far more modest second incarnation was built and it inherited the name because of its location.

The photo at the beginning of this post, from the Lucas County Historical Society collection, shows the later "castle" as it looked in the late 1950s when it was owned by Bernard Taylor. It's a simple building, but not an unsubstantial one and the towering chimney on the right suggests that it might have risen directly from the ashes of "Cliff Rest."

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing when it was built, or by whom.


There is some indication that Grant and Mary Stuart built a smaller but appropriately rustic dwelling on the Cliff Rest site after the fire --- principally the fact that they still had a rural Russell address during 1925 and 1926.

But by late 1926, Grant's health had taken a turn for the worse and they moved late that year to Colfax, California, where he entered a sanitarium for treatment. When his health improved, the couple moved to a nearby ranch. In 1930, they sold the Slab Castle property for $1,000 jointly to the original seller, Harry O. Penick, and a lifelong friend of his, legendary Chariton sportsman Charles Ellsworth Noble.

On March 20, 1931, Grant Stuart died at age 43 at his California home. His remains were cremated and brought home to Chariton by Mary, then buried on the family lot in the Chariton Cemetery in a grave that remains unmarked. Mary attempted suicide shortly thereafter, but recovered, remarried and got on with life.


Harry Penick continued to visit Chariton frequently, most often alone, during the years that followed his repurchase of Slab Castle and it is entirely possible that he and Charles Noble used a new cabin there as headquarters for hunting, fishing and socializing.

Two years older the Harry, Noble was a lifelong resident of Chariton, a lifelong bachelor and a skillful dealer in real estate. Harry, in town on a visit, and Charles spent Thursday morning, September 20, 1934, together --- visiting the new Red Haw Lake project just east of town. Shortly after noon, Noble suffered a heart attack at his home on West Armory Avenue and died.

His death notice and obituary in Chariton newspapers described him as a skilled hunter, a passionate fisherman and a legendary teller of stories about his hunting and fishing exploits.


Harry himself had experienced a number of transitions since leaving Louisiana for Seattle in 1924.

By 1928, he had retired again, purchased the River Bend Ranch south of Kent and not far from Seattle as both hobby and investment. He had then built on the ranch what was described by The Seattle Times as "one of the show places of the Kent Valley."

But Harry's houses seem frequently to have had issues with fire --- and this one burned to the ground, too, shortly before midnight on Nov. 16, 1928. Harry reportedly was sound asleep with only a servant in the house when he was awakened by nudges from the cold nose of his pet Airedale and stumbled out of the smoke-filled dwelling. According to Seattle Times reports, the house had cost $26,000 to build and was filled with $15,000 in possessions --- all lost. Elizabeth was traveling when the fire occurred.

Serious cracks had developed in the Penick marriage, too, and the couple increasingly went their separate ways --- Elizabeth traveled extensively and spent long periods of time in Louisiana with her family.

They were together at Dixie Plantation during 1930, but divorced soon thereafter.

Elizabeth did not remarry and died in Louisiana on Oct. 3, 1974, age 90. She was buried among her extended Foster family members in the cemetery at Franklin. The slab that covers her grave contains the inscription, "Age cannot wither, nor custom stale her infinite variety." A little Shakespeare never hurts, but it's still hard to envision Elizabeth as Cleopatra --- or Harry as Antony for that matter.

Harry remained in Seattle and soon acquired a new wife, Ruth, again some 20 years his junior.


In 1938, Harry --- who had acquired full ownership of Slab Castle after Charles Noble's death --- sold the property to his nephew, William C. "Cal" Penick, and Cal's wife, Ethel.

Cal was the son of Harry's brother, Charles Edwin Penick, who on July 26, 1901, somehow managed to fall overboard into Lake Michigan and drown near Racine, Wisconsin, while on a pleasure trip with friends to Milwaukee aboard the steam passenger ship Virginia. His body was recovered some days later and returned to Chariton for burial. Cal was only 2 at the time.


Two years after selling Slab Castle, Harry O. Penick died suddenly at home in Seattle at the age of 73 of a heart attack on Oct. 27, 1940.

His widow, Ruth, arrived in Chariton by train with the remains during the early morning of October 31, a short graveside service was held at 9 a.m. at the family lot in the Chariton Cemetery, then Ruth boarded a later train the same day and headed home to Seattle.

It wasn't much of a sendoff, but by 1940 all of his immediate family other than Mildred, now living with her family in Boston, and a sister, Ida (Penick) Stuart, of Chicago, was dead. Neither was there to see him buried.


Cal and Ethel Penick enjoyed the Slab Castle cabin for 10 years, until they decided to leave Chariton and move to Arizona during 1948.

They sold the Slab Castle property jointly to Chariton car dealer Miller Ream and his associate, Bernard Taylor, on April 23, 1948.

Miller Ream, then age 51, died of injuries sustained in a car crash near Rock Springs, Wyoming --- while on a hunting trip --- on Sept. 27, 1953.

After that, full ownership passed to Bernard Taylor, who was the last private owner of Slab Castle and its 40 acres of timber and marsh.


Ground was broken for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Rathbun Lake project at the dam site just northwest of Centerville on July 24, 1965.

During 1966 and 1967, the Corps purchased land to be included in the Rathbun project progressively, from southeast to northwest. The Slab Castle site has the distinction of being the most northwesterly piece of property acquired for the massive Rathbun project.

All improvements, including the "castle" itself, were cleared from the site, most likely during 1967, and it was incorporated with thousands of other acres into the Rathbun Lake Wildlife Management Area, administered by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, in that year.

Initially, the old Slab Castle driveway was improved and a graveled parking lot created in the high clearing near the old building site.

The parking area was popular with sportsmen --- but with underage partiers, too, since it could not be seen from the New York Road. That was to be expected and didn't cause much distress. But then illegal dumping became a problem. And finally methamphetamine production accelerated in Lucas County and the area became a popular lab site.

Eventually, the DNR blocked the drive with cable --- and that remains. But the area still is open to hunters, hikers and others who care to explore it.

As the years passed, Lucas County Conservation acquired property stretching west from the New York Road along the river to the Cinder Path --- so it should be possible (Andy Farrell tells me) to hike, if sufficiently hardy and willing to wade in seasons like the current one, on public ground from Chariton to Lake Rathbun.

When looking for a name for some 500 acres of newly acquired public land just west across the New York Road from the old castle site, the Lucas County Conservation Board decided upon "Slab Castle Wildlife Area."

The two incarnations of the castle itself, as well as all those who once enjoyed life at the original, are long gone. But the name lives on.


norm prince said...

Thank you for another history story about the folks from the past of Lucas County. I do hope all the work you have been putting in researching these snippets of life are going to be future chapters to a book you could be compiling. I think what you have been offering to your blog readers should be placed in a form that will outlive your blog.
Thanks for your efforts and sharing your love of the past.

DonHixenbaugh said...

Is it a confirmed fact that Miller Ream Died in the car crash in Wyoming in 1953?
There was rumors that he was seen in Nevada after this date. Just curious.

Frank D. Myers said...

I can only judge by newspaper reports and there are accounts of the accident and his death hours later of injuries as well as reports of his funeral in Chariton. In addition, his estate was sued for $75,000 in damages some months later by the only survivor of the crash (I don't know what the outcome of the suit was; only that it was filed in Lucas County District Court).