Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The one, the original Slab Castle, 1900-24 (Part 1)

The original Slab Castle was a legendary Lucas County place with mythical properties that have endured far longer than the building itself.

Built in 1900 for some of Chariton's elite as a rustic retreat atop bluffs down along the Chariton River just north of the New York Road bridge, it was aggrandized during the teens into a full-scale summer home staffed by a full retinue of servants for a rich and powerful family headquartered in New Orleans. Then, in 1924, it all went up in smoke.

Drive about a mile south of Salem Cemetery on the New York Road today and you'll see, on your right, a sign identifying the Slab Castle Wildlife Area, 515 acres of grassland, wetland and timber owned by the Lucas County Conservation Commission. But Slab Castle wasn't here.

Drive on to the foot of the big hill just north of the river and, on your right, you'll see a drive leading back to the Slab Castle Wildlife Area wetland. The castle wasn't here either.

Just across the road and a little north, however, is a minimally marked overgrown driveway blocked by heavy cable leading up into the woods. Once upon a time, Slab Castle was there, hidden from the road by timber.

The builders were Harry O. Penick, scion of a Chariton banking family, and his wife, Mabel Bradbury Wadleigh, daughter of a Burlington coal merchant. Their nuptials at Christ Church Episcopal in Burlington on Jan. 27, 1898, were described in that city's Gazette as "the most brilliant of the season."

When the newlyweds returned to Chariton from a California honeymoon during late April, they moved into a fine new home on East Auburn Avenue that by 1900 was equipped with four servants and their daughter, Mildred.

The Slab Castle site, originally 20 acres, had been a wood lot attached to the Holmes farm, located south of the Chariton River, and owned until his death in 1896 by Fergus G. Holmes. Many of the 20 acres were located in the low marshy area south of the river, but the northern acres consisted of heavily wooded --- and scenic --- bluffs along the north bank of the stream's old meanders.

Those meanders were cut off many years ago when the river was "ditched" in order to flow directly east-west under a new New York Road bridge, but when the Penicks acquired the site the river still followed its old twisting course.

"Rustic" retreats, where the elite could rough it (with assistance from servants) were popular across America in the late 19th and early 20th century --- and the Penicks were nothing if not aspirational. Although photographs of the building seem not to have survived, we do know that it was constructed largely of native lumber and finished with "slabs," rough-sawn timber that had not been cut into planks and finished. Hence, "Slab Castle."

The major feature was a big open-beamed gathering room with fireplace, probably constructed of field stone. There also was a "lean-to" dining room as well as kitchen and bedrooms.

The new building was complete by August of 1900, so Harry and Mabel along with friends, Charlie Kirk and his new wife, Alice, hosted a house-warming card party on Tuesday evening, Aug. 14, that was reported upon as follows in The Patriot of Thursday, Aug. 16:

Having constructed a rustic building in the grove near New York bridge as an outing resort, Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Penick, and Mr. and Mrs. C.R. Kirk, invited a large party of friends on Tuesday evening to a "house warming" card party at the castle, which being constructed of slabs is appropriately christened "Slab Castle."

There were twenty-one couples present and it goes without saying that the event was a very enjoyable one. In the progressive euchre game the gentleman's prize was a handsome tobacco jar, while the prize contended for by the ladies was an elegant cut glass dish. The former was awarded to Mr. Mallory and the latter to Mrs. W.F. Hatcher.

Dainty refreshments were served at 10 o'clock and all in all the house warming in the woods was a fine success, socially. The homecoming experience in driving through a terrific electric rain and hail storm, while somewhat dampening and terrifying, in no wise detracted from the memory of the very pleasant evening spent at "Slab Castle."

--- Stay tuned for Part 2

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