Monday, September 15, 2014

Where's There: Wilder Creek Castle

After years of reading about the places where John Bellairs lived and wrote about, we decided that for this round of Where’s There that we would investigate some of the locations in the towns where John lived but that he didn’t write about.

Make sense?

A lot of Marshall, for example, was used to create his fictional community of New Zebedee, Michigan, where Lewis Barnavelt and Rose Rita Pottinger lived and had their myriad of adventures. There’s a prominent house on the north side of town that looks like the one Edward Gorey drew and an eight-sided house that just so happens to sit next to a Catholic church (though the church's associated Catholic school is long gone) plus libraries and museums and theatres and drug stores and a lot more.

We made the observation a couple of years ago that New Zebedee, as John wrote about it, comes across as nothing more than a small Midwest town in Michigan with a few passing similarities to John’s hometown. New Zebedee didn’t seem to become a complete double of Marshall (or at least those similarities weren’t driven home in some clarity) until some of Brad Strickland’s latter-day adventures. In our mind Bellairs was just telling a story that took place in a small town and when the plot required a fairly interesting house or certain type of landmark, John just causally wrote in something based on what he remembered seeing growing up. Some of Strickland’s settings appear to have been created after meticulously mining Marshall’s historic properties and ensuring that some sort of universal Marshall-is-New-Zebedee-is-Marshall balance is kept. It’s not a slight at Strickland at all – especially considering how he got more mileage out of Marshall than Bellairs ever did (think about it: who wrote more books about Lewis?).

So Bellairs never created his own versions of the Honolulu House or the American Museum of Magic or even the Adam Crosswhite affair, and we honestly don’t know if he ever would have. Had Strickland not continued the series then perhaps we would have had a much longer list of locations in Marshall that John left out or he didn’t find time to fit into his writing. So here we are, with a number of many interesting places that neither author wrote about.

Such as castles.

Remember Lewis, his uncle, and Mrs. Zimmermann being followed by a car as they made their way toward Wilder Creek in a key scene in The House with a Clock in its Walls? Wilder Creek is a very real 10.5 mile tributary of the Kalamazoo River located east/southeast of Marshall. The creek takes its name from Oshea Wilder (1784-1847), an early settler and surveyor of the Marshall area. Near the creek is a railway bed once part of the old Interurban line that ran between Marshall, Albion, and Homer and a stone castle constructed by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s.

The Wilder Creek Conservation Club (WCCC) notes on their website, quoting from the August 13, 1954 edition of Marshall’s Evening Chronicle newspaper, that:
"There are 100 tons of stone in the building, and it took 20 loads each hauling 5 tons of stone. In addition, stone was secured from the old mill foundation at Marengo, and the door and window lintels were secured in Marshall from old curbing which was taken out and replaced with cement. Funds for purchasing the stone was (were) given by Harold C. Brooks, and plans for the building were drawn by Brown. A donation from Louis Brooks paid for the lumber and other material used in construction of the castle."

The WCCC site goes on to note that the primary builder of the castle was James Brown of Lyon Lake:
The structure was originally located near Concord. It was dismantled and rebuilt at the Wilder Creek site. Over the years, the castle has been a private residence, a haunted castle attraction during the Halloween season, and as the backdrop for the Renaissance Faire.
Chuck Carlson, writing this past June in the Battle Creek Enquirer as part of his interview with WCCC volunteer Jim Dobbins, says the creek's history runs back to the Depression of the 1930s when it was known as the Wilder Creek Rearing Pond and Wild Life Sanctuary:
It was 1937 and the sanctuary developed a pond to harvest fish that were then transferred to other lakes and ponds in the area to help feed local residents.

The rearing pond is still there, running perhaps a mile in either direction and covering the original Wilder Creek.... Wilder, a surveyor who platted the town of Homer and Eckford as well as parts of Marshall and started the famous Lake Michigan town of Singapore that is now buried under sand, built a house on the creek.

So the history is everywhere and that includes the site’s most famous structure, the castle that was built in 1938 by boys from the National Youth Administration.

Designed and paid for by Marshall’s Harold Brooks with help from his brother Lou, 100 truckloads of stone from a demolished structure on M-66 make up the bulk of the structure, which is now used for the annual Halloween haunted castle, one Wilder Creek’s biggest fundraisers every year.

Of course there is still one lingering question about the castle and it’s one Carlson addresses in his interview with Dobbins:
Dobbins said to this day no one really knows why the castle was built.

And with that sort of history Bellairs could have had a field day making up a New Zebedee castle, if he felt one needed to exist. While Bellairs never writes of any New Zebedee castle he does include a few passages in The Figure in the Shadows where he could almost be indirectly acknowledging such a building in that area. These scenes would be shortly after Lewis recites a chart over his great-grampa’s three-cent piece and the wild dreams he suddenly begins to have in his quest for revenge against Woody Mingo. For example:
And it seemed to Lewis that he was dreaming a lot more at night now. The dreams seemed to be in color, with music playing in the background – stirring military music. Lewis would dream that he was riding at the head of an army or leading his knights up over the walls of a castle [59].
As well as:
In the dream Lewis had become a tall, big-boned Viking chieftain. He and his companions were fighting off an attack by some Indians. Lewis recognized the place they were fighting. It was Wilder Creek Park, which was just outside the city limits. Lewis has been there on picnics a number of times. In the dream the wooden tables and the brick cook-stoves has vanished, and the park was weedy and overgrown. He and his men were drawn into a ring in the middle of the park, and Indians were attacking them from all sides [62].
Well, maybe.

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