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Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 18, 2003

MEDIEVAL MAKEOVER


Record-Eagle photo/Jim Bovin
This portion of Castle Farms in Charlevoix is the dairy barn.


Record-Eagle photos/Jim Bovin
Linda Mueller, owner of Castle Farms in Charlevoix, is reviving the local landmark
for a new purpose — weddings, parties, art and music fairs.

New spirit revives epic venue

By
Record-Eagle staff writer

   CHARLEVOIX — Northern Michigan’s castle is in the midst of a renaissance. And like a centuries-old European palace, Castle Farms has its share of mystique and unusual history.

   Hundreds of area residents flocked earlier this month to an open house at Castle Farms, on M-66 highway in Charlevoix County’s Marion Township. New owner Linda Mueller displayed the extensive renovations to the field stone buildings and their dormers, cupolas, towers and arched windows. The facilities will now serve as a special-events venue for wedding receptions, proms, festivals, trade shows and more.

   This isn’t the first revival of “The Castle.” Its odd history includes a connection to an infamous murder that spawned what was once dubbed “the trial of the 20th century.” Its later incarnation as a concert venue is a resonant memory in many local people’s lives — and an era that still provokes muttered anger from neighbors.

   Wealthy Chicago businessman Albert Loeb, who during World War I was the acting president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., began construction on Castle Farms in 1915. He envisioned an estate akin to the stone barns he had seen in Normandy.

   Loeb sought not only a retreat near the shores of Lake Charlevoix but a paradoxically state-of-the-art farming operation in the midst of the medieval inspired splendor.

   The eight buildings of the Loeb farm took 200 men and 35 stone masons four years to construct, according to Mueller. The farm had 90 employees, and was a popular site for locals to purchase milk, cheese or to simply tour and view the pedigreed, Holstein cattle.

   The third of Albert’s four sons, Richard Loeb, spent many summer days at the Charlevoix retreat with his inseparable friend, Nathan Leopold. The two bored, privileged teenagers began to become involved in more and more petty crime.

   Richard Loeb then allegedly hatched a plan to commit the “perfect” crime. They would kidnap and murder a person for no other reason than as a thrill and intellectual exercise. While in Chicago on May 21, 1924, they encountered 14-year-old Bobby Franks. They lured Franks into their car, bludgeoned him to death and left his body in a ditch.

   A pair of eyeglasses dropped at the scene eventually led authorities to Leopold and Loeb, who were then University of Chicago students.

   The subsequent court case was dubbed “The Trial of the Century.” Leopold and Loeb were represented by Clarence Darrow, arguably the most famous attorney in the history of American jurisprudence. The pair eventually pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to life plus 99 years in prison.

   Albert Loeb died in Charlevoix, a month after his son was sentenced.

   Richard Loeb was slashed to death by a fellow prisoner in Joliet, Ill., on Jan. 28, 1936. Leopold was paroled from prison in 1958, and died in 1971.

   The murders and trial inspired a best-selling book, “Compulsion,” which was later made into a movie starring Orson Welles.

   Mueller said that though the case is one of the most notorious in U.S. history, those from the Charlevoix area don’t remember the Loebs for Richard’s crimes.

   “It was a tragedy for the whole community,” she said. “The community just loved the family so much. They are remembered as nice, generous people.”

   After Albert Loeb’s death, another son, Ernest, ran the farm for several years. But times were tough in agriculture in those years leading up to the Great Depression. The farm’s cattle were sold. For the next 30 years, the farm was rented and its buildings used mainly for storage.

   John Van Haver purchased the barns in the mid-1960s. Visitors were charged admission to tour “Castle Van Haver,” but that and some limited art manufacturing never paid the bills. Van Haver sold the property to Arthur and Erwena Reibel in 1969.

   Renamed Castle Farms, the Reibels wanted to turn the facilities into a major arts and crafts center, including studios, a theater and a tavern with balladeers and waitresses in medieval dress. Yet again, the dreams never quite came to fruition, and the Reibels added a large stage to the area of the cow barn, along with a large, grass-covered hill.

   Castle Farms then became the area’s major concert venue, drawing thousands of music fans for big-name rock and country artists from the early 1980s until the early 1990s. Artists who performed at the Castle included Ozzy Osbourne, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, Bon Jovi, Metallica and dozens of other top acts.

   Charlevoix resident Steve Gauthier said that as a youth growing up in that era, the concert venue was “larger than life.”

   “It was the place to be in the summer,” he said. “We had these bands’ albums and here they were, here in Charlevoix. It was awesome.”

   The noise, traffic, drunkenness and other problems resulting from the concerts, however, left many locals complaining.

   “It was wreck and ruin after they started having the concerts,” said local resident Bonnie Voorhees.

   The Castle hosted some smaller, more localized concerts through the mid-90s. But the cheers of thousands of audience members became a distant echo.

   In 1994, Friends of 4-H attempted to purchase Castle Farms as a camping and activities venue, but the fund-raising effort faltered.

   The Reibels again tried other small business operations from the property, including at one point a fried chicken take-out service. Art Reibel died in 1999, and the property went up for auction for back taxes.

   As they had decades earlier, the buildings of Castle Farms lay largely dormant, and began to fall into disrepair.

   Linda Mueller first encountered The Castle in about 1968, when she came to spend a week with her then-boyfriend, Richard Mueller, and his family in Charlevoix. They married in 1969, and came to Charlevoix nearly every year since.

   “I’m crazy about stone buildings, gothic architecture, castles and turrets,” she said.

   Mueller won the auction for Castle Farms, then negotiated a purchase price with members of the Reibel family — $550,000 for the buildings and 38 acres on both sides of M-66.

   Mueller said she planned to spend $300,000 a year for 10 years on renovations. The work has gone much faster than that, but has also been more expensive, she said.

   Already the community has returned to Castle Farms, however. With renovations incomplete, the Castle has already hosted 13 weddings and three high school proms.

   Mueller estimates she will need to do about $300,000 a year in business to break even — or about 60 weddings, and some other events.

   “The taxes, insurance and utility bills are just astronomical,” she said.

   Mueller said she knew the community loved Castle Farms, but she’s been surprised at how much help they have offered as renovations have moved forward.

   “When I get discouraged and think, ‘My God, this is costing me a fortune!’ I’ll get a note saying thank-you, and it really lifts my spirits,” she said.


Record-Eagle photos/Jim Bovin

This area of Castle Farms will be used for a bride to get ready for her wedding.


This portion of Castle Farms in Charlevoix is the old horse stables.


The view from the horse stables to the dairy barn.



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