Popular Preston Castle: Striking architecture, eerie past

Preston Castle in Ione was a reform school for delinquent youths called the Preston School of Industry from 1894 until 1960. The castle closed in 1960, but new facilities for the school on the grounds remained in service for several years after that. The Preston Castle Foundation offers tours of the building.
Preston Castle in Ione was a reform school for delinquent youths called the Preston School of Industry from 1894 until 1960. The castle closed in 1960, but new facilities for the school on the grounds remained in service for several years after that. The Preston Castle Foundation offers tours of the building. Sacramento Bee file

Peeking out of wild oaks atop Ione’s golden foothills sits Preston Castle, one of the most picturesque sights of the rural Amador County town.

The castle, like much of Ione, looks like it was plucked out of a time long past. Even when it was conceived, the Romanesque architecture gave off an air unusual for a home for incarcerated youths.

But peculiar does not begin to describe what goes on at the end of Palm Drive. Despite the righteous intentions, the dilapidated Preston School of Industry fits every stereotype of an eerie haunted castle, like it was torn from a Bram Stoker novel.

One of the castle’s most popular events is the Halloween Haunt, a 20-minute walk-through of the bottom three levels of the castle featuring about 60 costumed actors dressed in early 20th-century uniforms. For one portion a holographic and ghostly ward walks down the hallway toward visitors before disappearing.

The grisly 1950 killing of Anna Corbin, the head housekeeper of the male youth reform school, was left unresolved after Eugene Monroe, a ward charged with her murder, was acquitted after circumstantial evidence left the jury hung, according to Karl Knobelauch, Preston Castle Foundation president.

“The common belief is that he was, indeed, responsible. He was seen earlier in the morning along with another boy arguing with Anna Corbin in the basement,” Knobelauch said. “Later, after her body was discovered, he was found in the mess hall wearing clothing that was not assigned to him, and his belt and his shoes had been freshly polished. They observed what were believed to be blood splatters on his shoes.”

Knobelauch said that only a short time after Monroe was freed, he was convicted of bludgeoning and strangling a young pregnant woman in Oklahoma – the same way Corbin had been killed.

“The man that was the holdout on the second trial lived in Ione,” Knobelauch said. “Several days afterward he complained to the constable that people were shouting obscenities at him, shooting off guns at his house and reportedly the constable responded, ‘I’m surprised they haven’t hung you.’ He moved out of town soon after.”

Monroe was not Preston’s most notorious or famous ward. Some of the wards ended up moving on to San Quentin and Folsom prison after finishing at Preston, including gang leader Joseph Cretzer, who was an accomplice in the “Battle of Alcatraz,” and San Quentin inmate turned country music star Merle Haggard.

Knobelauch’s late father-in-law, Richard Cercy, grew up and raised his family in Ione, and told stories of rounding up the Preston School runaways and taking them back to the castle for a $10 reward.

“If they caught them, they would put them on the left front fender of the Model T and say, ‘We’re going to drive back to the school now. If at 35, 40 miles per hour you wish to jump off, go right ahead,’ ” Knobelauch said.

It was a popular event in town when a boy ran away. Sirens would go off in the city and everyone would begin looking for the pastel pink, blue and yellow nightshirts they wore.

To escape, wards had a good mile to run before they were even off the property, and the town’s close involvement with the school usually prevented any serious problems.

Corbin’s slaying shook the sleepy town, and Preston’s legacy was marred by the belief that the ghosts of Corbin and 17 wards of the castle buried in the nearby cemetery still haunt the site.

Rich with history, tours of the Preston Castle are a popular excursion for Rotary clubs and elementary schools.

The Preston School of Industry was founded during the growing youth correctional movement of the late 19th century by Sen. Edward Preston.

He chose the daunting Romanesque architecture to set the school apart from prisons like San Quentin and Folsom, where youth wards would normally have been kept, according to Knobelauch.

Wards, also called cadets, were assigned to companies differentiated by the role they played in the nearly self-sustaining school.

Cadets marched in their companies; they manufactured their uniforms; their leather shoes were made with the hides of the animals they raised for meals; and produce for their meals came from the farm that is now Castle Oaks golf course.

The cadets of Company B were in charge of the grounds, cooking and cleaning, and, for ease, slept in the castle dormitory on the second floor, only a hallway away from the staff and family apartments.

The state had scheduled the castle for demolition after it was closed in 1960, and people looted it of everything from the marble floors and counters to the ornate wooden doors and paneling. Knobelauch said they even took the slate roof.

Missing a roof for decades, the castle fell into major structural disrepair, and during the tour walk-through visitors can peer into a gaping four-story hole, rotted through by the rain.

Because of this, guests of the overnight ghost tours stay up all night scrounging the castle for ghosts under the supervision of foundation volunteers so they don’t accidentally go into one of the fenced-off rooms. If guests get sleepy they are asked to sleep in their cars because no one is legally allowed to sleep in the castle.

With that said, the castle receives help from the local police and fire departments to accommodate hundreds of guests who come to its events, especially the annual Halloween Haunt events that bring 5,000 to 6,000 people annually.

The castle also hosts local vineyard wine tastings in the basement, movie screenings and receptions on the patio, weddings, school reunions, photography sessions, an Olde Tyme Christmas craft fair, and its popular murder mystery dinner.

The foundation raises between $200,000 and $300,000 a year with events it holds at the castle, but the board is looking for a capital investor to help it raise the $10 million to $15 million needed to fully restore the castle. Some members of the community volunteer to help restore parts of the castle, and the local quarry has agreed to supply the red sandstone they might need.

The price tag for repairs was quite a change compared to the $1 with which the foundation purchased the castle from the state.

The only conditions were that they reconnect utilities to the castle and the foundation not turn around and sell it to anyone else.

Knobelauch said he hopes that it could one day be a culinary arts school, or administration building for a college.

The castle has been many things to the residents of Ione. For some, work at the castle supported their families as far back as their grandparents. To others, its tower and beautiful architecture are a beacon of home when driving through the vast golden foothills that surround Ione.

Marjorie Kirk: 916-321-1012, @marjorie_kirk

Preston Castle Events

What: Wine Tasting and Tour

When: Saturday, Sept. 10

Cost: $40

What: Preston Castle Haunted House

When: Fridays-Saturdays, Oct. 14-15, 21-22, 28-29

Cost: $20 adults, $10 students (up to high school, with ID)

Preston Castle is at 900 Palm Drive, Ione.