Castle in Ione, Calif., on June 11, 2015. Preston
Castle was a reform school for delinquent youth
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.
Calif. — Dad always told me if I didn’t behave —
"clean up my act" were his exact words, actually
— that I would end up in a place like this. Meaning,
reform school. Meaning, I’d get pummeled by some kid
whose crimes far exceeded my rap sheet of sassing back and
chronic failure to clean my room. Meaning, I would regret
how good I once had it at home.
recently, I had managed to avoid such a fate.
when I finally set foot into the Preston Castle, the
crumbling yet still regal brick building on a hill looking
over this Amador County burg, and heard stories,
absolutely hair-curling tales, of life and times of
"youthful offenders" in the euphemistically
dubbed Preston School of Industry from 1894 to 1960, it
certainly made me appreciate that I did, indeed, clean up
my act enough to be spared the indignities of forced
$10 tour, courtesy of the Preston Castle Foundation, lays
bare the harsh life behind the castle walls and how, for
some, it changed their lives for the better.
see the floor — yes, the hygienically dubious floor —
where doctors performed operations before 1913, the year
someone finally had the notion that a gurney might be a
better surface on which to cut someone open. You’ll ogle
the dunking baths, where a rich chemical stew once was
used to purge each newly shaved-headed boy of lice and
dignity. You’ll stroll through the stark institutional
green dormitory where Company B, the real incorrigible
hard cases, slept in row upon row of flimsy mattresses and
shared just one lidless toilet. And you’ll see the
basement kitchen area where, in 1950, cook and housekeeper
Anna Corbin was bludgeoned to death by a boy who either
was training to be a food critic or had some
anger-management issues. Or both.
again, life here wasn’t all unrelenting grimness. After
all, these young wards of the state got three squares a
day and a roof over their heads, which is more than many
could say for their life on the outside, especially during
the Depression years when desperate parents were known to
dump their charges at the castle as if it were some day
boys, ages 7 to 18, had a tennis court and a rose garden.
They had a 7,000-book library with a veranda overlooking
the town. The more docile and agreeable boys were even
able to live in cottages ringing the castle and learn
trades more socially acceptable, if not as lucrative, than
hot-wiring cars or burglarizing homes.
many still tried to escape and were recipients of corporal
punishment that today would be considered barbaric and
certainly litigable, but many Preston boys went on to
great things and productive lives, counting among its
distinguished alumni singer Merle Haggard, actors Rory
Calhoun, Lee J. Cobb and Eddie Anderson (Rochester on
"The Jack Benny Show"), and tennis star Pancho
much is certain: The boys lived in some tricked-out digs,
a 46,000-square-foot, 77-room mansion with no fewer than
43 fireplaces, 257 windows overlooking the tawny Amador
County foothills, a tower festooned on each side by
intimidating gargoyles, hallways bedecked with ornate
wainscoting and a rutilant sandstone exterior in the
Romanesque Revival architectural style.
all pretty much trashed now. Don’t blame the wards.
They, by all historical accounts, kept the place spic and
span. It’s the state that helped turn Preston Castle
into a looter’s haven, stripping the place of almost
everything not tied down and much that was after the 1960
closure. And now, it’s the nonprofit Preston Castle
Foundation — which just a few months ago was gifted the
deed to the property after nearly two decades of wrangling
with the state — that’s trying to rehabilitate the
structure just as the boys were hoped to be rehabilitated
in days of yore.
first step, of course, is fundraising. Ask members of the
foundation, which has leased the castle since 1997, how
much will be needed to restore the castle, and they throw
out figures between $15 million and $30 million. This is
eyebrow-raising until you actually step into Preston and
see what decades of neglect have wrought.
walls are stripped of, well, walls. They are reduced to
exposed beams, like the grin of a partially toothless
hillbilly. Ceilings sag, floors buckle, stairs creak like
the knees of an arthritic old man on a rainy day. Those 43
fireplaces? Stripped of their hand-carved mantles made
from rosewood. The marble flooring and sinks? They
probably now are spit-polished and shiny and adorn any
number of homes in the region.
they closed the place, the state told (its) workers, ‘You
can get your friends and anybody can come up and take what
you want from the castle because we’re going to demolish
it,’ " said Donnie Page, Preston Castle Foundation
docent. "But they didn’t demolish it. Still, they
took all the molding, even the fire hoses. You know
Firehouse restaurant down in Old Sac? Remember that
beautiful spiral metal staircase they got there? That
belongs on the fourth floor here going to the tower. The
state even took and sold all the slate roofing. We finally
got a roof back on it in 2001."
just shrugged when tour members literally gasped at the
cravenness of state-sanctioned stripping such a statuesque
building for profit. What’s done is done, he said, and
now comes the restoration stage.
waiting for the high-rolling donors to pony up, the
foundation has opened the castle to tours on weekends and
select Thursdays. They draw a steady stream of the
curious, those who have driven past the site on Highway
104 and wonder about the interior and the backstory.
a backstory it is, too. Page, a garrulous sort who moved
to Ione after a career at the Sacramento City Unified
School District, enjoys regaling visitors with tales from
the past — the good and the bad and the spectral. Yes,
like many an old, abandoned building, the Preston Castle
is said to be haunted by ghosts, not just the tortured
soul of the murdered Anna Corbin but some of the 17 boys
whose graves line the site’s cemetery.
the history of the castle is baroque and Dickensian enough
even without ghosts.
delights in telling about the crude conditions early on in
the infirmary, which apparently was a busy place,
especially in the first two decades of the 20th century.
The 1918 flu epidemic affected nearly half the Preston
staff and a third of the boys, Page said. Those not
flu-stricken often began their matriculation at Preston
battling tuberculosis or the effects of addiction to
opium, alcohol or heroin.
was tough here," he said.
if you needed an operation before 1913.
on this floor is where they’d do the operations,"
Page told the tour members, asking them to wander around
the dusty concrete floor until they found the spot. It
turned out to be in the far right corner, near a set of
double windows. "The light from this window was so
great, (the doctor) could do it right here (without
seemed to matter a little more when the boys checked in
upon arrival. They were herded through a side door, shorn
of their hair, stripped and led to a pool of harsh
chemicals. With only a pole for support, they were made to
walk, with their heads underwater, about six feet to the
pool’s far end to rid their bodies of potential pests.
call it a cattle dip," Page said. "A lot of
these boys had open sores. I don’t know how (this
procedure) didn’t kill ’em. Can you imagine the pain
if you have an open sore on your head? The state
eventually stopped that for inhumane reasons."
did exist — see: tennis, the library, gardening — but
that hardly made it a country club-like existence. But the
boys tried to liven things up. Page tells one story about
how the rose garden seemed to be quite popular one summer
among wards who showed a great interest as budding
horticulturists. Turns out, a tribe of youthful
entrepreneurs had a marijuana crop growing amid the roses.
attempts, too, happened pretty much every week. A horn
would sound in downtown Ione when it was discovered
another Preston boy had flown the coop — there was no
barbed-wire fencing around the vast acreage — and a
manhunt would ensue. "You got a $10 reward if you
turned a kid in," Page said.
young Merle Haggard made a break for it twice in the early
1950s, Page said. The first time, he and a buddy planned
it six weeks in advance, shimmying down a fire escape and
off into downtown Ione. Haggard, who apparently was as
dexterous with car doors and engines as he would later be
with guitar strings, sprinted toward the closest car he
could find, jumped in, hot wired it in less than a minute
and hit the gas pedal.
he didn’t notice the car’s owner had chained it to a
tree," Page said.
hid in a cubby hole nearby the stalled car, as the police
began their search. The police chief’s young son, the
story goes, was about at eye level with the crouching
Haggard. The two locked eyes. Haggard put his finger to
his lips to shush the child. The boy ratted him out
anyway. As Haggard later wrote in his autobiography, the
last thing he remembered from that escape attempt was
looking over his shoulder as he was being led away and
seeing the little boy wagging his finger at him.
next time Merle escaped," Page continued, "he
stole the police chief’s car and got all the way to
Fresno before he was caught and brought back."
what punishment did escapees face?
to what they said at the time, the boys were beaten,
severely punished," Page said. "Boys were
whipped and thrown in solitary confinement. It was pretty
Preston Foundation has reached out to Haggard to perhaps
stage a benefit concert. For some reason, Haggard
reportedly declined the invitation.
wants nothing to do with this place because of what he
calls his ‘fond’ memories, like being hit with
two-by-fours," Page said. "Merle’s got a
tattoo on one of his wrists with ‘PSI’ on it. He hasn’t
neither have the apparitions that haunt the place. Page
said he didn’t believe the ghost stories until an
incident happened to him in 2010, involving a gust of wind
and an eerie feeling, that scared him off for six weeks
before he eventually returned to docent duties.
let that scare you off. In fact, bring the kids to Preston
Castle. Tell them if they don’t clean up their acts,
they’ll wind up in a place just like this. Believe me,
that rhetoric works.
information on dates and times for tours of the Preston
Castle, 900 Palm Drive, Ione, go to www.prestoncastle.com.