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A Castle Beyond Its Time

Built in the middle of the Great Depression, this rare Oklahoma castle once provided jobs for its builders and respite for its owners. Now, abandoned and vandalized, plans to restore the castle have been stalled despite being a tourist hot spot.

AVIS — When it comes to a game of sword fights and saving damsels in distress, most 10-year-olds make do with self-built cardboard castles.

Mickey Shackelford didn’t have to.

For most of his childhood, the Davis native had a playground made up of creeks, waterfalls, swimming holes – and an abandoned stone castle nestled right in the heart of the Arbuckle Mountains in south-central Oklahoma.

Known as Collings Castle, the striking fort-like structure and its maze of rooms made it perfect for a game of hide-and-seek.

“I remember someone hiding in the fireplace one time, which is a dirty place to hide,” said Shackelford, who used to sneak into the castle grounds with his younger brother.

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“There probably was a sign that said ‘Private Property,’ but we pretended to not see it,” joked Shackelford, now 55. “Or understand it.”

On hot summer days, children and families can still be seen exploring the dark tunnel-like doorways and peeking from the castle’s decrepit stone walls, much of which are covered with graffiti.

It’s hard to miss the imposing structure as you walk along the creek from the parking area at Turner Falls Park to the famed falls itself.

The gray stone walls that line the foot path are the first hints that something medieval and mysterious is lurking nearby. Past a pile of crumbled stones that looks like what was once a cabin, a staircase appears. At the end of it, the imposing stone pile rises up from the dense cover of trees.

“Past the castle, then you hear the falls. It’s like there’s somebody calling out to you,” said Shackelford. “It was fascinating. It was huge. It was bigger than life then.”

It’s perhaps the same allure that continues to attract throngs of curious visitors to the castle grounds. Yet, plans to restore the dilapidated castle have been constantly shelved due to a lack of funding.

“We had too many projects this winter. And, so we had to cut some of them, and that was just one of them,” said Turner Falls park manager Tom Graham, who manages the site. The park sees some 250,000 visitors each year. Most of the park’s budget this year went to building a new slide, expanding a swimming area and several other park and camp site improvements, he said.

BUILT FOR SUMMER DAYS

nce described by a local Davis newspaper as the town’s own “Camelot,” the castle was built in the 1930s and became part of the estate of the late Ellsworth Collings – an author who was also dean of the education department at the University of Oklahoma for nearly 20 years.

The castle covered less than an acre of land and included a main house that consisted of three rooms and two living areas with fireplaces, one of them ornately embellished with deep rust-colored rose rocks.

Within the compound were also two bunk houses and two “outhouses.” From the main building, a steep stairway of about a hundred steps led to a stable area that served as a garage in later years, according to a document obtained from Davis City Hall.

Ellsworth Collings

Ellsworth Collings
Ellsworth CollingsTHE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE

Ellsworth C. Collings was a professor at the University of Oklahoma beginning in 1922 and became the dean of the School of Education in 1926. During his tenure, enrollment of the school rose from 100 to more than 1,000.

Collings was born in Missouri and went to the University of Missouri for his bachelor's and master's in education. He later obtained his doctorate at Columbia University in New York.

“He was interested in people and a very personable man,” said Betty Geis, who lived with the Collings family when she married the professor's grandson, Ronald "Bill" Geis.

An advocate of the project method in teaching, Collings was said to have produced some of the best books in this field. His book, “An Experiment with a Project Curriculum,” was hailed in its day as one of the most significant contributions in educational literature and the most important work on the subject of rural schooling, according to a sign erected outside Collings Hall – a building at OU named in honor of the professor in 1977.

The OU College of Education main offices still reside in Collings Hall, which was built in 1951.

Collings was also well-known in Oklahoma as the author of “The 101 Ranch,” which grew out of his intimate knowledge of ranching in the territory and state.

The professor kept a huge collection of cowboy art and artifacts. A 1963 story in The Daily Oklahoman listed part of his collection, which included the head of a longhorn steer mounted on a wall, and no less than 12 sets of longhorn horns with the largest spanning 9½ feet. He also collected bridles, saddles, branding irons and spurs from places he visited across the country.

Collings and his wife, Lessie Lee Collings, lived mostly at the Bar-C ranch just north of the Turner Falls Park entrance – the castle was just a summer home – and commuted three times a week to Norman until his retirement. He was a member of many clubs, including the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, and was listed in “Who's Who in America.”

Collings passed away at the age of 82 on June 18, 1970, following a lengthy illness. He is buried in Norman IOOF Cemetery.

Its rooms, modest in size, had ceilings no higher than an average person. Connecting them were dark and closet-like tunnels.

In the main living hall, a steep spiral stairway led to another floor of rooms, and then farther up into a claustrophobic overlook tower that carries the castle’s signature slim and narrow windows.

“There are some beautiful views looking out the windows from inside the castle. You can see why they built it where they did — overlooking the creek,” Shackelford said.

There are few written records that explain why the Collingses built the castle here. But 80-year-old Betty Geis thinks she might be able to shed some light. After all, she once lived with the family.

“Mr. and Mrs. Collings had friends in the education department at OU that owned cabins and property next to it, and that’s why they bought it in that area,” Geis said.

Geis moved into the Collings estate when she married the Collingses’ grandson, Ronald E. “Bill” Geis in 1951. She stayed in one of the cabins down the road from the castle while her husband served in the Korean War.

“My husband used to know how many stairs there were because when he was learning to walk, he was jumping up and down, and he would count them going up,” Geis chuckled as she recalled. “It was a fun place.”

With family and friends nearby, the Collingses often held social gatherings during summer weekends at the castle’s outdoor patio.

“Mrs. Collings was great. She was everybody’s grandma,” Geis said. “She would bake angel food cakes and pies, and they would have barbecue outside.”

Inside, the affable Ellsworth Collings showed off his passion for Western art and ranching. The now graffiti-marred walls once displayed ornamental longhorns and a fraction of the professor’s massive collection of Western paintings, recalled Geis. On the floor, Navajo blankets were laid out as rugs.

“I remember they had a couch that was formed by Texas longhorns,” said Geis. “He was so interested in Old West and Texas longhorns.”

Ellsworth Collings’ passion for ranching was not confined to the castle. He also had a larger cabin nearby that served as a “museum” where he collected artifacts such as spurs, branding irons and miniature saddles, Geis said. Today, a large part of his collection is displayed at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and the Woolaroc Musuem in Bartlesville.

So avid was Collings about all-things ranching, the castle was believed to be only part of a bigger ranch he had in mind.

“The [castle buildings] were built as a connection of the Bar-C Ranch and the 101 Ranch,” said Turner Falls Park manager Graham. “From what we understand, Collings was going to create them into a dude ranch, but because of the Depression and the economy in the ‘30s, it never came about.”

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The sprawling rock walls of the historic Collings Castle is nestled among the trees within Turner Falls Park in Davis.PHOTO BY CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE OKLAHOMAN

A LITTLE LUXURY, BUT ALSO A SIGN OF THE TIMES

avis City Hall records show Collings had hired a “Mr. and Mrs. Parsons,” and their son, from Norman to help with construction of the castle — something the professor was very much involved in himself.

“Mr. Collings would bring concrete mix down on the weekends for Mr. Parsons to use during the week,” the document reads. Rocks used to construct the buildings were cut on each building site and hauled up and down by hand and wheel barrel.

“He built it at a time when people weren’t building a lot,” Shackelford said, and, in turn, provided income for the castle’s builders during the Depression Era.

The document also showed the Parsonses were so poor, they would live in a tent at Turner Falls Park during the construction.

“He gave employment to those who built the castle, and they didn’t have a job,” Geis said. “He had a job in a college and could pay whatever small wages were at the time.”

Although expansive, architectural historians believe the low ceilings and steep steps of the castle were also a sign of the harder times then.

“The site is steep, and hauling materials uphill is labor intensive. Higher ceilings would require taller exterior walls,” said Arn Henderson, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Oklahoma.

No one really knows why Collings built his summer house to resemble a castle. The alternating openings on the building’s parapets, or what are known as battlements, are commonly used to fortify a structure. Since there were neither wars nor battles in the ‘20s or ‘30s, the battlements were probably just an ornamental feature, said Lynda Schwan, an architectural historian from the Oklahoma Historical Society.

And while official city documents record the building as an “English-style” building, Geis insists the castle had more of a Spanish flair to it.

“Moorish almost,” she said.

“He loved Spanish architecture,” she said referring to her grandfather-in-law. “It’s a very definite type of architecture with the parapets on top, and the windows are narrow and long with little individual panes.”

Despite the foreign influence, materials used to construct the castle came from Oklahoma soil. The stones used are believed to have been quarried from an adjacent parcel of land from the castle, according to survey documents, Schwan said.

The rose rocks used to decorate the fireplace were recorded to have come from near Lexington.

The castle was eventually sold by Collings’ grandson after the family moved from the area and has since been owned by several different individuals. The City of Davis bought it in 1977, according to the “Second Book of Murray County,” published in 1988, and is now managed by Turner Falls Park officials.

Not all of its subsequent owners lived in the castle, though. Wayne Clemons, who used to work in the park in the early ‘60s, lived in the castle as a caretaker.

“My uncle was here so much of the time, that the manager suggested that maybe he could care-take the castle,” said Gary Clemons. “And, so, this became his camping spot of choice.”

Later on in life, the elder Clemons became famous in the area for his "Buckeye" style of art painted on rocks, which he sold and often gave away to visitors from a self-made booth along the castle walls.

“He would spend the whole day painting,” said the younger Clemons, who continues to paint and sell artwork at a shop not far from the castle.

RELATED ARTICLE: 'Buckeye' artists gain life of freedom by making rocks shine

IT HURTS TO GO BACK

uch of the crumbling structure today is cloaked by undergrowth and shrouded in mystery — a reason why it has attracted spirit-seeking paranormal groups and movie directors.

“We’ve had a few people do a couple of B-rated movies, including one four years ago, when they did some Old English fighting scenes in the castle buildings,” park manager Graham said. “But these are movies that go straight to DVD; they don’t go to the theaters or anything like that.”

In what used to be the main living area, a rotten wooden door lies on the ground in place of the Navajo rugs. The florid rose rocks that used to adorn the fireplaces are gone, too, much of which look chiseled away and looted. At one of the bunk houses, part of its roof had fallen in so badly that park officials had to remove the entire roof.

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The rough, rocky walls of the castle show signs of wear after being exposed to the outdoor elements.PHOTO BY CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE OKLAHOMAN

If you go

Collings Castle is in Turner Falls Park, the oldest park in Oklahoma.

Located off Interstate 35 on U.S. Highway 77, Turner Falls is a culmination of numerous springs flowing through the lush landscape of the Arbuckle Mountains that form Honey Creek. The creek makes a 77-foot drop, creating Turner Falls – the state's largest waterfall.

Just a 90-minute drive south from Oklahoma City, a visit to Turner Falls and the castle makes for a great summer day-trip to cool off from the Oklahoma heat and explore the Arbuckle wilderness. However, if you plan to stay overnight, there are campgrounds and RV hookups on site. The park also has cabins with rates starting at $130 per night for four people.

For a more rustic setting, Turner Falls Inn along Highway 77 offers stone cabins that have a similar architecture to Collings Castle.

Park admission during the summer for adults is $12, and $6 for children younger than 13.

For more information, visit http://www.turnerfallspark.com/

When asked if she still visits the castle, Geis said there was no reason to.

“The property had not been in the family for a long time ... and so there was really nothing to go back to,” said Geis, who continued to live at the cabin at the Turner Falls Park area with her husband until they moved to a ranch in Colorado in 1982.

“And it did really hurt when we saw that people had broken in and torn apart part of the fireplaces. And so you didn’t really care to go back and see it in disrepair. It was a shock.”

That might change, though.

Graham hopes the castle will eventually be turned into something more than a backdrop to the falls. There are very preliminary plans to convert the castle into a museum, he says.

“We had borrowed a bunch of money several years ago to build cabins and stuff, and we just paid that off. So, now we’re debt-free again ... At the end of this coming summer we can look at some more large projects to do that we might be able to finance,” Graham said.

Likewise, Shackelford is hoping the castle will eventually be restored to its grandeur and maintained for visitors to experience the magic he once did.

“It was a happy castle,” said Shackelford, who lives in the Chicago area today. “I had the greatest possible years growing up there.”

Shackelford, who spent some time working at the park near the castle in the early ‘70s, still makes an annual pilgrimage of sorts to Turner Falls during Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day.

Like a ritual, he takes a photo of the area overlooking the falls and the castle during each visit.

“I must have a million of them,” he joked. “It’s very strange how it still draws me back there.”

360° views of Collings Castle



Outside grounds


Castle interior

Castle in the Making

If you've got a crazy craving for castles and want to help construct one today, yes, today, a project going on in neighboring Arkansas might satisfy those pangs. Builders and volunteers of the Ozark Medieval Fortress have been hammering away to build a massive stone pile with 5-foot thick walls, and towers rising more than 60 feet out of the bedrock. The catch? They are using only 13th century methods and are supervised under the watchful eyes of French and American historians. Construction is expected to take 20 years. The site is open to the public.

Visit http://www.ozarkmedievalfortress.com for more information.

The Collings Castle in OKlahoma