This story involves Aerosmith, 100-year-old frosting and a cow named Marion. Oh, and a castle. This is why Castle Farms in Charlevoix, Michigan, should be on your travel list.
Inside Castle Farms: The Doors
Castle Farms has been a landmark in Charlevoix for more than 100 years. But how does a sprawling, stone castle end up in a resort town far up north in Michigan, and definitely far, far away from England?
The answer stands under the stone spires of the entrance, behind two towering doors with thick, wooden handles. A set of strong, solid handles, a delight to hold as you pull them open with your bodyweight (which turns out to be unnecessary).
After driving past the metal Knight, which heralded you in, past the endless gardens and the reflection pond, you park, heft open the surprisingly light doors and find yourself…
Well. In the gift shop. First things first, of course, and there is a family picking out a book on the castle. (The book is glossy, a delight to hold, co-written by the lovable, quirky, you-won’t-believe-the-things-she-collects owner of the castle, Linda Mueller.)
In the gift shop is where you’ll find the lords and ladies (no pun intended) who run the castle. And they’ll tell you the story.
Construction of the barn in 1917
A Castle Farms Tour … And a Famous Cow
There are self-guided tours of Castle Farms, but there are also real-live tours offered by Jessica Anderson, the tour director queen, and a wonderful team of enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides.
Our first stop (after exploring the gift shop) is the milk barn, now dubbed the King’s Gallery. This is where a dozen Christmas trees sparkle in the castle’s annual holiday display. It’s also where Marion, the world’s second best-milker in 1922, did her thing.
The castle was built in 1917 by Albert Loeb, a wealthy entrepreneur from Chicago who summered in the area and loved Renaissance castles. He also worked for a couple of guys named Sears and Roebuck.
At a time when indoor plumbing was uncommon, and Charlevoix was still just a tiny lakeside town, Loeb was the answer to a lot of prayers when he decided to build a state-of-the-art farm on some 1,600 acres. There would be barns large enough to hold 200 dairy cows, a carriage hall, a blacksmith shop, an icehouse, a cheese shop and even a dormitory for the single working men to live there.
Loeb’s home, dubbed “The Big House” (big, too, and fit for a king) was built on a bluff overlooking Lake Charlevoix. The design for both properties was based on stone farms found in Normandy, France. Complete with Romanesque arches, fieldstone from the Charlevoix area and indoor plumbing. No expense was spared.
Some 35 masons—with two to three apprentices each—were needed for the construction alone. Today, you can look at the different stone walls and see vast differences in style and technique. Every man left his mark.
In a few years’ time, Albert had a castle, along with some 200 Holstein cattle and a working dairy farm.
Because the farm wasn’t just any farm. It was a place to showcase the best that Sears, Roebuck & Co. had to offer. And what better way to do that than with Marion, a cow that produced as much as 100 pounds of milk a day. In a year, Marion tallied 35,000 pounds. The average cow produced just 25,000.
Marion made the news.
Area farmers came to see the latest inventions, feeds and farming techniques and to work with, the now-famous Loeb Farms. And Loeb did something else. He provided jobs when there were so few to be had.
Marion the cow
The King’s Gallery and workers in 1918
The Must-See Collections at Castle Farms
Next on our tour, is a series of collections where we find out that the current-day owner, Linda, is an eBay queen.
There are glass cases along the old stone walls with collections of everything you can imagine. Toys, photos, royal family memorabilia and cake toppers.
Yes, a collection of cake toppers. The showstopper (sorry, another pun) is a Victorian topper from the 1800s with a statue of a couple atop … 100+ year old frosting … still intact.
“It’s under glass and behind glass for a reason,” Jessica, our guide, says with a laugh.
This collection started when Castle Farms started hosting weddings in 2002. Weddings were never part of the plan when Linda began restoring the farm in 2001, but when she was approached by a bride to have her dream wedding in a castle, who was Linda to deny a dream? When you buy a castle, you’re kind of in the dream business.
Speaking of collections. There’s a mousetrap collection. There is, there really is.
When Linda was visiting Leeds Castle in England, (she has a life-list of castles like birdwatchers have birds, and so far, she’s visited 160 castles) she saw they had a dog collar collection. She figured if they could do dog collars, she could do mousetraps. The collection is insight into Linda’s personality. She is full of whimsy and dreams and ideas. And, playful, without a doubt. (See some of Linda’s collected items in the photo gallery below.)
She says the idea to buy Castle Farms came in retirement, after admiring the castle over the years when visiting Charlevoix.
“Richard likes to say that the money came from my first husband,” she says. “Him!”
Richard owns 130 Domino’s franchises with his family, and when the castle came on the market in 2001, he told Linda it was her turn to dream.
“I want this to be ‘The Happiest Castle in the World,’” Linda tells guests.
A castle fueled by pizza dough? An excellent start.
An ode to 1918
On weekends in 1918, you could find the people of Charlevoix at the castle. Art Loeb had his own baseball team, The Sodbusters, and he also had an Ice House (which still stands today). They cut blocks of ice out of Lake Charlevoix in the winter and stored them in the ice house under sawdust. Come summer, people came for the games, the then-rare ice cream and the community.
Art was the acting president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. then and as an ode to the times, Linda created a museum based on its 1918 catalog, housed in the Blacksmith Shop on the property. Nothing goes in the museum unless it has a page in that old 1918 catalog. There’s a washing machine for $7.95, and hanging from the ceiling, a bike with wooden rims for $28.95.
“Back then a bike was a luxury item,” Anderson says. “It shows the difference in people’s lifestyles back then.”
From there, we walk to the most impressive building yet with soaring wooden rafters. It’s the Knight’s Castle—the horse barn that housed 13 pairs of Belgian draft horses in the early days.
When Linda bought it, the roof had caved in. But she had a vision: to rebuild the castle with as much of the original material as she could, working from the original 1917 blueprints the family had provided her.
She began a search for the best barn restoration experts in the country. And the roof of that old barn was saved—98 percent of it—with a technique where they moved the original, still-solid rafters back into place gradually (to prevent breakage) with pulleys and braces. The process took three months, with workers driving up from Lansing every few days to move the rafters closer and closer to upright.
It was a victory in what, at times, seemed an impossible restoration.
“God sent me people when I needed them,” Linda says. “One of our favorite sayings was, “How hard can that be?” Followed by “What was I thinking?” And then we’d find the right person and figure it out.”
The same room today is their Grand Hall for weddings—gorgeous, historic and breathtaking.
The Second Act
The next part of our Castle Farms tour is the Carriage Hall, a room that honors John VanHaver, the castle’s second owner from 1962–1969. He was a businessman from Muskegon who dreamed of turning the castle into a haven for craftsmen and artists. He renamed it Castle VanHaver.
After Art Loeb died of a heart attack in 1924, the farm failed under the pressures of the Great Agricultural Depression, and the property sat unkept for more than 30 years. In 1962, the roof of the original barn fell. A year later, VanHaver stepped in and purchased the property with a goal to restore it. His efforts are honored throughout the complex with photos.
VanHaver was also an accomplished diver and artist. Look for one of his pieces, a stool made out of wood salvaged from a Lake Michigan shipwreck. In 1969, financial troubles led to his eventual sale to Arthur and Erwina Reibel, who renamed the property Castle Farms, the name it has today.
That Aerosmith Story …
The Reibels envisioned a riding stable, complete with a theater and tavern. And, while the equestrian thing didn’t work out, the entertainment idea did. They erected a massive outdoor concert stage with a metal roof in the King’s Grand Courtyard, and Castle Farms ushered in an era of rock performers from all over the world in quiet, little Charlevoix.
When big-name gigs booked shows in Detroit and Chicago, the Reibels booked the acts on the night they were traveling between the two major cities, an idea that meant more money for bands coming to the Mitten State and the Reibels, too. It was a win-win.
Tina Turner, Ozzy Osbourne, Willie Nelson and the Doobie Brothers arrived, and quieter names like Reba McEntire and The Beach Boys rocked the Castle too.
Concerts drew as many as 17,000 attendees. But, the Castle, for the first time in its history, was making waves of the wrong kind. They were cited for health complaints, noise violations and litter.
At the Castle, the party rarely stopped. What was the former dairy had been turned into first a gift shop by VanHaver—who salvaged rough, hand-hewn beams for the ceilings from more than 50 barns in Northern Michigan and the U.P. He also refurbished the floor with original tiles salvaged from the other areas to make an exquisite herringbone pattern still seen today.
Under his charge, Art Reibel turned the gift shop into a tavern and added a dance floor and bar, complete with disco lights and parties that went into the night. The story is that Reibel had the balcony built in the old horse barn so he could sleep off his late nights without heading home. Nowadays, the Queen’s Tavern offers bridal parties an intimate gathering spot, a gorgeous place to toast their future (and The 1918 Cellars Wine Tasting Room in the summer months).
When the last concert was performed in 1993, the city of Charlevoix was relieved, but thousands upon thousands of Michiganders still recount fond memories of their first “big name” concerts at Castle Farms, an opportunity never before afforded those who lived so far north.
Today, in the Queen’s Bridal Wing (formerly the dormitory for farm workers), brides getting ready for their big day can find the name “Bon Jovi” etched in the stone wall. And that story about Aerosmith? The band had a water fight in the Castle’s famous artesian well in the courtyard, a “Crazy” scene.
Today at Castle Farms
Linda and Richard Mueller bought the property in 2001, after Arthur Reibel’s death, and began an earnest renovation of the entire property, much of which had gone untouched for decades.
How did Linda know she could ever do it? She credits the Witch Hats.
On either side of the Queen’s Courtyard stand two short towers featuring the classic “Witch Hat” design prevalent in French architecture. When Linda saw that these two, short, squat towers had survived the years of disuse, she had hope.
If those sections of the original castle had survived, down low and out of the weather unkept, the rest—the arches and stone that still stood—could be repaired, the roofs built back up.
She was right. Entire sections of the castle were roofless—just solid, stone arches more than 100 years old, holding court. It was enough. By 2005, the restoration was complete.
Today, there are gardens everywhere, sprawling lawns, Norm (a statue from ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, a dragon for the castle at last!), an outdoor model train display, one of the largest in Michigan. There’s a reflection pond with rainbow trout offering visitors a quiet place to sit. There’s an alphabet garden from A–Z where children can find the plant that matches their initial.
“X was the hardest to find,” Linda says. “But I found an annual, and I plant it every year: Xeranthemum.”
Year round at Castle Farms, there are visitors and events. Weddings, as many as five a day, happen on the grounds, all becoming a part of the castle’s history, an ever-unfolding story. And at the helm, Linda and her staff making it happen. She cherishes the dreams, the ideas, the tours, and the history. And she offers this—a promise to keep the castle fit for a king—or queen!
By Kandace Chapple, a freelance writer and co-publisher of Grand Traverse Woman Magazine. Find her at kandacechapple.com.