DAVIS — When it comes to make-believe 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 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 hide-and-seek.
“I remember someone hiding in the fireplace ... a dirty place to hide,” said Shackelford, who with his younger brother used to sneak into the castle grounds. “There probably was a sign that said ‘Private Property,' but we pretended to not see ... or understand.”
Today, children and families still can be seen exploring the dark tunnel like doorways and peeking from the castle's decrepit stone walls, much of which now is covered with graffiti.
It's hard to miss the imposing ruins as one walks along the creek from the parking area at Turner Falls Park to the famed falls itself.
The gray stone walls lining the foot path are the first hints something mysterious is lurking nearby. Past a pile of crumbled stones, a staircase appears. At its end, the imposing stone walls rise up from the dense cover of trees.
“Pass the castle, then you hear the falls. It's like there's somebody calling out to you,” said Shackelford, now 55. “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. Yet, plans to restore the dilapidated castle constantly have been 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,” said Turner Falls Park manager Tom Graham.
The park draws some 250,000 visitors each year. Funding this year went for a new slide, expanding a swimming area and other park and camp site improvements.
BUILT FOR SUMMER DAYS
Once described by a local newspaper as Davis' own “Camelot,” the castle was built in the 1930s. It became part of the estate of the late Ellsworth Collings — an author who was also dean of the University of Oklahoma's education department nearly 20 years.
The castle covered less than an acre and included a main house with three rooms and two living areas with fireplaces, one 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 at Davis City Hall.
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. 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. But, 80-year-old relative Betty Geis said, “Mr. and Mrs. Collings had friends ... at OU that owned cabins and property next to it, and that's why they bought in that area.”
Geis moved into the Collings estate when she married the couple's grandson, Ronald E. “Bill” Geis, in 1951. She lived in one of the nearby cabins 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.”
The Collingses often held social gatherings during summer weekends at the castle's outdoor patio.
“Mrs. Collings was great ... 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 displaying ornamental longhorns and a fraction of his massive collection of Western paintings. On the floor, Navajo blankets were laid out as rugs.
“I remember they had a couch that was formed by Texas longhorns,” said Geis.
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, much 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 dude ranch that he had in mind, park manager Graham said, but “because of the Depression and the economy in the '30s, it never came about.”
A LITTLE LUXURY, BUT ALSO A SIGN OF THE TIMES
Davis city records show Collings 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,” records state. 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 Parsons lived in a tent at Turner Falls Park during the construction, records show.
“He gave employment to those who built the castle,” Geis said. “He had a job in a college and could pay whatever small wages were at the time.”
Although expansive, architectural historians also believe the castle's low ceilings and steep steps were signs of harder economic 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 OU.
No one knows why Collings built his summer house to resemble a castle. The alternating openings on the building's parapets — 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, architectural historian from the Oklahoma Historical Society.
And while city documents record the building as “English-style,” Geis insists the castle had more of a Spanish flair. “Moorish almost,” she said.
“He loved Spanish architecture,” she said of 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, construction materials came from Oklahoma soil. The stones were believed quarried from an adjacent parcel of land, according to survey documents, Schwan said.
The rose rocks used to decorate a fireplace reportedly came from near Lexington.
The castle was eventually sold by Collings' grandson and has since been owned by several different individuals. In 1977, the City of Davis bought it, according to the “Second Book of Murray County,” published in 1988, and is now managed by Turner Falls Park officials.
Not all subsequent owners lived in the castle, though. Wayne Clemons, who worked 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, 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.
IT HURTS TO GO BACK
Much of the crumbling structure today is cloaked by undergrowth and shrouded in mystery — a reason 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, possibly 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.
When asked if she still visits the castle, Geis said there's no reason.
“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, with her husband, 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,” she said.
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.
Likewise, Shackelford hopes 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 still makes an annual pilgrimage, of sorts, to Turner Falls during Thanksgiving or Mother's Day.
Like a ritual, he always takes a photo of the area overlooking the falls and the castle.
“I must have a million of them,” he said. “It's very strange how it still draws me back there.”