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 stalled, despite it being a tourist hot spot.
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.”
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