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Stronghold Castle: An Orphan’s Tribute to Family

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In 1929, Chicago newspaper magnate Walter Strong built a castle that inspired the imagination of his family for the next 30-plus years. Today, it remains a bastion of renewal and personal growth that’s enjoyed by more than 12,000 people annually.

Stronghold Castle, lit up at sunset.

Since he finished the first grade in 2000, Andrew Busker has spent every summer at Stronghold Center, in Oregon, Ill.

The 18-year-old Rockford resident has stayed in rustic cabins tucked deep into the woods. He’s traveled through the camp’s adventure courses and worked on his Eagle Scout project there. For the past few summers, though, he’s lived at this camp’s towering focal point: a summer home that everyone knows as “the castle.” It has a five-story tower, a knight’s armor displayed by the door, tapestries hanging on the walls and, yes, secret passageways.

“There’s a secret chapel in the castle,” says Busker. “But I can’t tell you where it is, or I’ll ruin the surprise.”

Long before it welcomed summer campers and winter retreaters, the castle was home to the family of Chicago newspaper publisher Walter Strong, who built it in 1929. For 30 years, his family spent summers relaxing and playing inside the castle and throughout its wooded acres. Owned today by the Blackhawk Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA), this unusual place continues to reflect Strong’s investment in family and imagination. There’s still something special here.

“Once you’re inside the camp, there’s a sense that you don’t feel like you’re in Illinois anymore,” says Busker. “When you’re at camp, it’s like the whole outside world isn’t really there. Yeah, you can hear cars on the highway, but you go into the castle, and you’re in a castle. That’s just how it feels.”

The Castle: A European Relic … Of Sorts

Though it’s called a castle, the structure reflects a combination of European manor house, Tudor styling and Depression-era construction. The castle complex consists of three buildings and has 22 rooms, including 19 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and several secret passageways. At every turn, it encourages the imagination.

“We do a lot of tours for day camps and kindergartners,” says Jan Hartman, camp director. “One of our guides always asks the kids, ‘What’s wrong with this castle?’ The answer is that it’s open on one side, so it’s a terrible place to defend.”

Walter and Josephine Strong with children (R-L) Walter Jr., Jonathan, Robert, Anne. David sits in Josephine’s lap. (Stronghold Center photo)

The castle cost $80,000 when it went up during 1929. Although its age shows, the creaky wooden floors and cracking plaster only add to its ambiance. Even when it was new, the castle was crafted to appear as though it had stood for centuries.

“The smaller portraits of people in period clothing are of the family in a costume party. They had a lot of fun here,” says Hartman, standing in one of the entrance halls. “This dark paneling is white pine, but it was stained with coffee grounds and lard. Walter had the carpenters take old, rusty chains and beat up the wood to make it look older.”

Carpenters used the same technique on the home’s 10 fireplaces and fireplace hoods, which are blackened from smoke. Each fireplace was built from limestone quarried on the property.

There’s more limestone in the five-story tower, which is reached by a spiral staircase. Each step is anchored by reinforcing rods, stuck deep into the rounded concrete walls.

“The engineers who visit always want to see this staircase,” says Hartman. “They’re always curious about what supports the stairs, since they seem to float. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Rock Island comes here for teambuilding exercises. There’s a whole group of structural engineers who want to figure this place out. They all wonder, ‘How did they build this place back in 1929?’”

Climb those winding steps and you’ll see the story of “Rumpelstiltskin” illustrated on the walls. Atop a narrow stone staircase stands the impish fairytale character. The character and the mural were painted by a Russian artist in the 1930s. Figures within the painting are said to resemble both the family and the artist.

Another staircase inside this room leads to an observation deck. Far below, the glassy Rock River and winding Illinois Route 2 appear to be miniatures. On a clear winter day, Lorado Taft’s Black Hawk statue is sometimes visible as well.

“They tell us that in the 1940s, you could see Black Hawk, but there are too many big trees now,” says Hartman.

An Orphan with a Strong Family

A surprisingly scant amount of personal information about the Strong family was left to historians, even though Walter Strong was an important newspaper magnate. Locally, most information about the family and its castle is anecdotal, relayed by various colorful relatives.

Walter Strong’s library holds a secret ... (Dustin Waller photo)

Strong made his wealth through the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, which was then at the top of its game. According to Strong’s biography on file at Chicago’s Newberry Library, he grew up as an orphan, lived at Chicago’s YMCA and worked odd jobs at the Chicago Daily News, where his uncle, Victor Lawson, was publisher. Lawson had no children of his own and became a reluctant and distant father figure, supporting Strong financially, at arm’s length. Following high school, Strong worked odd jobs while studying at a series of colleges, including Beloit College.

In 1913, Strong married Josephine Webster, daughter of a Chicago tycoon. They had five children together: Walter Jr., Jonathan, Robert, Anne and David. While raising his family in Winnetka, Ill., on Chicago’s North Shore, Strong rose through the ranks, first as his uncle’s personal secretary and later as the newspaper’s business manager. He purchased the newspaper following Lawson’s death in 1925.

As he amassed his fortune, Strong began constructing a summer home near Oregon for his growing family. He bought his first 60 acres from Wallace Heckman, a prominent Chicago lawyer whose estate across the river hosted the eccentric Eagle’s Nest Art Colony (read more about Heckman’s estate in NWQ’s Spring 2011 edition). Strong’s summer home was just south of Bee Tree Farm, where wife Josephine’s large family often summered.

Josephine’s brother, Maurice Webster, designed the castle, which was inspired by Strong’s visits to European castles. Some say it was also influenced by the wild estate of another newspaper baron – William Randolph Hearst.

“Strong knew Hearst and had visited his [San Simeon] castle in California,” says Hartman. “It’s opulent, with great works of art and no expense spared. This was Walter Strong’s family-friendly answer to Hearst Castle. Strong was one of the great newspaper moguls of the ’20s and ’30s; that’s why he built it the way he did. With those five kids and Josephine’s family, and the frequent trains, there were lots of visitors here.”

Whereas Hearst Castle is opulent, Stronghold is more rustic and straightforward, with a decidedly Depression-era sensibility and Windy City practicality.

Walter and Josephine dedicated their new home during Thanksgiving 1929. According to accounts held by the Ogle County Historical Society, the party was lavish, with many of Chicago’s elite in attendance. The family of seven, with their two dogs, spent its first summer in the castle in 1930, when the children ranged in age from 4 to 14. Sadly, it was the only one the entire family would share. In May 1931, at just 47 years old, Walter Strong suffered a fatal heart attack.

All historical accounts describe Strong as a dedicated family man who enjoyed providing his children with the kind of education and nurturing atmosphere that his own childhood lacked. Many things around the castle, including light fixtures in the front hall and dining room, and an ancient toboggan tower, were built by the Strong boys.

The entire structure seems geared to awaken a child’s sense of mystery. The children’s playroom, for example, is connected to one of the home’s many secret passageways, where entrances are hidden behind bookshelves and inside of utility closets. A secret chapel is hidden behind library walls.

Even the family’s massive oak dining table – measuring 20 by 6 feet and weighing half a ton – was crafted for the family.

“One of the stories behind the table is that Walter didn’t want his family to go into town for dinner because there was no room for friends,” says Hartman. “One of his family rules was that everyone attended meals. Their table was made from one tree, and the story goes that they built it outdoors and couldn’t get it inside, so they built bay windows onto the room. The table was so heavy that the floor began to sag, so that’s why the basement has a series of jacks holding this floor up.”

After Walter’s death, Josephine and her children returned to the castle every summer for nearly 30 years. Over time it became a place for Strong’s children to have fun with their own children. The family threw wild costume parties and welcomed many guests to the estate. In fact, the family loved costume parties so much that it’s often difficult to date family photos because their costumes represented different time periods.

“They loved history and they loved dressing up,” says Tim Payton, coordinator for volunteers and creative services at Stronghold. “They have portraits in the home of the family dressed in costumes from various time periods. They also had a birthday party for Josephine in the 1950s that they did in a 1920s theme. The portraits show what fun they had here.”

Though it was always a place for fun, the summer retreat was also a place of beauty and spiritual respite.
“Walter III (Strong’s grandson) talks about getting up and walking around the property before breakfast,” says Hartman. “He says it was not hard to believe that you were in a special place, and that your family did indeed live in a castle. People find such a specialized experience here. It means so much to so many different people.”

New Owner, Similar Mission

Today, the summer camp at Walter Strong’s former home is a favorite getaway for both youngsters and adults. Beauty, imagination and laughter are still in strong supply. In this retreat center, family is held in high esteem, just as it was in Strong’s day.

After Josephine died in 1961, the Strongs sold the estate to a Presbyterian camping group for $125,000. In the summer of 1963, the new Stronghold camp opened the castle and its grounds to nearly 100 wide-eyed youths. Today, under ownership of the Blackhawk Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA), it serves more than 12,000 visitors each year who represent many interests and faith backgrounds.

Over the years, it became impossible for all visitors to dine at the Strong table and sleep in castle bedrooms. A 360-acre campground has developed, with a variety of lodging options, meeting spaces and outdoor amenities. In summertime, it accommodates nearly 230 people; younger campers rough it in rustic cabins, while older ones stay at modern facilities or inside the castle, which sleeps 56. In winter, the camp hosts up to 180 guests.

Andrew Busker performs with friends in the castle’s great hall during during a music and drama camp for high school students. (Andrew Busker photo)

Outside, visitors can explore a variety of settings. Youngsters learn about the natural world in the woods, or in the quarry where limestone was harvested to build the castle. High above the tree canopy is a ropes challenge course; camp facilitators host teambuilding activities there and at other special courses scattered around the woods. A modern mess hall hosts up to 200 diners, or can be used for worship services and other large gatherings.

During the first week of October, Stronghold Center transports itself back in time to the Tudor era, inviting the general public to an Olde English Faire on its lawns. Colorful performers in period costume wander about, knights in armor battle in competition and costumed craftspeople display their wares. This year’s event is Oct. 1 & 2, coinciding with Oregon’s annual Autumn on Parade festival.

Stronghold’s owner, the Blackhawk Presbytery, is an association of 79 Presbyterian churches stretching from the Mississippi to Northwest Chicagoland, and from the Wisconsin state line to Peoria, Bloomington and Champaign. The center hosts church-related meetings, and individual church groups can host their own retreats.

“It’s a place where you can look out your window and see birds and turkeys, and that makes it a nice work environment,” says the Rev. John Rickard, general presbyter, who lives in nearby Byron, Ill. “It’s a very peaceful kind of place. Bringing people here for a meeting puts them in a different environment, puts them in a different kind of place and allows them to think differently.”

In this way, the campground lives up to Strong’s desire to nurture future generations.

“Stronghold is a safe place, where physically, emotionally and socially, you’re safe,” says Ryan Anderson, program director. “Even when groups come out just for a day, we take them out on the initiatives course for two hours, and it can completely change the way people interact with each other. Where else do you get to see these things on a daily basis?”

Although it’s operated by Presbyterians, the summer camps and retreats are open to people of all faiths. During summer camps, children are met with a Christian message that’s not specific to one denomination.

“Probably about half of our young campers, maybe 55 percent, are Presbyterians,” says Hartman. “Our next biggest group is Roman Catholic. Then you have Lutherans, Methodists, Evangelical Free, Assembly of God. But about 10 percent of our kids are not affiliated with any church.”

Before he became program director, Anderson, 32, discovered Stronghold through his church, First Presbyterian in Dixon, Ill. He attended camps through high school, eventually becoming a camp counselor and later accepting a job as assistant program director. Over the years, he’s witnessed the camp’s profound influence on the lives of its guests. Sometimes kids show up reluctantly, then grow so attached that they don’t want to go home. He works with youths from around the Midwest, and nurtures counselors who hail from places near and far, such as South Africa, Germany, Australia and Scotland.

“It becomes such a part of you that you miss it when you’re not there,” he says. “Especially with the counselors, camp is better than anywhere in this world. Where else can young adults develop like this? It’s unbelievable when you have this staff of young people who come through and spend two months being responsible for all of these amazing experiences, leaving them in someone’s memory. It can change their lives forever.”

Busker is among the youngsters Anderson has nurtured. This is his first summer as a counselor, but hardly his first time at Stronghold. His family discovered it through friends at Third Presbyterian Church in Rockford, and he’s been here every summer since. Busker can remember his favorite counselors and summers spent exploring the castle. Just 5 feet tall, he’s found it easier than some people to find his way around the secret passages. For his Eagle Scout project, Busker constructed a wooden observation deck overlooking the river. Stronghold has not only become his summer home, but also influenced some important decisions, especially as he prepares to begin college this fall.

“When I was looking for my major, I thought, ‘What’s the one thing that I love to do no matter what?’” Busker says. “When I kept thinking about that, the things that kept popping up were Stronghold and the Boy Scouts. So the only thing I can see myself doing is the thing that ties the two together, which happens to be recreation management.”

Hartman has heard similar stories from other campers. She knows there’s something special about this place.

“We talk to folks who were campers here in the ’60s or ’70s, and the castle has this mystique,” she says. “It’s something special for them. If it’s an intense retreat, where you have an intense spiritual experience, that stays with you for a long time.” ❚

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