“Three for the self-guided tour, please.”
The woman in the crumbling foyer takes my money and our names. She confirms that we have phones and earbuds before handing us off to an energetic docent who takes us to the start of what he calls the “virtual tour”.
For some reason I feel compelled to explain why we’re leaving the normal tour behind. “We’re too awkward in groups,” I say, my general twitchiness reinforcing my point.
“Ah, that makes you the spice of life!” he exclaims. He names us Paprika, Saffron, and Cayenne. In return, we dub him Mr. Salsa.
Mr. Salsa leads us to a large room with only some folding chairs and a TV cart and explains that the “virtual tour” consists of watching a video that takes about half the time of the guided tour.
Blank faces. I’m pretty sure we didn’t drive out here to watch a video.
Mr. Salsa gives us a chance to save ourselves. “Is that what you expected?”
“Erm, I was under the impression that we needed our phones?” I venture.
So we are ushered back to the front porch to start the actual self-guided tour, which consists of following laminated placards on the walls with QR codes linking to audio files. Only it turns out not to be not self-guided at all, since we are placed into the capable hands of Jeremy.
Presumably Jeremy’s only job is to make sure we don’t wander into condemned areas or treat the grounds like a private photoshoot. I now suspect that the whole virtual tour mishap was an attempt to use the television as a babysitter instead.
Only it’s clear that Jeremy is positively bursting at the seams with information and doesn’t want to follow quietly along. He tells us he’s gotten in trouble for talking too much on the self-guided tours, so our (admittedly awful) strategy is to make up baloney about what we’re seeing until Jeremy feels the need to step in and correct us.
And in this way we make our way through the rooms of the abandoned Preston School of Industry (aka “the Castle”), which served as a reform school for juvenile delinquents, orphans, and other displaced youth from 1890 to 1960.
In the 50+ years since the school moved to newer facilities, the interior of the imposing red sandstone mansion has fallen into disrepair. The state gutted the place for materials and ripped out most of its intricate molding and the slate roof.
Imagining the castle in its heyday, however, makes it seem like the boys living here had a pretty sweet deal. Wards got three meals a day and a roof over their heads even during the Great Depression, all while learning a trade of their choice. They could browse through 7000 books in the library, lounge on a patio overlooking the rolling Northern Californian foothills, and play sports or join the school’s brass band.
Nash claims he even heard mention of “foot baths” in one of the placards, but Jeremy can’t confirm this. He does, however, show us the indoor swimming pool. Only instead of a place where the lads splashed around laughing, this was the plunge bath where incoming students were completely submerged in a caustic stew of lye and other lice-killing chemicals.
So it turns out life wasn’t all roses at Preston castle (even though they did have their own rose garden). In fact, there’s a history of death and violence that’s spawned a number of ghost tales.
Corporal punishment was the norm, especially under the tyranny of Superintendent O’Brien, who was accused of beating and torturing students at the slightest provocation.
Escape attempts were so common that the boys’ shoes had v-notches in their soles to make them easier to track. Samuel Goins, one of the 18 unclaimed wards buried in the nearby cemetery, was shot by a guard during his third attempt at running away.
And most famously, in 1950, the housekeeper Anna Corbin was found bludgeoned to death in a locked room with a rope around her neck. Her murder remains unsolved.
The Preston Castle Foundation capitalizes on this sordid past to help raise funds for restoring the site, hosting murder mystery dinners and flashlight ghost tours. Many of their efforts lend a theme park quality to this “real-life haunted mansion”.
One ghost hunter TV show went so far as to construct a padded room and pretend the penitentiary was an insane asylum. It goes well with the Halloween props scattered everywhere, plastic bones and rubber rats left over from the yearly haunted house (which sounds awesome, by the way, and is what originally drew Jeremy to the job). Matt swears he saw fake blood on one of the beds, and we even begin to suspect that the squeaking from the ceiling is piped in instead of actual bats.
When we enter the boys’ dormitory, I bark out a laugh at the tiny rocking horse placed in the middle of the room. Jeremy points out the webcam monitoring the room for paranormal activity.
“They say the ghosts especially like playing with balls,” he says with a hint of skepticism. Sure enough, a big rubber ball rests against one of the walls. I stare at it, but it doesn’t so much as wobble. There’s not even a chill breeze or the plinking of an aged piano.
“Most of the boys here were teenagers, right?” I ask. “Wouldn’t their ghosts be a little too old for these toys?”
Nash remarks that a bottle of lotion and box of tissues would be more likely to vanish before our eyes. But I like the idea that in death we become children again.
Unfortunately, all the overtly creepy staging undermines the natural allure of an abandoned site, the way the mold-spackled walls and rusty hospital beds inspire a subtle horror and fascination in those of us who fight with dustcloths and sponges to keep the decay away.
At one point, we run across the guided tour in the cavernous dining room. We instinctively cringe away from the shuffling mob and their spieling docent. Instead, we go lurking down the nearby hallway, speculating on the existence of a secret interdimensional portal on the closed-off fourth floor until Jeremy tells us what’s really there.
The loophole that turned our self-guided walk into a discounted private tour gave us a level of freedom that the wards at Preston Castle would have envied. At its end, we wave goodbye to Jeremy and Mr. Salsa and head to Ione’s main street, which feels straight out of the gold rush era.
In a cafe there, we play the insanely difficult Straw Trash Game (in which you tuck a straw wrapper behind your ear and attempt to knock it off by blowing out of the side of your mouth until you’re spitting and dizzy).
Maybe someday we’ll be suited to the guided tour, but today was not that day.
- Preston Castle Foundation Tours
Tours are available on Saturdays from 10am to 1pm during April through September, along with a few other select dates. At the time of this writing, guided tours are $15 and self-guided are $10. The castle is located in Ione, Ca, one hour east of Sacramento.
- Clark’s Corner
Recommended cafe for breakfast or lunch in old-timey downtown Ione.