Witches in the Woods

Stone Barn Castle - 1946

Rumors had been circulating amongst the locals about the property on Elpis Road.  Residents had claimed to see glimpses of shadows running within the trees.  Flames and smoke from large bonfires assaulted the senses and on evenings when the moon was full, screams and laughter could be heard echoing through the forest.  Many could successfully argue that these incidents were common in rural communities throughout Upstate New York, but three factors set the Hugel family apart from their Oneida County counterparts.  The family members were wealthy German immigrants who had just recently arrived in the United States, uneducated in the social graces of small town conformity.  They opted not to socialize with the locals, confining themselves to exile within the 53-acre bounders of their farm.  And, most importantly, they gated and posted their property, known as the Stone Barn Castle, making it virtually invisible from the road.  Aided by the dense growth of trees and shrubbery from the state forest on three sides, the residence was, in a word, isolated.  After 18 months from their arrival, many within the community had derived their own conclusions about what went on behind those gates and none of it was very good.  I had heard theories that the family was running from the law, that they dabbled in the practice of witchcraft and that they pursued a sexually deviant lifestyle.  I hadn’t really subscribed to any of those theories.

My family lived about two miles down the road from the Hugels.  Five years earlier, my parents had decided that growing up “in the country” would be a better way of life to raise children, at least compared to growing up on the south side of Syracuse.  As a teenage boy, I was not inclined to agree.  However, it was expressed to me in the clearest of terms that my opinion, or that of my sister, would not be a factor in the final decision.  Shortly after, they purchased a significant parcel of land in the Town of Vienna.  The initial transition was a difficult one.  The first day that I had laid eyes on the property, it was just a trailer stuck amongst the trees.  I stepped out of the vehicle to take a closer look and was bombarded by black flies, what my father described as “punkies”.  They engulfed by body, flying up my nose, in my eyes, in my ears … the scene could have been described as “Pig Pen” meets “The Swarm”.  I grabbed by pack and took off running to the trailer.  Throwing open the door and stepping inside I froze.  As a teenager, what I was allowed to say out loud had to be guarded, but inside the words were crystal clear … “You got to be kidding me!”

Well, you adapt.  Over the next five years, as a family, we cleared hundreds of trees from the land, built a beautiful ranch house and cleared and seeded acres of lawn.  One day, while I was filling fence post holes by the side of the road, I saw the Hugel’s vehicle drive past.  Imported from Germany, the four door cream sedan, steering wheel on the right side, was uniquely recognizable by everyone.  Slowly the vehicle came to a stop and then began to backup to the front of the house where I was working.  The door opened and out stood Dr. Hugel.  He was a 6 foot, 250 pound, blond hair German wearing bib denim overalls, no shirt, a straw farmer’s hat, knee high black rubber boots and shiny Rolex watch on his right hand.

“Is your father home, boy?”

I turned and pointed to my dad.  He was by the shed, his head buried in the tracks of an International bull dozer, replacing a bearing.

“He’s over by the shed.”

Dr. Hugel put his hands in his pockets, walked down the driveway and over to where my father had been working.  The distance was too far to hear any of the conversation, but I saw my father stand up and then both men looking back in my direction.  There were a few nods back and forth, a hand shake and my father continued on with the repair to the dozer while Dr. Hugel headed in my direction.  To avoid looking too curious, I turned and threw a couple more shovels of dirt into the hole.

Dr. Hugel stopped next me.  I looked up.

“We have some people coming over to our home on Friday night.  I could use a hand with some yard cleanup on Saturday morning.  $10 an hour.  Figure on four hours yah.  Your da’ said it was fine with him if you’re interested.”

“Sure.  Thank you.”

“Bring a pair of gloves. Just walk on up to ze gatehouse about 9.  Helena will let you in.”

With nothing further say, he nodded, got back into his car and pulled away.

Friday night came and with it another full moon.  As was often the case, relatives were driving out from Liverpool to spend the weekend.  My parents provided the food and entertainment at night, which usually consisted of marathon sessions of eight-handed pitch.  Then, by day, everyone worked on the project du jour.  Sometimes it was painting the house.  Sometimes it was building a room.  This weekend, it happened be another round of clearing trees and splitting firewood.  I’d being lying if I wasn’t just a little bit grateful that I was actually going to work outside AND get paid for doing it.

Around 10 pm the three cars pulled into the driveway and I slipped on my shoes to help unload the vehicles.  My uncle opened the door and walked in demanding, “Where the hell did you decide to move to?”

The question was fully rhetorical and needed no further explanation.  Our house was about an hour from Syracuse, with the latter half of the trip encompassing country roads with no street lights or lines.  Once you turned off Route 49, crushed stone replaced pavement and one was lucky to see anything other than deer alongside the road.  At the time, the only light on the street came from a large street light in my parent’s yard.  Everything else was black.  Pitch black.

“We turned the corner onto Elpis and there were a dozen people with black robes and torches in the woods.”

Of course, my mind went immediately back to the conversation out by the road earlier this week.  “We have some people coming over to our home on Friday night … “

After a little more description of the incident and the customary pleasantries, I excused myself to get some sleep for the next day.  At least, that was my intention.  I found myself lying in bed, staring out the window at the full moon.  Thoughts were running wild through my mind.  I was an anxious to get my first glimpse of the Stone Barn and I was equally excited to see what type of gathering was taking place at that very moment.  Sometime later, I drifted off to sounds of the family playing cards.

The next morning, the alarm went off early.  My mother was the only one up.  I slipped into a pair of jeans, put on a hooded sweatshirt and stuffed a pair of work gloves in my pocket.  My mother handed me a piece of toast as I walked into the kitchen.

“Behave yourself today.”

There was a slight pause and a glimmer of concern in her eyes.  She pointed a finger at me as she stood firm, dressed in nightgown and slippers.

“And you know I brought you up to know the difference between right and wrong.  If Dr. Hugel asks you to do something …. “

I smiled.

“Yeah, no slaughtering goats at the alter or tying virgins to the stake.”

“Don’t be a smart ass!  If I find out …”

“I got it mom.”

She nodded and maintaining her stare, finger still pointed, for a few moments longer.  She relaxed slightly returning to her normal posture.  I slipped into my sneakers, wheeled the bike out of the garage and began pedaling for the farm.

As I pulled up to the entrance, Helena, Dr. Hugel’s youngest daughter was waiting by the gate as promised.  She smiled briefly, unlocking the padlock that allowed one half of the long red and white striped beam to pivot up into the air.  I dismounted from the bike, pausing to wait for further direction.

“Da is in the great room … through the front doors.”

I nodded in thanks and continued along.  The driveway must have gone on for 100 yards winding left and right through the trees.  When I reached the edge of the clearing, I saw it immediately.  The stone structure, patterned after an ancient English castle, dominated the open space surrounding it.  Thick fieldstone walls supported only the open air where oversized wooden timbers once stood.  Goats, horses and cows could be seen grazing and meandering with no particular urgency throughout the field, which was surrounded by trees on all sides.

It was common knowledge that the barn had caught fire in the late 1940s.  Anything combustible was destroyed and only the stone work remained.  I felt like a peasant returning to the castle after it had been besieged.  As I made my way to the entrance, I could imagine the call of Drake’s Drum ringing throughout the field, beckoning workers to regroup for repairs and once again prepare to defend its walls.  Cherry trees had grown where piles of ash once lay.  Ivy and flowered vines clung intertwined along the northern most wall, which shadowed the stone ramp elevating over a brook to the second floor of the structure.  The ramp’s crescendo disappeared into the silence of a giant archway.  It was majestic, even in its current state.

As I approached the open archway, I saw Dr. Hugel glazing glass into a massive 62 pane window intended to be installed into an interior archway, the apex of the balcony in one of the towers.  He saw me approaching and offered a single nod.

“Morning.”

“Good morning.  What would you like me to do?”

Instantly, as the words came out of my mouth, my senses began to be over whelmed.  I lost all eye contact with the Dr. as I surveyed the interior of the rooms that seemed to go on forever.  Many of the walls and the ceilings were nothing but open air.  To the left of the entrance way I could see a large circular open fireplace that flumed into the largest set of chimneys, located in the center of the great room.  A fire was lit and two albino setters where lying next to its two foot walls, absorbing the radiant heat.  The doorway to the former living area had recently been restored and the walls were covered with bear skins and mounted deer heads.  On the right was the entrance way to the barn where 15 young men, all wearing Greek letters on their shirts.  Some were picking up bottles and debris, while others were sweeping the floors.

Dr. Hugel had walked up to me and placed a hand on my shoulder.  I startled only slightly and turned to look at him once more.  He motioned to the young men in the barn.  My gazed followed.

“That bunch is from University in Syracuse.  We let zem use ze place to welcome new fraternity members … es long as zey do ze cleaning after.”

When I gazed back to him, he was smiling.  His resting hand patted by shoulder twice and then withdrew.

“Let’s keep it a secret yah?  Wouldn’t want ze neighbors to know about ze hooded men and ze torches … It would ruin ze intrigue yah.  Come.  Let’s to put in zese windows.”

Now, thirty years after that day, I have been to the Stone Barn Castle on many occasions.  I have watched the Hugel family spend years restoring it to its former glory and eventually opening it up the public as a museum.  So, if you will indulge me, I’d now like to explain how a plot of land in rural Oneida County came to bear “a castle”.

— eof —

A link to my Stone Barn research can be found at http://blog.clevelandhistoricalsociety.com/?p=667

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