February 26, 2024

Cows and Artists and Bon Jovi, Oh My! The 106-year history of Castle Farms

This modern castle has lived many lives, from a dairy farm to a rock venue to a wedding destination
By Greg Tasker | Feb. 10, 2024

For more than a century, the fieldstone towers of the Renaissance-style castle outside Charlevoix have loomed over the handsome countryside, stoking the imagination of the curious and the aspirations of dreamers. 

Count me among the curious. Why is a European-style castle tucked here among the expansive farms, orchards, lakes, and small towns of this inviting patch of northern Michigan? Its existence has perplexed me for years. Until a recent visit, I knew nothing about Castle Farms except that it was a wedding venue. 

Linda Mueller is among the dreamers. She has transformed this historic farm into far more than an exclusive wedding venue. To visit Castle Farms today is to walk through eras of history, from the early decades of the last century to the present. Stories from its past incarnations are as plentiful as the maple and oak trees in nearby forests.

“If something was happening in history, we usually had someone involved in it,” says Mueller, who purchased the abandoned property with her late husband, Richard, in 2001. The grounds and buildings have been restored—some had to be replicated—and Castle Farms reopened to the public for guided tours in 2005. Since then, gardens have been replanted or added, along with other amenities, including a miniature railroad and wine bistro.

Mueller has also added historical touches with memorabilia and curios from decades past, much of them related, in some way, to the people and stories of the castle. “I love the program Roots. I am interested in where other people’s families came from too,” she says. “Often there are surprises [in the castle] that make the person take a new look at people and places and their identity.”

Dreams of a Modern Dairy Farm 

The man behind the castle was Albert Loeb, acting president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. He had an affinity for the architecture of Renaissance castles and the stone farms of Normandy, France. The castle was built in 1918 not as a home but as a working model dairy farm, a place to showcase the latest advances in farm equipment, all available through the Sears catalog, the Amazon of its day. (And hey, cows deserve beautiful places to live, too!)

This was a big dairy farm, part of an 1,800-acre tract that included a private home for the Loeb family (the home still exists and sits nearby but separate from the farm). Loeb Farms boasted the most modern milking machinery and was home to 200 head of Holstein-Friesian cows. The star producer was Marion, who was milked six times a day. She consistently set records in milk production and in one banner year—1922—produced 35,000 pounds of milk (well above the average 25,000 pounds) and made headlines. 

The cows lived a good life. They were housed in two wings—now known as the East and West Garden rooms, replicated by Mueller. They grazed in a courtyard between the wings and elsewhere on the farm. Instead of the normal whitewash, the barn walls were covered in tile lining and the floor was paved. The barns were hosed down regularly.

“The milking barns were so clean you could eat off the floor,” says Jessica Anderson, who is director of guest services at Castle Farms and made the time to walk me through the property one January afternoon and share stories of its past. 

At its peak, Loeb Farms was the largest employer in the Charlevoix region, with more than 90 people among its daily workforce. The farm also boasted a semi-professional baseball team, the Sodbusters, who played on a field north of the barn complex.

“In the evening, during wedding rehearsal dinners, our staff regularly hear the crack of a baseball and bat from the ball diamond,” Anderson says, adding a haunted tour planned for the fall will share more ghost stories from Castle Farms.  

Maybe a glimpse of the farm’s future as a romantic venue was unveiled all those years ago when the blacksmith fell in love with the farm cook. They were married and lived in a little house next to the blacksmith shop (now the 1918 Museum). 

Unfortunately, the farm closed in 1927, a few years after Loeb’s death and a family scandal. One of Loeb’s sons, Richard Loeb, was convicted in 1924 of the kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old boy in Chicago. The murder garnered national headlines. Lawyer Clarence Darrow represented the young Loeb and his crime partner in court just before the famed Scopes “Monkey” Trial.

An Artful Renaissance

Decades later, the empty stone walls caught the artistic eye of John VanHaver, a Muskegon businessman. He was also an artist and sculptor with a background in metallurgy and metal casting. 

His dream? An artists’ mecca with a Renaissance theme. He purchased 100 acres of the original Loeb property in 1962, including the barns, office, blacksmith shop, and manager’s house, and renamed the site Castle VanHaver.

In 1966, VanHaver opened the grounds to the public. Visitors could browse the art but also have a cup of coffee and snacks in the Queen’s Courtyard. On Sundays, VanHaver treated guests to his “magnificent tenor voice of Mario Lanza crooning the ‘Our Father’ and other spiritual hymns in radio broadcasts,” recalls Mueller in the book For the Love of a Castle II - The Romance Continues, which she co-authored with Kathleen Irene Paterka.

But this dream didn’t last long either. Financial difficulties forced VanHaven to sell the property in 1969. 

“The community supported him,” Anderson says. “They bought his metal shields and displayed them downtown to support him. The town loved him.”

A Rock and Roll Venue

Another owner, another dream. After making the purchase of the property in 1969, Arthur and Erwina Reibel initially envisioned the farm as a riding academy. 

Their plans, however, evolved to include an outdoor concert venue. A 50-foot wide, covered concrete steel stage was constructed. Eventually, the two wings of The Castle (where the cows once lived) were removed to accommodate larger crowds and reserved seating.

Just about everyone who was a major recording star in the late 1970s through the early 1990s rocked the stage at Castle Farms. That roster includes Bob Seger, The Doobie Brothers, Heart, Def Leppard, KISS, Iron Maiden, Ted Nugent, REO Speedwagon, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, and so many more. Reibel added a loft and balcony to the second floor to Knight’s Castle, originally a horse barn, so he could watch the concerts from his own private box and retire there afterward, avoiding traffic congestion and the hassles of leaving.

The music is long gone, but stories linger. Aerosmith reportedly had a water fight in the artesian well in the Queen’s Courtyard. Bon Jovi carved his name in a stone in what was then the Green Room and now serves as a changing room for wedding couples. Willie Nelson’s bodyguard pulled a gun on the owner, with the singer demanding pay immediately. Ozzy Osbourne is remembered as a Dracula figurine in one of Mueller’s miniature collections.

Despite the stellar lineup, the venue faced its own challenges. With all the noise and traffic came community troubles. Castle Farms received a host of citations for health complaints, noise, litter, and other violations. 

“From what I’ve heard, most of the community was not happy with the concerts. The town was already busy in the summer with tourists,” says Trevor Dotson, manager of operations at the Charlevoix Historical Society. “The concerts caused so much more gridlock and traffic. People didn’t like the way [concertgoers] treated the area. It was a mess.” 

Following Riebel’s death in 1999, the music came to an end and the property went up for sale—again. 

A Romantic Destination

By 2000, Castle Farms, with its crumbling fieldstone walls and broken windows, stood as a mere shadow of its former, grander self. The farm had dwindled to just 37 acres, and the barns and silos were roofless. To put it plainly, the property had become an eyesore. 

“When I bought the castle in 2001, my original purpose was to restore a national landmark back to usable condition. My plan was to do it in stages and take 10 years,” Mueller recalls. “My husband, Richard, decided to speed things up, and the buildings were ready to use in 2005.” 

That was all well and good, but Mueller admits, “I had no idea what I was going to do with the buildings. Eventually I figured out weddings and receptions were the most profitable. After that I continued to add indoor space for new purposes, like adding heat, air conditioning, and French doors to the East and West Wings for wedding receptions. I added a gift shop by the entrance, and a catering room in the back,” she says.

The extensive renovation was completed thanks to a team of local and state construction companies, architects, carpenters, and artisans. Mueller’s vision in maintaining the architectural integrity of the great Renaissance towers and original building techniques resulted in a world-class property of historical significance. The Loeb family even shared the original blueprints for the wings, enabling Mueller to replicate them.

It’s a treat to walk through the castle, to hear interesting stories here and there, and to muse over the vast collection Mueller has amassed. The 1918 Museum, for instance, honors not only World War I but includes a collection of products Sears sold, complete with the original advertising. There’s a barrel-shaped washing machine for $7.95. A 1918 bicycle with wooden wheels—a luxury then—priced at $28.95. Her collection includes wedding cake toppers, not common in 1918 but something Sears eventually mass produced and helped popularize. 

Today, the venue hosts about 150 weddings per year, plus other gatherings and special events. 

The updates and expansions have continued. Castle Farms celebrated its centennial in 2018 and opened a winery, 1918 Cellars. More recently, Mueller revamped a cluster of barns into Hungry Ducks Farm, a petting farm for children and families.

“I love watching generations connecting and having fun together,” Mueller concludes.

Visit Castle Farms at 5052 M-66 in Charlevoix. Admission is $10 and includes a self-guided historical tour.

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