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In 1918 Albert Loeb, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company constructed his very own castle in Charlevoix, Michigan. The enormous structure, modeled after castles in Normandy, France, was originally known as Loeb Farms and existed as a dairy farm, model farm for Sears farming equipment and a lavish summer estate for the Chicago-based Loeb family. After the infamous Leopold and Loeb “perfect crime” murder in 1924, followed shortly by Albert’s death and the Great Depression, the Loeb family closed the farm in 1929. The following 70 years the farm fell into disrepair as it served as storage, a medieval tavern, a working artists studio and, my favorite, a summer concert venue. Such musical greats as Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Bob Segar, Tina Turner and Metallica all performed at the castle between 1969-1999.
In 2001 a massive restoration of Castle Farms began and now it serves as a premier wedding venue, hosting up to 5 weddings a day in the summer months! It is also open to the public 7 days a week for either guided or self-guided tours of the castle and surrounding gardens. I have been visiting Charlevoix my entire life but this was my first visit to Castle Farms. It was all women in our group, ranging from my 2-year-old niece to my 90-year-old grandmother and I can state confidently that Castle Farms had a little something for everyone.
After exploring the gift shop, the seven of us opted for the self-guided tour ($9 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for children 2-12, Triple AAA discounts available) and were each given a sheet of paper with a map and details of the 32 stops on the tour. Our visit to Castle Farms started out with a 10-minute video which explained the history of the estate as well as detailed photos and descriptions of the restoration. Maybe not so surprisingly, absolutely no mention of the Leopold and Loeb murder is to be found in the orientation film or on the website.
Most of the tour is outside and be prepared to walk a bit. The intimate Butterfly Garden and Reflection Pond are among the first stops on the self-guided tour. Here you can feed the wildlife, including the enormous rainbow trout, ducks and turtles. There are several feed dispensers around the reflecting pond and handful can be purchased for 25 cents. We lucked out and ran into a Castle Farms employee who gave Chloe a large cup full of feed. Though there are a couple of creatures not interested in snacks who reside near the reflecting pond – most notably Norm the Dragon who was purchased from ArtPrize in Grand Rapids last year. There is also Sid the Sea Monster and a giant tortoise.
Several spaces that we encountered while on our tour were set up for weddings. We were told that there were two weddings that day (we visited on a Friday) and 5 the day after! Linda Mueller, the current owner of Castle Farms, had this purpose in mind when she restored the grounds. There are several options for weddings, ranging from intimate spaces suitable for a few dozen guests to large spaces that host up to 350 attendees. Because of the unique layout of Castle Farm it is possible for these spaces to be used simultaneously – though managing 5 weddings on one day is no small job!
While it certainly wasn’t a part of the original construction of the Castle, the intricate train system that meanders around the Outdoor Railroad Garden is certainly impressive! It features two separate lines, 55 trains and over 2,000 feet of track that buzz past you both overhead and underfoot. While several of the trains are generic models, there are a good number of characters that will be recognizable to the children in all of us, including Mickey Mouse, the Oscar Mayer Wiener Mobile and, of course, Thomas the Tank Engine. There are several towers that can be climbed to admire the intricate model railroad – one of the largest in Michigan – from above as well as a hedge maze (with three entrances and exits) that runs through the entire system.
Also a part of the Railroad Garden is the lovely Children’s Alphabet Garden. Just as the name suggests, the Alphabet Garden highlights each letter of the alphabet in turn. Tracks and trains weave in and out of the adorably painted letters which are mounted on stakes and flowers of the corresponding letter – from Alyssum to Zinnia – are highlighted at each turn.
In addition to several gardens and outdoor displays there were a good number of historical rooms and displays inside the castle, found in little pockets off of the King’s Courtyard. (This is the part that my Grandmother most enjoyed!) Historic WWI memorabilia as well as 1918 items from the Sears Catalog is found in the 1918 Museum Room and historic blue prints of the Farm as well as other historical pieces are located in the Round Office.
Castle Farms also houses an impressive collection of antique toys, including the private collection of Linda Mueller, the Castle’s owner. Located in the Carriage Hall where the Loeb Family kept their many carriages, wagons and cars, the former garage displays toys from 1860 to present.
We breezed through the last couple of rooms, suddenly surrounded by a dozen or so primped, rouged and painted bridesmaids that swirled in wearing matching tank tops and trailing garment bags.