Saturday, July 14, 2018

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CASTLE ROCK

Castle County, Maine, was established in 1877, but the county seat of Castle Rock was a relatively quiet place until the early 1900s.  That’s when lumber baron Otto Schenck and mill owner Joe Newall began exploiting the county’s natural resources and its hard-working citizens, and making a killing in the process.  The crash of 1929—and other, stranger misfortunes—balanced the scales over time.  

Castle Rock has always had its fair share of mysteries and tragedies.  In 1934, a local man jumped to his death from the steps above the Castle View Rec Center.  That was the first but not the last leap from the so-called “suicide stairs.” 


A few years later, a man murdered his wife in their home on Castle Hill.  His name was Ellis Boyd Redding, and he spent most of his life in Shawshank Prison, atoning for his crime.


One of the Rock’s darkest nights came in the winter of 1967, when a local college boy named Hollis snapped and killed three people in town, including a police officer.  They found him sleeping on a grave in Stackpole Cemetery, and sent him up to Juniper Hill.


But most people believe that Castle Rock’s “real troubles” began when Frank Dodd—a.k.a. “The Castle Rock Strangler”—started making his rounds in the early 70s.  Dodd was working at the Main Street Gulf station when he claimed his first victim, and was an unofficial deputy of the Castle County Sheriff’s Department when he struck again.  The murders continued until December 1975, when Sheriff George Bannerman confronted Dodd and the killer took his own life.


The town was still recovering from the shock in 1979, when a seventeen-year-old girl leaped to her death from the suicide stairs.  Then, on May 25, the stairs themselves mysteriously collapsed.  How did it happen?  No one seems to know. 


Two days later, a fire broke out on prom night at Ewen High School in the nearby town of Chamberlain.  The fire quickly engulfed the town, killing over 400 people and practically destroying the community. 

It should come as no surprise that all of these tragic events became subjects of wild speculation.  People have a natural inclination to explain away tragedy.

 
The next summer, a rabid Saint Bernard took the lives of four people—including a 4-year-old boy and our beloved Sheriff George Bannerman—at the old Camber farm off of Maple Sugar Road near the edge of town. 


Things were relatively quiet after that—until Castle Hill’s most famous resident, novelist Thad Beaumont (a.k.a. George Stark) was implicated in the murder of 67-year-old Homer Gamache.  Gamache was a native of the Rock, and Beaumont was an outsider—he and his wife Liz bought their summer house on Castle Lake in 1973—which probably had something to do with the way people reacted.  The Beaumonts promptly sold their house and moved away.  There are rumors that the writer subsequently drank himself to death.


Through it all, Sheriff Alan Pangborn kept us safe—although he had his own share of tragedy.  In March 1990, his wife Annie suffered a stroke while driving on Route 117 to Hemphill's Market.  Both she and their son Todd died in the crash.


Later that year, The Emporium Galorium—one of the oldest businesses on Main Street—mysteriously burned down, killing owner Reginald “Pop” Merrill.   In hindsight, it seems to have been a catalyst for the worst week in Castle Rock history.


On October 13, 1991, two residents of The Rock killed each other in the street at the corner of Ford and Willow—with a butcher knife and a meat cleaver. 


Two days later, a series of explosions rocked the downtown area—collapsing the old Castle Stream Bridge, destroying our historic Municipal Building, and leveling a relatively new video-game parlor called Galaxina. 


There were hundreds of casualties, some from the explosions and some from the epidemic of violence that followed.  The devastation was arguably worse than what happened in Chamberlain in 1979, and what happened in Derry in 1985.


When the smoke cleared, the explosions were attributed to Danforth Keeton III, a town Selectman, and John “Ace” Merrill, a local bad boy who had recently been released from Shawshank.


Their actions don’t account for the spate of murders that followed.  Sheriff Pangborn later said it was as if the essential decency of the town had disappeared overnight.  Soon after, he and his future wife Polly Chalmers moved to New Hampshire. 


Norris Ridgewick took over as the new sheriff.  For several years, it seemed like Ridgewick would preside over the last gasps of the dying community, while old-timers regaled outsiders with stories of the “Castle Rock curse.” 


If you were in Brownie’s Store at the right time of day, you could hear Gary Paulson explaining that it all began in 1914, when he was 9 years old and encountered the Devil at a place in the woods where the Castle Stream splits.  

There were other stories too, but nobody wanted to hear them.  When a tragedy is bad enough, people have a natural inclination to forget.


This trail of tragedies ended more than a quarter century ago.  The town hasn’t died out completely, but it will never fully recover.  You can still go to the corner of Summer Street and Carbine, to the offices of The Castle Rock Call, and see the past looking back at you.


You can still hear the old-timers telling their stories after hours in The Mellow Tiger tavern. 

The suicide stairs are long gone, but you can visit the Camber farmhouse and the Dodd house and the Beaumont place on Lake Lane, and countless other “haunted” places that stand as monuments to the Castle Rock curse.


I'd argue that this is still “a pretty nice place to live and grow,” as our signage boasts.  Some people say it’s a place that grows on you, and I’ve found that to be true.  Castle Rock is like a good mystery novel that can’t be put down.  There are many secrets here, buried deep… sometimes forgotten, but never dead.  

We have a rich history, and you know what they say:


History repeats itself.