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Ione's Preston Castle opens for tour season

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Posted: Sunday, April 9, 2017 12:00 pm

Preston Castle has opened up to visitors for the 2017 season.

The Romanesque-style castle, built on a hill in Ione, was once the administration building for the Preston School of Industry.

Opened in 1894, Preston’s mission was to rehabilitate young boys convicted of crimes rather than imprisoning them. Boys who attended the school were given both an academic education and taught useful trades. Before Preston opened, they went to Folsom or San Quentin with adult offenders.

Hundreds of boys with forgotten names came through the doors, served their time and went back into the world. The roster also included a few who went on to make a name for themselves after their release.

There was country music legend Merle Haggard, whose school file noted he like to sing and play music, and Pancho Gonzales, who honed his tennis skills on the castle courts. Neal Cassady, who went on to become a central figure in the Beat Movement, first discovered literature in the Preston School Library.

Out on the grounds, there was a farm, a print shop, a brickyard, a leatherworking shop and a tailor shop. Inside the castle, there was even a doctor’s office, pharmacy and a hospital wing. The property was essentially a self-sustaining city. It served as an emergency room for Ione until the hospital in Jackson was built in 1952.

Not all of the boys were convicted of crimes. Some had nowhere else to go, and Preston guaranteed its wards at least a sixth-grade education.

In 1960, the Preston Youth Authority moved to a new building and the castle was left to deteriorate, though the grounds still served troubled youths for a time.

Now, Preston Castle is a California State Historic Landmark, and while it sits empty most of the year, it is open to tours each summer. Volunteers with the Preston Castle Foundation work to repair the damage caused by years of neglect.

“We are proud of the fact that the State of California has deeded the title for the castle, four other buildings, and surrounding 13 acres of land to the Preston Castle Foundation,” the nonprofit said in a press release.

Progress has been slow but steady over the past few years. The foundation installed independent electrical service, rebuilt the center section of the castle’s fourth floor, created a vintage Farm Museum, had the castle’s brick outer walls tested to determine that they were structurally sound, installed new roofs, installed new fire hydrants, landscaped the grounds and more.

Progress is also being made on installing new windows throughout the castle.

“This year, we are working hard to install new gutters and downspouts to better protect the castle from rain,” the foundation said.

To do that, the foundation is raising money through a few different events.

On May 12 and 13, it will host its annual Flea Market. Toward the end of June, the extremely popular Murder Mystery Dinner Party will make its return.

But the foundation’s main money maker is the weekly tours, which will be available most Saturdays through Aug. 19. The tours, which are also held on select Tuesdays, are guided by trained docents who can share the history of the imposing castle.

No reservations are necessary, and tours rotate through the building every 15 to 30 minutes.

“So plan a visit to Ione and enjoy a tour of the Castle,” the foundation said.

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