September 1989

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The Old Castle


Grace Mary Shults Fox

John Castle

The Old Castle is a pretty bit of wilderness in the western end of the Town of Avoca with a little in the Town of Howard. It is private property owned mainly by Florence Schoonover.

A little creek runs and falls over bare rock down from a spring on the Lyke farm in Howard into a small pond. Another source of water is the Spaulding Swamp bordering on the old Margeson (now Archer) farm in Avoca. Castle Pond, and Castle Creek—which flows out of the pond, joins Neils Creek a couple of miles down the valley and reaches the Conhocton River—have been leased to the Castle Creek Fishing Club for private fishing since 1901.

Below the pond, the valley widens into a large, flat meadow. The encircling hills make a natural amphitheater. On the northern hill the Hornell Motorcycle Club has held an annual motorcycle-hill-climb race since 1924.

The first settlement was made in the early 1800s by John Castle and a band of four families. In the 1830s, a large building, with a stone foundation built against the step bank of the headwater creek, was owned by Job Rathbun along with 300 acres of land. He used the building as a distillery. Later Alfred Rathbun contracted with the town to house paupers in this building. Steuben County bought the structure and 122 acres in 1834 for $1069.75 and established the first County Farm there. This building and later farmhouses are gone; only a cabin used by the Fishing Club and a refreshment stand used at the hill climb are there now. The old cemetery with its markers of fieldstone is hidden in the brush.

A road once wound through the area along the pond and up the hillside to join the road to Howard. The road was abandoned as a public thoroughfare, was used as a farm road, and was washed out in the flood of 1935. There are foot paths there now.

There was a sawmill—perhaps two—as several accounts mention it. The saw was vertical

Tales about the Old Castle state there was a station on the Underground Railroad in the area, that a band of horse thieves from the Canisteo Valley used the cliffs and caves to hide stolen goods, that a witch lived near the entrance (I remember this harmless old woman; she read my palm once when I was a child). Altogether the Old Castle is a fascinating area.

This article was first published in The Steuben County
Historian's Newsletter, No. 2, March 1988
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