Best reform-school castle

Preston Castle

photo by bobby mull

<style type="text/css"> .ContentInfoBox { display: none; } </style> <script src="/scripts/newsreview/sacto/best_of_sac_2013_listing.js"></script>

Driving southeast on Highway 104, approaching the small town of Ione, there’s something unexpected, maybe even out of place, piercing through the canopy of trees. But this 100-foot tall tower has been presiding as the highest point of Preston Castle for 120 years. Although the stately red-orange sandstone structure that looks like it belongs on the East Coast, not rural Northern California is now called a castle, royalty didn’t live here: It was a reformatory for young boys who got in trouble with the law.

These days, nobody lives in its ruins other than some bats, birds and mice that have left ample sprinklings of their waste, but this formidable building was once the centerpiece of the Preston School of Industry, where the boys learned practical skills and made their own food and clothes. Before opening in 1894, the youngsters were incarcerated at Folsom or San Quentin state prisons, which seems like it would be traumatic for a 12-year-old. But being dragged around in Preston’s basement-level, bone-chillingly cold pool of lye and bleach that was used to delouse new wards seems also traumatic.

These days, the pool is filled with ancient debris. In 1960, the state shut down the facility and swiped the slate roof (among other building materials) to “upcycle” it for other projects, resulting in years of water damage that has washed away the interior’s plaster and, in some areas, rotted two stories of wood, leaving treacherous holes where a floor used to be. The site’s current keepers, the Preston Castle Foundation, have taken on the task to restore the edifice, so for $10, the curious can tour the decay—and see where some of the school’s staff members were murdered. Or pony up $100 and a dose of courage to spend the night there.

Despite being a supernatural jackpot, according to some folks, the building is becoming more integrated into the community these days, with events such as a wine tasting, a paranormal convention, the annual Halloween Haunt and an Old Tyme Christmas, which makes the grand structure feel less out of place. Hopefully, the ghosts don’t mind sharing their space. 900 Palm Drive in Ione, (209) 256-3623,