Castle Keeper’s memories help bring fairytale kingdom back to life

Hamburg. Bob Allen fell in love with the Gingerbread Castle from the first moment he laid his eyes on it, as a 10-year-old during the Great Depression. He has seen the famous Hamburg attraction’s heyday and downfall, and is now overseeing its renaissance.

15 Sep 2020 | 10:49

The Gingerbread Castle in Hamburg may be owned by Don Oriolo, but the self-designated “Castle Keeper” is 92-year-old Bob Allen.

Now, as Oriolo works on restoring the historic Jersey landmark, Allen, an eager consultant, is sharing memories of how things once were.

“He’s nearly 93, still drives, and has a great memory of the details of the castle,” Oriolo said. “He did all of the stonework on his own house, and he’s even given me quartz-stone and flint-stone from the area, which I’ve incorporated into the front wall.”

Allen was born in 1928, the very year construction began on the Gingerbread Castle. His family had moved from Butler to a house behind the castle, across the railroad tracks, when he was about 10 years old. It was during the Great Depression, and his family sought work in local mines.

The morning after the move, Allen’s mother woke him from his slumber. “She opened the curtains and there was a castle,” Allen said. “I’d had no idea it was there. It was on that morning, I fell in love with the castle. I was done right then.”

Oriolo, who helped tell Allen story, said the boy put on his clothes and ran out the door toward the castle.

“At the time, there was a caretaker house on the property,” Oriolo said. “The caretaker had a little boy the same age as Bob, and they became friends and would sneak around the castle at night and get in through back ways when the crowds had left for the day.”

Allen said he discovered a tunnel system that ran from the adjacent mill out to near the castle. “The tunnels were there because sometimes there were fires in the mill, and that’s how they got the workers out,” he said.

Love for the Brothers Grimm

The whimsical, fairytale-inspired Gingerbread Castle was designed and built by Joseph Urban, an Austrian architect and set designer. It was commissioned by F.H. Bennett, owner of F.H. Bennett Biscuit Company in New York City, who purportedly had an affinity for the Brothers Grimm fairytales. He purchased the Hamburg property in 1921 to expand his operations and opened the Wheatsworth Mills right next to the castle.

The castle has had its peaks and valleys over the years, but has always been a point of fascination.

During the dawn of General Motors, ceramic tile was an offshoot of the auto industry. The Flint Faience & Tile Company was born in 1921. Field stone evolved to colorful tiles and then to tiles featuring shapes and faces.

“One day I was coming home from my job on a nearby farm when I was young, and an 85-year-old man was by the castle,” Allen recalls. “He said, ‘Come with me. I want to show you something. See that tile with the man on the broom? That’s me.’”

This Flint Faience tile remains at the entrance to the castle. Other similar stones remain on the property.

Glory before the fall

Allen saw the Gingerbread Castle in its glory days in the 1970s, when tourists ventured from all over to see it. In the ‘80s, the castle transitioned to special events. “The weddings held here were so beautiful,” Allen recalled with a tear in his eye. “The ceremonies were so nice, and across the street the building was beautiful for receptions.”

After that, the castle fell into disrepair. But Allen never let go of the notion that, someday, someone would restore it. As snow fell on the turret and icicles formed on the eves in winter, and as the sun baked the carvings and characters in summer, he kept the faith. The paint chipped, the carvings crumbled, the walls cracked, and weeds grew through the fissures. Still, curious visitors would stop by.

In the early 2000s, two new owners started a restoration, but things didn’t work out, and the castle was sold again a few years later. One of the owners sold off many of its artifacts, including a number of the Flint Faience tiles. The castle fell again into disrepair, only worse, since many of its original one-of-a-kind stone carvings and pieces had been chiseled out of the ground.

“You can still find some of them on eBay,” Allen said. “But they cost up to $100,000.”

Over the years, Allen has collected photos and clippings related to the castle. Some he’s kept and others, such as an 80-plus-year-old painting of the castle found at an antiques store in Pennsylvania, he donated to the town in 2013. “I just love everything about this place,” Allen said.

The castle’s future

Oriolo purchased the castle in 2017 and is determined to recapture its former glory. It’s a long and tedious endeavor, but little by little, he’s rebuilding this New Jersey treasure.

“Humpty Dumpty is back on the wall, and so is Dumpty Humpty, who (literally) fell off the wall and was broken to bits,” Allen said. “They painted Humpty Dumpty yellow, and he was always red. But Don is doing a great job.”

One hurdle to re-opening the castle is finding space for parking. Oriolo has already arranged to purchase space across the street. The town also has its regulations.

“The famous spiral staircase in the castle has to be made safe,” Allen said. “And this includes adding lighting and other things.”

Allen continues to volunteer his guidance as Oriolo continues renovations.

About a decade ago, the castle was added to Preservation New Jersey’s list of endangered sites. Once upon a time, actors playing the parts of Hansel and Gretel brought visitors into the castle. Inside there were statues of Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, the “birds baked in a pie” from “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” and many other characters. It was a living storybook that delighted children and their families when its doors opened in 1930.

“I’ve had a bunch of dwarf statues reproduced, and I know where Jack and the Beanstalk is, and am negotiating to get that,” Oriolo said. “The pie is there for the blackbirds, and I’ve found others.”

The Brothers Grimm and other fairytale authors would certainly give their nod to his efforts to keep their characters alive. “We were on target for the castle to reopen, but then the Covid hit,” Oriolo said. “It really slowed things down, but we are proceeding and will open when everything is completed.”

Allen can’t wait. “People just loved this place,” he said. “And they will again.”

A fairytale love

In keeping with his love for fairytales, Allen and his wife, Betty, had a fairytale meeting. The met at the Franklin Neighborhood House at the junior canteen, where young people would gather on the weekends to bowl, dance, and play in ping-pong and pool tournaments. Bob and Betty were married at Immaculate Conception Church in the same town, and are both founding members of the Franklin Historical Society. They’ve always been very active in the community.

The Castle Keeper has many more memories of the castle to tell when it reopens. He is passionate about the past, present, and future of the castle and looks forward to it coming to life, like “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

But there’s a passion that eclipses Allen’s fervency for the Gingerbread Castle, and that’s his love for his wife of 68 years.

“She just means the world to me,” he said.

“She opened the curtains and there was a castle. I’d had no idea it was there. It was on that morning, I fell in love with the castle. I was done right then.” --Bob Allen