By Tyler Murphy
NEW SCOTLAND — A piece of New Scotland history is for sale.
Perched on the ledge of a limestone escarpment, the strange and beautiful Helderberg Castle and its surrounding ruins are a testament to their infamous creator’s independent will.
Charles Bouck White, social revolutionary, artist, clergyman and pottery-maker, began hand-building one of the many stone structures at the site in 1933.
Though a more recently built home and garage sits on the property, most of the stone structures, such as Bouck White’s workshop and former home, are shelled ruins of their former magnificence.
However, Bouck White’s crowning architectural achievement, an impressive three-story castle with handcrafted glass windows and high walls, though deteriorated, stands nearly whole.
The four-and-a-half acre property can be bought for $179,000.
An activist and defendant
Before coming to New Scotland, Bouck White had gained notoriety in New York City as a peaceful activist for socialism, explained New Scotland Town Historian Robert Parmenter. Bouck White was born on Oct. 20, 1874 and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University.
“He was an outsider when he moved here. Even at the time, he was considered quite eccentric. He was always a person of interest to the public, the media. He was famous for being an early socialist radical in the 19-teens and ‘20s, even into the ‘30s. He was more active, politically at least, early in his life,” said Parmenter.
Rejecting many of the era’s political and religious organizations as either too violent, exclusive, or wealth-focused, Bouck White penned several books, including one titled Call of the Carpenter, written in 1911, that controversially cast Jesus as an activist.
He also founded his own church in 1917, the Church of Social Revolution.
An ordained minister from the Union Theological Seminary, he was previously banned as a member of another church after allowing the homeless to sleep on pews without the clergy’s approval.
As a member of the Socialist Party, Bouck White was kicked out of the party after arguing for peaceful change within the government and capitalist system instead of a complete or violent revolution.
As an activist, Bouck White had a number of run-ins with the law, said Parmenter. He was arrested in 1914 for confronting a group of men who were attempting to intimidate striking female Brooklyn factory workers.
He was again arrested after an altercation at the Manhattan’s Calvary Baptist Church where the rich and powerful Rockefeller family worshipped. The incident began when Bouck White stood up to interrupt the pastor’s sermon and tried to debate the morality of wealth. He spent six months in jail as a result.
In protest to World War I in 1916, Bouck White and others burned 10 flags together in a ceremony, including the United States’, in an expression meant to demonstrate the unification of nations. Bouck White was arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail for desecrating the flag.
“His activities at the time were considered very extreme,” said Parmenter. He said another political crusade Bouck White advocated for was a petition to have New York City secede from the United States in order to resist new prohibition laws.
Tarred and feathered
In 1921, Bouck White traveled to Paris. He had visited the France a few years before to study ceramics and learned how to create finished pottery without the use of a kiln.
His pottery is prized among collectors today who still actively seek the pieces, said Parmenter. One piece, he said, had recently sold for about $50.
On his trip to Paris, Bouck White, who was 47 at the time, met and married a French woman more than 25 years younger than he, Emilee Simone.
The couple sailed to America to start a new life but, after only a few days at an estate in Ulster County, Simone decided she had enough. She left Bouck White and walked to a hotel where she complained of mistreatment by her husband and of the Spartan-like conditions the couple lived under at the home, which included few basic amenities.
Simone eventually got a divorce but not until after a group of local men heard of her plight and abducted Bouck White from his home. The newspapers at the time reported the men covered Bouck White’s face with a sack and forced him to an area near Orange Lake where they beat him and tarred and feathered him, threatened his life, and then let him go.
Since Bouck White had been in the news for his prior political work, newspapers were keen to report on the story and it gained wide attention.
Building a castle by hand
In 1933, Bouck White was making a living as a potter on Chestnut Street in Albany when he suddenly decided to move to New Scotland and build a home, explained historical writer Paula Lemire, who is working on a biography about White.
“Just before he built the castle, he was living in Albany on Chestnut Street as a potter. Then, the next thing you know, he was building a castle,” said Lemire in an email to The Enterprise.
“He had, of course, been involved in various forms of social ‘agitation’ in New York City during the First World War, including his short lived Church of Social Revolution. But, around his divorce and the tar-and-feather incident that followed down near Orange Lake, he somehow developed an interest in pottery, which he would later link to his Native American ancestry. Like a lot of his claims, this one is difficult to pin down,” said Lemire.
Lemire shared a pamphlet Bouck White had written in which he talks about his pottery, Bouckware, and building his home in the Helderbergs.
“Bouckware is a ceramic that I have devised, to continue under modern art-forms the traditions of my Mohawk forefathers...in whose footsteps I am proud to follow...the spirit of it is prehistoric; the commonwealth of man and nature — a civilization knee-deep in the good brown earth,” wrote White in the 1930s pamphlet.
He continued, “It is protest pottery, lifting its voice against...an era of the machine-made and the characterless. America of the ancient faith and blood is not dead. To keep it from dying is the reason of my existence.”
“He believed — for reasons he never made clear in his writing — that the castle site was linked to the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy,” said Lemire, “And therefore very historically, culturally, and spiritually significant to America. The tower at the castle was meant as a monument to this.”
From a presentation he prepared for the historical society a few years ago, Parmenter wrote: “The first winters of 1933 to 1934, he lived in a cave-like crevice on the property. In the spring, he built a tall wooden teepee. Its image became part of his signature on some of his pottery. Other building followed, formed by hand out of the abundant limestone, with the aid of two Swedish brothers who appeared at his house one day and stayed on as his assistants. He called the complex ‘Federalberg’ in honor of his belief in a society of cities instead of nations. He hoped it would be a beacon for a return to his type of civilization, but most people just called it the Helderberg Castle.”
A deteriorated legacy
Bouck White was forced to sell the castle property after he suffered a stroke, reported The Enterprise in 1961. The new owners had promised to make the site an art colony but it never materialized. After he sold the property, a fire burned down one of the buildings and vandalism and trespassing damaged others. The new owners agreed to a stipulation that allowed Bouck White to visit the land every summer. After he died at the age of 76 in 1951, his ashes were spread on the castle’s cliffs.
Since then, the property has exchanged hands a number of times and the stone buildings on the site have suffered neglect. Except for the iconic castle, nearly every other building has suffered serious collapse.
Stone doorways and stairs led to nowhere but the natural scenic beauty surrounding them. Real-estate broker Brian Brosen said, unlike some previous owners, the current residents have a great respect for Bouck White’s work and are looking to sell the property to those with a similar respect for local history. Brosen says the property is for a special type of buyer and he had received queries from people nationwide.
“I don’t know of anywhere else around here there’s a castle,” said Brosen.
Bouck White’s work can still be seen in the form of stand-alone stone archways and other ruins that powerfully convey their former magnificence. Bouck White built a pottery studio, a sauna, a residence, an arch marking a cemetery, and a castle that has a large altar space inside.
Even the ground on which the buildings were built seems to be specially chosen. Most of the structures stand on beds of weathered and cracked limestone, making it hard to tell where nature begins and the manmade ends. Detail remains, even after years of deterioration, especially in the handmade Gothic windows. Made in chaotic arrangements of several smaller pieces of glass fitted together in an irregular metal frame, window are reminiscent of those in an old church but without color.
“No doubt about it, the property is very unique,” said Parmenter. “But, unless a lot of money is spent, it’s going to be lost. It’s rapidly deteriorating and I think it’ll rapidly go back to nature.”