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Castles of Yesteryear

No, this won't be about literal castles, these will be about the castles of childhood, which for me took two forms:

The Playground:

And The Tree Fort:

Of course some playgrounds and tree forts actually look like castles, but that is neither here nor there.

The Castle in the Trees

When I was young, I didn't have many friends. Usually every adventure of mine would be between me and my brother. We had our own in-jokes, we shared the same hobbies (mainly because I was a copy-cat,) and spent many weekends wandering our own woods. 

One day while hiking in the woods beyond our home with my father, we came across an old Castle in the Trees, an abandoned tree house. Only two families with children lived in this neighborhood, mine, and a family with a kid a year younger than me. This tree house was from the previous "generation," the generation who I heard partying at the house down the street, the generation who seemed twenty feet tall as they came off their school buses in the early afternoon. The generation older than my cousins! (and that was old to the two of us)

We climbed on in, and the boards creaked beneath us. My dad snapped a photo, and we left.

I never returned to the tree house, and by the time I was a high schooler, by the time I was the old generation, the tree house had finally collapsed, and the trees with it, in an ice storm. 

Though we were there for only a moment, this one trip left a huge impression on me and my brother. 

My brother and I had a deep love of tree houses and the natural world, Our father had for years promised to build a tree house, but he never got around to it. My brother and I were forced to improvise.

With a couple pieces of scrap wood from under our newly made deck, my brother and I found the best place to begin our tree house.

What we got was a tree stand, barely large enough for one person, but we expected it would be one turret attached to a larger, grander, more fantastic tree house. 

Like this one:

That was the other thing. My brother and I loved The Swiss Family Robinson. It had all the hallmarks of a classics; a tree house, pirates, elephants, tigers, did I mention the tree house! We loved watching it, and when we finally went to Disney World we were so elated to finally see the Swiss Family Robinson Tree house...

...from a distance, because the attraction was closed.


The place we chose to put our tree stand was on a small hill overlooking the woods behind my house. It was in the shadow of another ancient, basically primeval tree house. It made the one deep in the woods look modern. It must have been built 20 or 30 years earlier, for all that remained by the time I was a young boy were two rotting boards nailed to a set of six rotting birch trees.

Circled for the benefit of you suburban archaeologists.

Despite the size of this small tree stand (we actually called it a spy fort, not that we could spy on much from the 8 feet up in the middle of a wooded area), it was sturdy. On a trip home this past winter I found the old girl, almost as much as I had left her, from over a decade before.

True, the fort now had no ladder, and was virtually inaccessible, but it looked cool.

And that was all there was back there, because our proposed castle in the trees never materialized.

All that could stand from it was a frayed rope ladder, with a few rotting rods.

What could have been.

Fortunately for the two of us, there were many other great castles near our home.

The Playgrounds of Our Youth

No boy likes going to church, at least my brother and I did not. However, what we did enjoy was what sat slightly behind the church. A massive blue and orange play ground. As usual we were alone in our adventures there because the church had no other families with children with our age. 

We had the run of the place. 

My brother, never being one to let me have it easy, would play a series of pranks on me, taking advantage of my caring and fraternal nature. He would stand on top of the tallest part of the playground, and fall dramatically.Every time he fell dramatically I would go over to his lifeless body, fearing that, indeed, it was his last fall.

It was never his last fall.

View from the top

Though we played on this playground in the mid and late 90's, it was an anomaly for us. It was the first wave of the modern "steel and plastic" playgrounds that now are the norm everywhere.

Back then it was novel, because my brother and I were more accustomed to this kind of castle:

A Castle in the Forest

These were the kinds of playgrounds I visited more often, especially in the summer, when my mother would take me and my brother to Eagle Lake.

The Eagle Lake playground was not as tall and grand as the one at church, but it had several accouterments that the other did not. It had the favorite of all children, the see saw. It also had a nice small tower (or shall we call it a turret?) 

But, what it really had that the other "castle" did not, was horses!

Every knight needs his steed, and this one had four, all facing each other, to lock you in an endless joust where the prize was who got to eat the last ice cream bar.

The four horsemen of the summertime

These pictures were taken within the last year, but don't think that these pieces of metal were not just as rusted a decade and a half ago when my brother and I occupied them.
In fact I think they may have been repainted in the interim. That is new rust! 

In the back of my elementary school there used to be a large wooden playground, along with some old tires stacked together, and a skin-melting metal slide.

It also had the best piece of equipment of all, it goes by many names, merry-go-round, spinner, roundabout, turner, but to me it was the face smasher.

Raise your hand if you ever spun this so fast you ended up falling and smashing your own face.

The one at my playground, which alas I have no photo of, was in a worse state than the one above. It had no paint, and was missing the center plate. I once trapped my leg in there and ground it up into hot dog meat.

But I got better.

Now, of course, that old playground looks like this:

Sure it may have towers, it may have a little rock wall, it may have the hallmarks of a castle, but where is the spirit and imagination?

Well, it does look pretty nice, and maybe it's safer. But must they pave the old to build the new?

Now, of course, you see far more of the plastic and metal single structures than the old 1960's type metal face-breakers of my early childhood. But, if you are lucky, search the woods, search the back roads, search the old lakes, and you may find one of those ancient fortresses, a forgotten kingdom, a castle of yesteryear. 
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retrocrunch Posted on Apr 26, 2020 at 05:59 PM

There was a old playground where my grandparents lived that I loved as a kid. Like others, its been torn down and replaced with new equipment. My favorite was a 25 foot tall swingset that had about 10 swings across.

We would do back flips off it, see who can jump out farthur, have swing wars, and all sorts of fun. That was the tallest swing I ever went on and I havent seen any nowadays that comes close. Everyones afraid of suits.

Good times back then, miss those playgrounds.

kstrom22 Posted on Aug 07, 2015 at 06:12 AM

I'm so glad to see my own experiences were shared by others from different times and places. And so grateful at the response to my own little slice of history.
Now I live in Arizona: no real "trees" around here for tree-houses, but I'm too lazy to build one anyway. There is a new playground right across the street; it has a tower, tunnels, a true modern castle. Someday, if I have kids, they'll be the kings and queens.

mickyarber Posted on Jul 12, 2015 at 02:59 PM

Love this article. Like everyone else, I wanted a tree house to play in, but my problem was lack of trees.

Now, my daughters are wanting one. Guess I should see about getting started and maybe live vicariously through them. That or make it sturdy enough for Pops to get up there and play with them.

Hope to see more from you.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Jul 04, 2015 at 11:33 PM

Great subject and memories. I always dreamed of a treehouse as well. We even had a gigantic tree in our backyard I thought would have been perfect, but the trunk was so tall, the nearest branches were like 25 feet off the ground in the "danger zone". I had to settle for "building" a fort in the bushes at the base of a large tree in our front yard, but it wasn't the same.

Vaporman87 Posted on Jul 02, 2015 at 06:33 PM

I loved reading this. I'm reminded of my own attempts to build my kingdom within the woods behind our house. Actually, it was more of a theme park than a kingdom. I would "build" attractions from the trees and various scraps of wood and such. Then I would clear a path using a rake, making trails to each attraction. Then I would name each attraction and put up signage in the form of paper and ink.

There was an old tree stand in our woods, but I never attempted to reach it. It was very high up, and I wasn't big on heights.

Our grade school playground would have delighted you. Everything made of heavy metal, rusting away. Our merry-go-round was old and withering-the wooden floor cracked and covered in 50 coats of paint. Old wooden teeter-totters that sat WAY too high in the air (and could really cause some damage when your partner thought it would be fun to quickly disembark. Yeah, it had a lot of character.

I am glad for the advances in outdoor play equipment, for the safety of my own children. But I would be lying if I said I don't miss the old castles of yesteryear.

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