This used to be my playground - The Buffalo News

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This used to be my playground

In the dream, an older man and two young boys are walking down a steep hill off of a parking lot. It’s a summer day. A golf course stretches before them. They are not talking, but the sound of rhythmic clacking becomes audible. It’s the man’s metal golf spikes hitting the pavement.

I open my eyes and realize I was dreaming again about the Castle, the motel/resort just outside of Olean where I spent time every summer in my youth. And I spend the next few minutes wishing it was real.

The Castle holds a place in my heart – and apparently my subconscious – that is completely out of proportion to the time I spent there, which amounts to about 50 days and 40 nights in a lifetime closing fast on 50 years. The Castle restaurant on the property was far more well-known, but I always thought of the Castle first as a motel. The rooms had color TV and cable at a time when most people I knew had neither. It also had such other kid-friendly features as a movie theater; an in-ground swimming pool with a diving board and a slide; a tennis court; a lobby that usually had a few comic books on the newsstand – and desk clerks who didn’t seem to care if you read them without paying – and one pinball machine.

It also had a par-3, 9-hole golf course shoehorned into the land behind the motel. It was not a challenging layout; two of the holes were the length of a very long putt on a traditional course. But for as little as $1.50 a day, you could play all you wanted. My grandfather taught my older brother and me to play there when we were 9 and 7 years old. Through our teen years, we visited the Castle and did the same things every summer.

I loved it then because of what it was; I miss it now because of what it represented.

It has been closed for years now, and all the buildings that once sat on the grounds are gone. Except for an afternoon on the way back from a college visit at St. Bonaventure University five years ago, I haven’t been near it for decades. But I dream about it often.

Last year, I shared with my mother that I wanted to go back there, just once, to walk on the land that used to be the golf course. Some part of me wanted to say goodbye.

On my birthday, she handed me a small box. Inside was the business card of Nancy L. Morgan, membership services coordinator for the Greater Olean Area Chamber of Commerce. Her phone number was printed on the front. Before I could ask why I was getting a business card for my birthday, she explained:

She and my stepfather stopped in the Chamber office while on a visit through the Southern Tier to ask if it would be possible for a person to walk on the land of the former motel. Morgan said that not only was it possible, but that she lived adjacent to it and she would be happy to let me traipse through her yard to get there.

So on a damp and windy Friday afternoon, I did.

A Castle rises and falls

The story of the Castle started in 1946, when Italian immigrant Guerino “Butch” Butchello purchased two businesses on West State Road: a small restaurant called the Dime Castle and the Tower Gas Station, which looked like a medieval castle. Two years later, according to a 1991 article in the Olean Times Herald, he connected the two businesses into one and began building what would become the Castle, a sprawling fine-dining establishment with a national reputation.

Butchello purchased the adjacent 40-room Olean Motel in 1963 and expanded that over the years until it had 160 rooms. The business thrived through the 1960s and 1970s.

The Castle was a focal point of the Southern Tier community, the site of countless wedding receptions, business luncheons and sports banquets. In a 1976 Times Herald story, writer Mary Ellen Bushnell explained its appeal.

“The Castle restaurant is itself a classic. Today it is marking its 30th anniversary having opened on May 10, 1946, with the same magic that now calms the hearts and minds of those travel-wearied and traffic-harried as they leave the hectic pace of W. State Road and enter the peaceful fountain foyer of the large spacious haven.”

When Butchello died in 1976, his sons, Gerald and Daniel, took over operations. They died a year apart in 1985 and 1986. Later, his grandson David ran the company.

By the 1980s, travel and dining habits changed, and the Castle’s popularity began to wane. Its demise was the subject of persistent rumors by the 1990s.

The beginning of the end came in 2001, when first the restaurant and then the motel closed. A company from Fayetteville purchased the 17-acre site and planned to build a mixed-use development of retail shops, restaurants, office space and housing. That plan never came to fruition, and today the land is vacant, pending a plan to build a mortgage back office operation there.

In November 2005, four years after the Castle ceased to be a business, it ceased to exist at all when a demolition crew finished it off. Times Herald reporter Rick Miller interviewed Jack Bailey, who was overseeing the project, for a story on its final hours. Bailey said he kept hearing from people who had stories about family events that had been held there. Some would come to him and ask for stones from the restaurant to keep as souvenirs.

One was an 86-year-old woman riding in a chauffer-driven limousine. Bailey said he gave her a few stones and she was on her way.

A family retreat

My mother’s parents started going to the Castle for summer vacations in the 1960s. My grandfather would play golf, my grandmother would read and relax and the two of them would go out to dinner. For two children of the Depression, spending time at the Castle was the epitome of luxury. They treasured every minute they spent there.

In the early 1970s, they invited my brother and me along. On our first couple of trips, all four of us stayed in the honeymoon suite, which was larger than the other rooms and had a refrigerator in it. I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

My grandfather knew we were too young to play golf – even Castle golf – so he took us out on the putting green just behind the first tee and tried to teach us the toughest part of the game. (I’m almost there; 40 more years and I should have it figured out.)

The next year, he let us play the course. Between the swings and misses and the shots I “forgot” to count, I doubt that I broke 100 for nine holes. Still, we both were hooked on the game and the Castle.

Soon my mother and then my stepfather joined us. Going to the Castle became a kind of annual fantasy camp for my brother and me. We could do anything we wanted. Play golf from dawn to dusk, watch as much TV as we could handle, order the most expensive thing on the menu, eat junk food, stay up late. We even got to lie on top of the covers on the beds, although my grandmother almost had to be hospitalized from the trauma of witnessing that abomination to manners and hygiene.

But it was not all sunshine, lollipops and disheveled bedspreads. In 1975, my grandfather decided to play a round of golf after dinner with no shoes on and slipped on the side of a green, breaking his leg and cutting short our vacation.

The following year, our reservation was lost and we had to abandon the vacation. That led my grandmother to pen a letter to the Butchello family in which she said, in so many words: “I’m not mad, but I am VERY disappointed.” (You never wanted to be on the business end of that speech.) Soon, a voucher for a free stay arrived in the mail and almost all was forgiven.

But even those things that seemed tragic at the time became fond shared memories.

The last year our whole family was at the Castle together was 1983. Jobs and young adult life had gotten in the way, first for my brother and then for me. The last time I stayed overnight was for my first wedding anniversary in 1989. By then, it was beginning to fall into disrepair. I never went back, a decision I have regretted ever since.

A familiar place

I didn’t tell many people I was doing this, mostly because even as I was planning it, I recognized how strange it sounded. But my longing for a return to a cherished part of my youth is not all that unusual.

A 2010 Wall Street Journal article examined the growing trend of people wanting to visit their childhood homes, made easier by the Internet and social media. The writer, Kathleen Hughes, said: “Visiting a childhood home is something that almost everybody thinks about, and many people eventually do. … At the very least, many people drive by; some stand outside and stare. Still others write letters to the current owners or are brave enough to knock on the door, requesting a few moments inside.”

She quoted Esther Sternberg, author of the book “Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being,” who said the desire to return to a familiar place is a common one.

“It’s a way to re-experience all the feelings of childhood just by being in that space,” she said. “There’s a kind of memory that focuses on place.”

The Castle wasn’t my home, but the feeling of seeing the turrets on the restaurant and that familiar white motel building year after year in my youth sure made it feel like it was.

That’s why as I made the trip I made so many times before, I couldn’t help but smile when an oddly appropriate song came on the radio: John Denver’s “Back Home Again.”

Saying goodbye

It turns out I didn’t need to go through anyone’s yard to get to the property; I could have just parked on a dead-end side street that offers one of the only clues about what used to be there: Castle Drive.

But I parked in Nancy Morgan’s driveway, knocked on the door, told her daughter thank you for accommodating my weird request, and headed for the field behind her house.

It was only then that I began to ask myself what I expected to find or if I would even be able to walk on the soft, thawing ground. I navigated a few brambles and fallen branches and found myself standing on what appeared to be matted grass. The footing was fine. I couldn’t immediately figure out where on the property I was, so I just started walking.

After a minute or two, I realized that I was on the land near where the third green and the fourth tee used to be. I looked south toward the road and remembered the night my grandfather broke his leg and how he walked back to the room, not realizing the seriousness of what he had done.

I started walking south. Like any place from your youth that you see again after many years, it was not as large as I remembered. The road was startlingly close to where I was standing, considering that the motel, the pool and the restaurant all would have been between me and the cars going by.

I turned right. In the distance, I could make out something that was darker than the grass, but I couldn’t tell what it was. At first, it appeared to be a puddle.

A lump formed in my throat as it hit me: It was the remains of the pavement that used to lead from the motel parking lot down to the course, the pavement that I dream my grandfather’s spikes are hitting. My pace slowed as I thought of what that patch of crumbling asphalt represented to me: youth, loved ones here and gone, memories. I didn’t bother trying to hold back my emotions while walking up and down that hill. Then I noticed a rectangular indentation in the grass. Of course. This is where the first tee was, a par-3-style, carpeted tee box where golfers hit their shot to the hole, 55 yards away. I stood on it and suddenly, in my mind’s eye, the land that didn’t look like anything special became the Castle again. There’s where our room was. This is where the pro shop was. There was a pop machine there. You had to hit over those two trees to reach that green. The putting green was here.

This used to be my playground.

I walked the perimeter of the course for no particular reason. The walk to the ninth tee was guarded by brush, much of which is still there. How many times did I hit a shot in there? How strange would it be if there were still golf balls in there after all this time?

Then, incredibly, I saw one. And another. And another. Five altogether. After briefly considering whether I was committing a crime, I picked up the four I could reach and shoved them in my pocket, souvenirs of the day I said a long-overdue goodbye to an old friend.

I didn’t really need the golf balls, though. I already had what I came for.


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