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Local History

Pythian Castle: From Home to Fortress

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In its nearly 100 year history, one Springfield landmark has housed orphans, shown five-cent movies, and even held prisoners of war during World War II.

Walking up the steps of Pythian Castle it’s not difficult to imagine what it looked like when it was first built in 1913. The stone walls have remained unchanged despite the massive changes that have taken place inside the building throughout the past century.

Tim Piland is an expert on the history of Pythian castle. On this day, he’s leading visitors on a history tour.

“The castle was built by the Knights of Pythias. The Knights of Pythias were a fraternal order along the same lines as the masons-secret society. They were at one point one of the largest fraternal orders in the country and they are one of the oldest.”

The Pythian Home, as it was called in the first years of its life, was built mainly to house the elderly Pythians and orphans who were related to members of the order. Mildred Halt Cherry was an orphan who lived at the Pythian Home in the late 1920’s.

“My father had died and mom just didn’t know what to do with us. There were a lot of us kids and so we went to the home.”

Cherry says that while she and the other orphans had numerous chores around the home such as canning tomatoes, cleaning, and doing the laundry, they also got to play in the basement gymnasium and see silent films in Springfield’s first movie theater which happens to be on the second floor of the castle. Cherry says that every night the orphan children would sing on the front porch of the Pythian Home, directed by one of the Knights of Pythias.

“And we’d sing old songs, popular songs then, and people would come to the gates and the fences way down there to hear us sing.”

She even remembers one of the songs they used to sing: “Alice Blue Gown.” In 1942, the Army acquired the castle by order of immediate possession to be used as the service club for the O’Reilly General Hospital during World War II. The Army had shows and dances in the old cafeteria and raised the price of movies in the theater from a nickel to a quarter. The tour of the castle takes visitors down to the basement where the changes made by the Army are most evident. Tim Piland continues to detail the history of the building.

“Alright guys, welcome to the gymnasium. Anywhere you see a cinderblock wall the Army put that up. This was originally a much larger, much more brightly lit room, it was a happy room! The kids would come down here and play; they would roller-skate down this ramp right here. The Army came in and built these cells, we do understand that there were POWs kept here but we don’t know how long, don’t know for what”

German, Japanese and Italian prisoners were housed in the basement cells and in a building adjacent to the castle that had previously been used as a boiler room. While the smaller building is still owned by the Army, the underground steam tunnel that connected it to the castle is still intact. This tunnel was used to bring prisoners back and forth between the main castle and the outbuilding which held the main prisoner barracks. Our tour arrives at one of the cells.

“Let me draw your attention to this room over here, we had a Japanese gentleman in the building. From what I understand he was a POW, a trustee. He cooked in the building and they let him sleep in here and he actually did the paintings on the walls”

The walls in the windowless cell are covered with orange paint and blue painted waves that rise up to the ceiling. The basement, unlike most of the building, seems to have changed very little since the time the Army was using the building. The air is heavy with the history of the place. Tamera Finocchiaro is the current owner of Pythian Castle. She says that when she and her mother bought the property they knew little to nothing about its history.

“We call ourselves ‘hesitant historians’ now. We have gotten very interested in the history of this building and done a lot of research into the history. We got it actually listed on the National Register of Historical Places.”

The castle recently re-opened for tours and other events such as murder mystery nights and swing dancing lessons. Walking around the castle it is not hard to feel nostalgic for a time when you could see a movie for five cents and line up to hear orphans singing “Alice Blue Gown” from the steps of the Pythian Home.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson