Historic Thorp castle bricks now stored at Nisswa Pioneer Village
Thorp castle was once an icon in the Nisswa area
NISSWA — From 1906 to 1941, Nisswa was one of the few places in northern Minnesota where you could find a piece of architecture that appeared to be out of history.
Recent efforts to preserve the cemetery in Nisswa where Col. Freeman Thorp's family rests led to the discovery of some brick remains of this historic architecture. Those bricks will be on display at the Nisswa Pioneer Village.
Thorp, an artist and an eccentric from Ohio, had settled near Nisswa, and after approximately four years living in a traditional cabin, he decided the area needed a touch of Europe in the form of a large, brick castle.
It was a 50-foot by 50-foot building. It took 3,000 blocks to build it. He had a mold he made the 3,000 blocks with
"He was just an artistic guy," said Brent Shepard, of Nisswa, who is researching the Thorp family.
Thorp and his wife were both artists. Thorp was known for his paintings, especially of Abraham Lincoln and other famous politicians. His wife dabbled in poetry and other arts as well, so a castle was in line with their personalities.
The structure Thorp built was massive. Thorp oversaw production throughout most of the casting and building.
"It was a 50-foot by 50-foot building," Shepard said. "It took 3,000 blocks to build it. He had a mold he made the 3,000 blocks with."
At the time Thorp built his castle, most buildings in the area were log structures. The Carl A. Zapffe "Old Timers II" book says the castle "introduced into our Lake Region the cement block as a building material."
Thorp and his wife, Orlena Eggleston, lived in the castle for most of their lives, and it was an unpleasant experience.
"They were living in a brick box," Shepard said. "They had boiler heat, but in the ‘Old Timers’ book, (grandson) Joe Heald said how miserable it was living in it. It was super cold in the winter time and super stuffy and damp in the summer."
After Orlena died in 1919 and then Freeman in 1922, the castle sat empty and slowly deteriorated, perhaps partially due to its lack of maintenance, but more so due to errors in construction.
"I talked to some old-timers around the way and they said it was there when they were young," Shepard said. "It was deteriorating.
“There are different stories why. One said it didn't have a foundation. I also heard the colonel was gone one day and some of the bricks were made with lake water and lake sand and that's essentially what made it crumble," he said.
Zapffe's book says the unsupported sand footing was to blame.
Regardless, Heald had the castle razed.
Shepard, a member of the Nisswa Area Historical Society, has taken a special interest in Thorp and his castle, consuming as much information as he can about the long-gone structure.
He had spent his childhood sledding on Thorp Hill, which was shaped with hills and flat areas that were once terrace gardens cut into the hill.
"I have been passionate about looking up all aspects of the family," Shepard said. "My land, if you look at the deed, it goes back to Thorp, and that's where some of this (fascination) started."
As a member of the local historical society, Shepard had taken over the duties of maintaining the Thorps’ forest cemetery. He adopted the duty when the former caretaker got too old to take care of it.
Shepard worked to organize people to help keep the cemetery mowed. Attempting to find those volunteers on Facebook uncovered something entirely unexpected.
They were living in a brick box. They had boiler heat, but in the ‘Old Timers’ book, (grandson) Joe Heald said how miserable it was living in it. It was super cold in the winter time and super stuffy and damp in the summer.
"One woman said the people she bought her house from had said there were blocks on the property from the castle," Shepard said.
"She said she had some in the woods behind her house and we were like, 'My gosh! They exist!'" said Cindy Terwilliger, with the historical society. "We were all shocked how big they were. We were thinking normal bricks, but they are huge. We had never really even thought of them before."
Shepard worked with the woman to have the enormous blocks dug out of the woods by her home and transported to the history center in the Nisswa Pioneer Village in mid-September.
"I guess there were only a couple inches still sticking out of the dirt," Shepard said.
The blocks offered the chance to uncover a physical piece of the castle that has existed only in photos since 1941.
"It was a bit like a dinosaur in a way," Shepard said. "We've seen photos of the castle. We've heard the stories, but then here's a brick. It is just like it's on the next level."
The castle is an almost forgotten part of Nisswa history, but now the history center will have a visual, tactile reminder to intrigue its visitors.
"We have excerpts from people who, when they were children going to the Lake Hubert School, where the Grange is now, they remember being invited over to Thorp's to watch or listen to the radio about some historic events," Terwilliger said. "That's about all I know about it."
Right now the bricks, moss and all, are inside of the history center building. When the temperature warms they will likely be propped up on display outside in the garden.
"Though the Thorps appeared to be very wealthy to everyone else, they weren't," Terwilliger said. "So we were thinking of putting them on display and having some simple flowers out there."
Through his research into the castle and growing familiar with the appearance of its bricks, Shepard realized the castle was apparently not the only building built with those bricks in Nisswa.
"I recently saw pictures of Lake Hubert Store when it was under renovation," Shepard said. "My mom took photos. It's made with the same blocks from the castle."
The bricks are now covered in such a way they don't show, but apparently that store was built with blocks cast using Thorp’s original molds.
There is also a large memorial in the cemetery that is rumored to have been built from material salvaged from the castle. Shepard thinks it was possibly the stone fireplace.
Now that he's tasted success, Shepard is working to find ways to further preserve and highlight the history of Lake Hubert, which was once larger than Nisswa.
"It was a bit like a dinosaur in a way. We've seen photos of the castle. We've heard the stories, but then here's a brick. It is just like it's on the next level."
"I just want to keep the history and stories of this area going for future people to come in and look at it as a really awesome place to live," Shepard said.
Shepard is now working to find the names for several graves in the Thorp cemetery. He said the Zapffe book identifies some of the stones; however, the number of names doesn't match with the number of graves.
As for the historical society, this was not the only significant item they have received in 2022.
Two women purchased a bank of mail slots from the original Nisswa Post Office over the summer and donated them to the historical society. Coincidentally, Terwilliger was in a sort of bidding war with the winning buyers and accidentally drove the price up.
Unknown to all involved, they all wanted it for the history center.
"They didn't know I was bidding on it too," Terwilliger said. "We were bidding on the same piece. I quit and there were one or two that dropped off soon after."
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com.