Cold Creek makes a run of about 4,400 feet along Homegardner Road at Castalia Farms. The trout stream has been well-stocked for more than a century.
THE BLADE/MATT MARKEY
CASTALIA, Ohio — By late in 1937, William E. Levis had put together a 1,000-acre expanse of property just north of this village and set about transforming it into a sportsmen’s Valhalla.
Here, the president of Owens-Illinois Glass Co. owned roughly 10 miles of meandering trout stream, fed by the aquifers in the area that send an abundance of 48-degree water surging to the surface. There were also pastures for his prized champion Corriedale sheep and fields where Mr. Levis and his guests could hunt for pheasants.
The core of the idyllic setting was the former Castalia Sporting Club, and its clubhouse became the weekend residence of Mr. Levis and his wife. There were also barns, implement buildings, meticulously maintained stables, a farmhouse, and picturesque courtyards on the site, as well as a trout hatchery.
Some of the Castalia property owned by Mr. Levis at one time hosted August A. Busch, Jr., of Anheuser-Busch and the corporate heads of companies such as Pepsi and Gerber.
Portions of the real estate were eventually sold off, with one 90-acre tract purchased by the state and now home to a modern fish hatchery that produces steelhead and rainbow trout that are stocked throughout Ohio.
The core of the Levis haven — known as Castalia Farms — remained essentially intact after it had been enhanced with conference centers, a small theater, and other amenities, such as a driving range and a trap shoot. Its ownership was eventually transferred to a subsidiary of Owens-Illinois, and the site has been used for at least the last half century as a corporate retreat and more recently as a place for O-I to occasionally entertain its customers.
That era will end on Nov. 15, when the Castalia Farms property is scheduled to be sold at a live public auction. The prestigious spread at the intersection of Heywood and Homegardner roads had been listed with a Columbus real estate company for $3.8 million, but after no potential buyers were identified, the listing was transferred to Hanna Chartwell, a commercial real estate and auction house in Cleveland.
The Castalia Farms tract has been carved up into pieces for the auction. A 27.67 acre parcel holds about 4,400 feet of the Cold Creek trout stream, plus the original lodge and a large guesthouse.
The main grounds section at Castalia Farms is about 225 acres, with the historic farmhouse, courtyard apartments, and meeting areas, barns, and outbuildings, plus pastures, woods, and a long, rectangular, marshy pond.
The bidding will start at under $1 million, and a buyer could potentially keep the property whole. However, John Miller, who worked in sales and marketing with O-I for nearly four decades and was a regular visitor to Castalia Farms and another nearby company property, seems resigned to witnessing the end of the line for the iconic retreat.
“It’s really sad to hear that any of it is up for auction, because it was a tremendous asset for the company for so many years,” said Mr. Miller, who retired from O-I in 1998. “There’s just no place like it anywhere in the world, and once you’ve done this and sold it off in pieces — it’s gone. It’s a pretty fatal decision.”
Lisa Babington, senior communications manager for O-I, said the company’s need for a meeting facility the size of Castalia Farms has diminished in recent years, so the decision was made in 2011 to close the facility.
“Our executives do continue to enjoy outdoor activities very much, and many of our employees feel a strong connection to Castalia as a rich part of O-I’s history,” Ms. Babington said in a statement addressing the upcoming auction.
“It is with regret that we have offered the property for sale; however, farming and resort management are not at the core of our business,” Ms. Babington’s statement said. “The sale of Castalia also continues a trend at O-I in recent years to concentrate our business on the core of glass making.”
The roots of the Castalia Farms story stretch back at least as far as the mid-1800s. In his book Castalia, Cold Creek, and the Blue Hole Glenn C. Kuebeler cites the 1831 purchase of 500 acres of land along with the Cold Creek water rights, by Russell Hubbard Heywood, a general store owner from Buffalo who built a flour mill to utilize the robust flow of Cold Creek.
Mr. Kuebeler, who grew up on a farm along the trout stream, refers to an 1878 transaction in which the rights to Cold Creek were leased to “The Union Club of Cleveland,” which became the Castalia Sporting Club in 1881. The organization’s 25 members built a clubhouse and fish hatchery at the intersection of Heywood and Homegardner roads, which today is the epicenter of the O-I Castalia Farms estate.
When Mr. Levis entered the sequence of ownership, he consolidated the Castalia Sporting Club with other holdings in the immediate area. Mr. Levis, who died in 1962, eventually transferred a large portion of his original tract to Castalia Farms Inc. in 1959 for the nominal sum of $10.
In the chain of transactions and transfers over its history, the Castalia Farms property was owned for a brief period by John W. Galbreath, another avid sportsman and an Ohio native who made his fortune as a real estate developer, was the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1946 to 1985, and also was a former chairman of Churchill Downs in Louisville, where two of his horses won the Kentucky Derby.
Mr. Galbreath and his brother Dan raised bison in a section of the original Castalia Farms, on what is now the Ohio state fish hatchery property. According to Erie County records, John Galbreath transferred ownership of Castalia Farms to Owens-Illinois in 1965.
“The history of this place is so convoluted, with all of the different owners and the different parcels and transfers,” said Dick Elosh, executive vice president of Street Sotheby’s International Realty in Columbus, the firm which had the original listing of the property.
“There are a lot of rumors and stories about who might have owned it or visited there, but it’s safe to say it is a very unique property with a unique history. A lot of people are totally enchanted with it.”
The auction of the Castalia Farms tracts will present potential buyers with an extremely rare opportunity.
Ohio has precious few trout streams, and Cold Creek, which makes a relatively straight run through the O-I property for a little less than a mile, has been well-stocked for more than a century. After it is enriched with oxygen, the millions of gallons of water that well up each day from limestone bedrock through various blue hole springs in the area provide a world-class trout fishery on the stream’s short trip to Sandusky Bay.
“How often can you buy a trout stream,” said Denny Grahl, a local real estate agent and a native of Castalia who, as a 15-year-old working at his father’s Sohio service station in town, once gassed up Mr. Levis’ chauffeur-driven limousine.
“With that section of trout stream and the real paradise that Mr. Levis built out there — I really don’t know what the Castalia Farms property is worth,” Mr. Grahl said. “But there is a fascination with that trout stream. Something that unique, that prized — you just don’t see things like that come up for sale.”
There are several private trout clubs in the area, and just downstream along Cold Creek from Castalia Farms is the Millsite Trout & Gun Club, which also has functioned as a corporate retreat.
Millsite was once owned by J. Preston Levis, the cousin of William E. Levis, and eventually by O-I. It was used to entertain O-I business clients during a period when Castalia Farms was utilized almost exclusively for internal O-I functions. Once the Millsite property was sold in 2002, it was periodically leased to O-I and other companies for meetings and getaways, and Castalia Farms was then used more often to entertain O-I customers.
The Millsite property, which now contains just more than 20 acres and 3,800 feet of trout stream, was purchased by developer Larry Dillin, but it is currently in receivership and is expected to be auctioned later this month, with the minimum bid set at $600,000. The Pamela K. Rose Auction Co. in Maumee is handling the Millsite sale.
The Castalia Farms sale is accompanied by a backdrop of intrigue, since a former caretaker at the historic property is the subject of an ongoing investigation related to the alleged theft of millions of dollars worth of O-I property from the site.
According to a news account that appeared in the Sandusky Register in September, an anonymous letter had tipped off O-I management about the alleged theft, which reportedly included stacks of firearms, recreational vehicles, expensive tools and equipment, furnishings from the dwellings on the property, fuel tanks, computers, and antique china.
The Register story said the investigation began in March, and in September a search by Erie County deputies of three different properties allegedly utilized by the former caretaker resulted in the recovery of many of the missing items.
The FBI and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation are reportedly assisting in the investigation. No charges have been filed.
Tony Caracciolo, who is the vice president of global sales and customer strategy for O-I and has been with the company for more than three decades, said the O-I Castalia properties supplied an environment where customers could be engaged in very casual, relaxed surroundings.
“Castalia provided a unique setting for customer entertainment, and it was very laid back, with home-style meals,” Mr. Caracciolo said. “It was kind of like going to grandma’s house.”
The interior of the buildings were not lavishly adorned but were more focused on comfort, Mr. Caracciolo said.
“Castalia — I loved the place. It was a beautiful setting,” he said. “I have memories of catching a lot of nice rainbow trout and shooting pheasants there. But the world was a different place then. Things are scrutinized more now, and there’s operating expenses you have to deal with.”
O-I declined to reveal the cost of operating the Castalia Farms facility, but Mr. Grahl said he believes that might have provided the tipping point in the company’s decision to sell the property.
“The money just flew through there. The maintenance costs have to be horrendous, because the buildings are older, but they were very well-maintained,” he said. “The grounds were impeccably manicured. They did everything right, because it had to be right.”
Mr. Grahl said the sale will be a blow to the Castalia community because the site provided seasonal jobs for a dozen or so individuals.
“It is definitely a sad passing. Mr. Levis really built up a relationship with the town and was very supportive,” he said. “That was the way he did things. It’s changed since he’s been gone, but this auction is really a sign of the end. Once it’s fractured and sold off in pieces, that property loses its identity.”
There have been inquiries about Castalia Farms from a California-based company that operates drug and alcohol detox facilities that cater to high-end clients and from a company based in England that offers luxury vacation rentals in “stunning wilderness locations.”
“A lot of people are interested and fascinated with the place, but it’s never been run like a business, for profit, so they seem to be taking a more practical approach to it,” said Mr. Elosh of Street Sotheby's International.
“Corporate attitudes have changed, so it seems like there’s a lot more potential buyers for small pieces, than for the one large piece.”
It appears likely that the fields where Mr. Levis used to hunt pheasants with his favorite Chesapeake retriever Max could go to one buyer and the stretch of crystal clear stream across the road where he fished for rainbow and brown trout could go to another.
“Castalia Farms has been a wonderful asset for O-I, and for this community, but I guess it’s just a generational thing, and places like this are going away,” Mr. Grahl said. “William Levis was Owens-Illinois, and he loved to hunt and fish and he loved Castalia Farms. He built a real legacy out there, and it’s just a shame to see that end.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.