The End of the Castor Hilton

By Byron Bellville | December 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 1996

That small Ozark cabin in the woods was exactly what we had in mind for a remote getaway within an easy drive of St. Louis. It was rustic which, in this case, is another word for primitive. For running water we could choose between the spring a hundred yards or so along a narrow weedy path or the crystal clear Castor River, twice as far away. Bathroom facilities consisted of a small ramshackle building set back in the trees, just a short sprint from the cabin's back door.So, there was no running water, no bathroom, one smoky fireplace for heat, and mice droppings scattered over the bare pine floor. Two rooms and a path accurately described it. But we knew what we wanted and this was exactly it!

Through the years we dug a well, added a bathroom, installed a wood burning stove and carpeted the floor. With all that, plus the big screened porch that was already there, the cabin became positively civilized.

A profusion of memories include our offspring who, conventionally enough, were born in chronological order, but somewhat unusually, appeared alphabetically. First came Bill, then Bob, followed by Jack and Janet.

I remember when Bob drove directly to the cabin to meet us after leaving the military. That's when his dog, Patchouli, who had lived only in the plains of North Dakota and had never seen a tree, stood and barked ferociously at the towering hardwoods surrounding her.

Teenage Janet and her girlfriend braved a weekend there alone one time. They were sure the dog, which belonged to Bob and had been borrowed for protection, had been bitten by a snake, so they carried 40 pounds of canine half a mile to a neighboring farmer. The dog loved it but recovered quickly when sentenced to walking after a diagnosis of no snake bite.

Bill and his wife honeymooned at the Castor Hilton. Not a glamorous trip but the price was right for newlyweds.

We were snowbound there for a week once. Come to think of it, the cold temperatures and deep snow were the determining factors for indoor plumbing.

Jack and his wife are the ones who have always been there when work had to be done, but the whole gang showed up for major jobs like carrying and cutting railroad ties to build the patio.

Yes, there are lots of memories. There were the chilly spring mornings when the boys and I, covered with camouflage paint, were back in the hills turkey hunting, and the excitement when a big tom's gobbling call came out of the misty dawn.

Guess I'll always remember the time Bob and I had a four-foot black snake drop from a tree into our canoe as we floated the Castor. Back at the cabin my wife Ruth heard our shoveling, scraping and banging as we worked with paddles to get brother snake out of the boat and into the river. She didn't know how true it was when she said it sounded like we were killing snakes.

Those weekends when the weather began to warm in February and the sap flowed in the maple trees had us down there collecting sugar water and boiling it down until we had maple syrup. Wood smoke from the cooking fire and sugary steam from the pans penetrated hair and clothes and gave us all a ripe smell and a sticky texture. But no maple syrup ever tasted better. Besides, it was pretty much of a social event when we gathered for syrupin'.

There are lots more things I'll remember as I think about the cabin. But reminiscences are all that are left now. We have sold the Castor Hilton, so it appears that we'll be looking elsewhere for tomorrow's memories.

You hate to give the key that final turn, but times change and what one did before too often can't be done again.

Those hills have gotten mighty steep. So steep, in fact, that any tom turkey strutting and gobbling up there on the ridge is safe from me.

Wading the stream with a fly rod and trying to maintain footing on that uncertain rocky bottom has become a energy draining struggle between me and the river. You know, it used to be just relaxing fun. Strange how times change.

Cooking syrup over the wood fire creates a smoke screen that makes it too hard for me to breathe. As good as that syrup always tasted, if I have to choose between it and breathing, I guess it's no contest. I'll take breathing every time.

I recall that I used to split a huge stack of firewood and enjoy doing it. Now the sight of a pile of oak chunks and a splitting ax is enough to make me shudder.

I think back and see Ruth on the big screened porch creating beauty with her watercolors; I see the Ben Franklin stove flickering firelight across the room after we turn out the lights; and I see us getting up before dawn for a hunt. But the time finally arrived when it was best to keep those memories for the pleasure of remembering - not for trying to live them again.

Now there's a new owner of the Castor Hilton, and I don't know if they'll even call the cabin by the same name. But it's up to them to handle those details like naming the cabin, battling the steep and rocky terrain while cutting the grass and weeds, lugging firewood into the wood box and doing whatever else it is that they must do to own and care for a cabin in the woods.

Well, old Castor Hilton, we've had some fun inside your walls and we left our mark on you. At one time you were just a little one-room shelter. Then an early owner added a bedroom with a fireplace. Later, someone else came along and built the big screened porch. Our contribution was the bathroom with that most glorious convenience of all conveniences, running water.

Whatever the new folks do, we hope they have as much fun both inside and outside your walls as we had for 20 enjoyable years.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Patrick Kipp
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Block
Circulation - Laura Scheuler