The existence of an abandoned castle in Oakville Mo. will either be the most obvious thing in the world to you, or an absurd thought that would never cross your mind. And yet, behind Bee Tree Park, abandoned in the woods, there are, or were, ruins of a Scottish castle overlooking the Mississippi River that dated to the 1920s that was never finished.
Oakville had an abandoned hospital in the woods on the north edge of town. So why not an abandoned castle in the woods on the opposite end of town?
The abandoned castle in the woods behind Bee Tree Park
The existence of the castle next to Bee Tree Park has been an open secret in Oakville for generations. Kids and adults would go there just to hang out, and sometimes pillage the site for items to decorate their own homes. And every decade or two, staff from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch would visit the curiosity, with permission of course. They’d take a few photos, and write a story about it.
At first, parties and picnics at the site occurred with the owner’s permission. The permission came to an end in 1937, even though the visits continued for another 75 years or so.
I found out about it from a former co-worker who grew up in Oakville and provided me with some digital pictures he took the last time he visited the site. I’ve been asking around for years and lots of people are aware of the place, but I haven’t been able to find anyone else who snuck in and explored, or at least is willing to admit they had.
The site is surrounded by a chain link fence with barbed wire and lots of no trespassing signs. But according to my former co-worker, and a few other accounts I’ve found, it was still possible for intrepid urban explorers to slip past the defenses and sneak in.
How a power company came to own a Scottish castle in Oakville, Mo.
The castle ruins were part of a 420 acre country estate. The site belongs to Ameren Energy, the local power company, and it was adjacent to the Meramec Power Station, a coal-fired power plant that went into operation in 1953. It was once Ameren’s largest plant, though now it is its smallest and least efficient. Ameren plans to close the plant in 2022.
Union Electric, the predecessor to Ameren, purchased the site in 1948 from Ford Motor Company. Ford bought the site from Wood-Smith in 1937, intending to build an assembly plant there.
Ameren demolished the remains of the castle starting in 2012. Someone created a change.org petition to the governor to preserve the site in 2015, but only 50 people signed it. It was also too late, as by 2015 there wasn’t much left to preserve. Since the castle was always on private property and never finished, it’s not likely the governor could have done anything anyway.
Satellite footage confirms not much remains of the castle aside from a faint outline of what appears to be walls or steps. The occasional visitor to Bee Tree Park explores the area with a drone to get a closer look. They confirm there’s not much left but memories of the abandoned castle in the woods.
But what was this castle, and what was it doing in Oakville? There are lots of rumors surrounding it. Some of them are true. A lot of them get details wrong, including the name of the person who commissioned it. It’s not Smith-Wood or Smith-Woods, or Woods-Smith. His name was George Fairfull Wood-Smith, an industrialist born in Scotland.
George F. Wood-Smith, the would-be castle builder
George Fairfull Wood-Smith was born June 9, 1880 in Glasgow, Scotland. He was the son of Dr. Algernon Wood-Smith and Jane W. Sloan Wood-Smith. He earned a degree in maritime engineering in Scotland by the age of 20, and emigrated to the United States in 1901. Wood-Smith worked in the maritime, railroad, and oil industries, becoming a millionaire and losing it more than once. He had homes in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, and his large estate at the southern edge of St. Louis County was his country home.
In 1914, he commissioned the architect Raymond E. Maritz, Sr., to draw blueprints for a castle. He spent an estimated $300,000 in salaries and supplies between 1914 and 1920 trying to build it, a rate of about $1,000 a week. At the time, the average salary was closer to $15 a week.
His dream was a 20-room slightly miniaturized replica of a castle near Glasgow that belonged to his aunt. But in 1920, he had to stop building. The real reason for it was because he ran out of money. That story wasn’t interesting enough for generations of Oakville residents, so other rumors swirled around, such as the death of a son, or an affair. But the answer was simple. He simply spent too much on the castle and on other things.
He resumed construction of his Oakville, Mo. castle when his fortunes improved, but when he ran out of money again in 1929, presumably he decided he was getting too old for this. A 1938 account in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found him retired from the oil business, content to operate a golf course and live life as a country squire.
But there’s something of a redemption story too, and it’s important not to overlook that. Human beings are complex, and George Wood-Smith is no exception.
The dream of the castle in Oakville, Mo.
The 20-room castle was going to feature 30 ft stone walls, 11 bedrooms, a sunken stone pool, sunken gardens, an indoor and outdoor pool, and a grand stone staircase, all overlooking the Mississippi River and railroad tracks operated by the Missouri Pacific railroad, now part of the Union Pacific. The proximity to water and the railroad seems appropriate, given he’d made a fortune in those industries.
Some people call it Bee Tree Park Castle, but Wood-Smith and his family called it the Castle at the Point of Good Hope, and they called their estate Hillcrest. If he had finished it, the estate would have rivaled that of Adolphus Busch, the beer baron of Anheuser-Busch fame.
The name of the castle in Oakville, Mo., came from Philip Fine, the pioneer for whom nearby Fine Road is named. Fine was the first European settler in the area, arriving before the Louisiana Purchase. He called his home the Point of Good Hope. Fine planned to build a town there, with 11 streets planned. But he never finished it. All that remains are some road names and a cemetery.
Like Fine, Wood-Smith also failed to bring his dream to fruition.
He was able to resume building during the 1920s, but he lost all his money again in 1929, and that put an end to his castle building for good. He didn’t sell the site until 1937, but by the 1930s he was repurposing some of the building materials for the castle himself for other projects. His 1961 obituary noted that the site of the never completed castle had become a favorite picnic area for locals.
The state historical society of Missouri has the original blueprints of the castle in its manuscript collection.
The rumors around the Bee Tree Park castle
The truth is, Wood-Smith never finished the castle because he ran out of money. According to his children, he lived a lavish lifestyle resembling that of the characters in the novel The Great Gatsby. And building a castle in the middle of nowhere is expensive. In 1914, Oakville was the middle of nowhere. That was why the city of St. Louis built its quarantine hospital there, and the Hillcrest estate was eight miles south of that.
Wood-Smith made the news a few times, and the news stories almost always mentioned the unfinished castle, so perhaps that’s why the public connected them. They also confused the details. There were rumors of an affair ruining the plans, and the tragic death of a son. Looking back at contemporary news accounts shows how fuzzy memories can be. That’s not exactly how things happened.
George Wood-Smith married Gertrude C. Mabrey (born April 16, 1880) in 1904 in Norwich, Conn. They had one daughter, Jane Maxwell, who was born sometime around 1905. They had homes in Pittsburgh and St. Louis. She moved out in December 1923, and both of them filed for divorce in 1926. At the time, he was working for the Quaker City Tank Line, and contemporary news accounts said he was an oil man and former vice president and manager of the Standard Steel Tank Car Company. She received alimony as part of the divorce, but the alimony she received was less than Wood-Smith had been spending to build the castle. Gertrude died in 1949 at the age of 68 in Pittsburgh.
On Feb 17, 1927, he married his secretary, Josephine Elizabeth Wieczorek, 25 years his junior. They had five children. The first of their children was born in 1923, so that probably had something to do with the rumors.
Tragically, Josephine died in 1947 of cancer at the age of 42.
That wasn’t the first tragedy that struck George and Josephine. Their four-year-old daughter Josephine was playing with her siblings on their farm near the castle. They moved a water tank and she fell into a cistern full of about 10 feet of water and drowned.
Wood-Smith and legacy in Oakville
George Wood-Smith had various residences in Cardondelet and Oakville during his 80-year lifetime. One of his Oakville residences is the oldest structure at what is now the White House Retreat.
The family also lived on a house on the Hillcrest estate, a 12 room house that was supposed to be a temporary residence, completed in 1926. In 1927, he built a golf course next to it, initially for his friends, and he did so without telling his wife. When he retired from the oil business and abandoned the castle, he operated the golf course for about a decade, before turning management over to his sons. The golf course is now Sherwood Country Club, at the end of Fine Road. The house is vacant, and the country club uses it for storage.
He made his fortune as an engineer, initially trained as a maritime engineer. He also worked in railroads, designing a railroad switch early in his career and also designing tank cars. According to his kids, he never patented any of his inventions.
In 1948, he read about a scandal involving the Training School for Boys at Boonville, Mo. He decided the boys there needed a vocational training program. At the age of 68, he passed a test at the University of Missouri-Columbia to earn a teacher’s certificate. He started a new career as a vocational instructor, eventually becoming the school’s director, spending his twilight years helping boys who didn’t have the opportunities he had.
According to his obituary, he retired to Florida, where he lived about 5 years, and returned to St Louis at around age 79. He died at Jewish hospital in St Louis on 13 Sep 1961 at the age of 81 of complications due to diabetes. He was buried in Mount Olive Cemetery in Lemay. His obituary and death certificate listed his occupation and as a retired school teacher. If he’s a modern day Ozymandias, he’s one who found redemption.
The castle is gone, but its legacy certainly remains, as does its influence. A few miles north of Bee Tree Park, near Forder Elementary School, there are two modern houses that are clearly inspired by castles. And somewhere in Oakville, someone has gargoyles that originally came from that site. I’m sure someone knows where they ended up, but people talk less about that than about the castle itself.