Tucked away in the quaint township of Hamburg, New Jersey, down the street from Granny’s Pancake House, and on the aptly named Gingerbread Castle Road, lies a fairy tale castle straight out of a child’s dream – or it used to be, at least.
The Gingerbread Castle was conceived by Grimm’s fairy tales enthusiast, Fred Henry Bennet, who owned the adjacent Wheatsworth Mill. The mill was originally opened in 1808, but Bennet purchased the land in 1921 to expand his already established Bennet Biscuit Company. However, shortly thereafter his sales started to slump and he needed to brainstorm ways to boost sales. After seeing a production of “Hansel and Gretel” at the Metropolitan Opera, Bennet became inspired by the set design – the solution to his problems! If he built a fairy tale amusement park, people would be drawn to his mill, and boost his sales. Bingo!
In 1928, Bennet enlisted the production’s set designer, Joseph Urban, to design and construct his dream castle. Urban, who hailed from Austria, was no stranger to eccentric designs, designing for the Ziegfeld Follies for many years. The venture cost $50,000 (about $670,000 by today’s standards), and did not skimp on the details.
An article from Time Magazine published in 1930 described how one would see the castle when it first opened:
Just 50 miles from New York in Hamburg, N. J., the gates of the Wheatsworth factory grounds were thrown open and hundreds of wide-eyed children clambered excitedly through one of the strangest houses ever built. It is a poured-stone structure on the foundations of an old cement kiln. Its sparkling roof, white as sugar icing, is decorated by a frieze of pink and blue imitation candy hearts. Huge cookies (of cork) are set in the giddily striped and curlicued walls. A six-foot painted knight in gaudy armor on a painted horse spins from a turret as a weather vane. A gigantic black cat arches his cast stone back on the top of a sugar-stick minaret. A trained seal on a barber’s pole is balancing a whirling ball on the tip of his nose. Up the balustrade of the exterior staircase stalks a procession of pink elephants, rhinoceroses. The interior is even stranger, with carved witches and fairies, gnomes and children, a giant metal plum pudding, glass-eyed electric spiders that slither up and down on copper webs. To curdle young blood one room has a reproduction of the cauldron in which Jack’s giant made pot-av-feu of his victims before Jack slew him. The walls are studded with bones.
Despite Bennet’s efforts to keep his business afloat, he eventually folded and sold his operation to the National Biscuit Company (aka Nabisco). The property went through the hands of several companies, but both the mill and the castle remained operational for the next 50 years. In 1978 the attraction initially closed down, only to unsuccessfully re-open again in 1989, and re-close a couple of years later.
When visiting the mill and the castle now, the majesty described in the writings is now faded in the sun. The castle’s stature is much smaller than I had imagined, and many of the figures which used to ornament the building have been removed.
When driving down Gingerbread Castle Road, you cannot miss the pastel wonder that now sits encased in chain link fence and barbed wire. Back in its hey-day there were statues and sculptures depicting different fairy tales, and Hansel and Gretel tour guides that would take you through the castle, recalling their story, as well as other’s as you passed. Unfortunately, most of those statues are now gone. We managed to find a wishing well, the remains of a giant pie (four and twenty blackbirds!) , a dilapidated bridge, and a crusty Humpty Dumpty, all on the outsides of the fence. Inside the fence, there was also Mother Hubbard’s shoe, shrouded in overgrown greenery, that appeared to have been painted not too long ago (and the scalp of another unfortunate Humpty).
I’ve made two trips to the Gingerbread Castle, mainly because I didn’t get a close look into the mill the first time. On the inaugural visit, worried we were going to get spotted as we hustled down the side of the road, we made a hard right for the first path that we saw, which ran next to the mill. Running beside us was a beautifully serene river and waterfall that made our wrongful detour worth it. We thought we could walk around the perimeter of the mill to get in, but like usual, we thought wrong. We decided to walk back around, continuing on the side of the road, and enter the Castle from the front – and much to our surprise, our beloved local teenage delinquents had cut a large hole in the chain link fence surrounding the castle for our easy access.
We entered the castle from the bottom, and scaled the pitch black spiral stairs until it opened up into a burst of technicolor. Like most abandoned places I’ve visited, uninspired graffiti covered every inch, but the rainbow stairs and candy cane windows still made the castle exciting.
I wandered out onto a balcony to get a better look at the black cat that was perched atop one of the towers, but when I was out there, an SUV pulled up, two teenage girls jumped out, and the car drove off. As the girls nonchalantly strutted towards the castle they yelled up to me, “You shouldn’t hang out there. Last time we were here, the cops saw us on the balcony and kicked us out.” I went back inside, rounded up my companions and we made our exit. I had no desire to see what the girls had planned for their Gingerbread hang out session.
I came back a second time a few weeks later to try and get a look at the inside of the expansive mill since the last trip was limited to the castle alone. Learning from my last trip’s mistake, I took my new companions directly to the Castle’s chain-link fence…but it was now completely mended. We climbed up the wall behind the Humpty Dumpty to see if there was anywhere for us to enter from there. Not only was the fence continuous and the cliff on the other side steep, there was also a huge bee’s nest on the back side of the castle. So, we retreated and resorted to the original path of my first trip, past the serene waterfall, around the corner to another portion of chain link fence. This time the local teenage delinquents shoved a milk crate under a section of the fence, tied a rope to the bottom, and threw the rope over the other side, so whomever was small enough to squeeze through would enter first, and then pull the rope from the other side for the rest. Ingenuitive little fuckers.
This allowed us to enter the back end of the property, with a garage-like structure to our immediate left. There was a smashed up car, some old window panes, a mountain of bath tubs, and a jet ski, amongst other things.
While we were poking around two teenage boys showed up and saw us so they started to scream “HOW DID YOU GUYS GET IN THERE?!” We all shushed in unison, but it didn’t stop the loud mouth’s jabbering. To appease him, my boyfriend went over and lifted the fence for them. Right after he let them in, they told us that the cops were actively patrolling the area at that moment – they just saw them drive by. Gee, glad you took it upon yourself to yell at us, then. They informed us the cops actively patrol the area, but that they also actively hang out there. When asked what they were doing there, they announced “Oh you know, just causing trouble,” and offered to give us a tour of the building since they knew it so well. We declined their invitation of trouble-making and decided to set out for the castle instead of going further into the factory, mainly to avoid our new pals.(What can I say – teenagers scare me). Sure enough, when we were in the castle, we could see the aforementioned cop car creep back and forth several times.
What amazed me about the castle was how much it had changed in the few weeks that had passed since my last visit. There was much more graffiti, broken pieces that I saw strewn about the floor were now gone, the fence was mended and a new hole was opened. There’s certainly an active watch over the space, but I think the local kids are just one step ahead, for better or worse.
We ran out of the back of the castle one by one, avoiding the cars as they passed, but with one last glance from the passing officer. One of my companions began getting uncomfortable between the trouble-making teens and the officer on patrol, so we decided to leave and I did not get to go further into the mill like planned. *tears*
I also managed to miss the small building across the street both trips, which originally housed the reception area. The current owners of the land tried turning it into a restaurant/music venue called Frank’s Castle Grille, but that did not last very long, closing in 2005. Behind the restaurant, the owners built dinosaurs and a petting zoo, where some remnants can still be found – so if you visit, please go see the dinos and send me photos!
The entire property is currently owned by a pair of men who reside in New Jersey. Originally the plan was to renovate and re-open the castle, but that idea was quickly abandoned once the costs proved to be too much (and when their third partner passed away – I’m going to guess he was the only one really invested in it). Certain things were repainted, like the aforementioned shoe and parts of the castle’s facade, but that’s about as far as they got. They tried selling the property for a hot minute on Ebay, but were unsuccessful, and now have the property on the market regular-style. So, if it strikes your fancy, you can purchase the mill and the castle for a mere $600,000. You may just have to spend some time evicting a few teenage squatters.
Special thanks to Lomography for supplying me with some of their amazing color film and a Sprocket Rocket, which is where those neat panoramic shots come from. Don’t worry – there’s still more to come!