Wolf Pen Springs then and now. The photo on the left was taken around 1930, the other on the Feb. 15, 2020, on the Sub Alpine Club’s 90th anniversary hike. (Not all of those on the 2020 hike are in the photo.)
Jim Buchwald, the oldest living member of the Sub Alpine Club of America, described Wolf Pen Springs as seen from a plane he was flying.
“It was like a fairy castle in the woods,” Buchwald said.
His description proved to be spot on — even when seen from the ground. Buchwald, 92, was among those present Feb. 15, when I joined the Sub Alpine Club on its 90th anniversary hike. (These days he makes partial hikes.) To commemorate the occasion, the club took the same hike the founders did on Feb. 15, 1930.
After wending our way a mile so up forested hills, we found ourselves in a clearing. At the center of the clearing, a modest sandstone mansion rose from the grounds of the estate.
Over the years, Wolf Pen Springs has seen better days. These are among them. Now refurbished, the French Gothic structure looks a lot better than it did when Sub Alpine founders Frank Van Voorhis, Dr. James B. Nelson, and Dr. L.B. Walton first hiked there. It was abandoned and run-down then.
Van Voorhis wrote a brief history of Wolf Pen Springs in his journal. Eli Nichols built the house around 1840. It was made of sandstone quarried on the property and cut by hand by Charles Timm. Nichols imported Timm and the window glass from England. The house and springhouse took six years to build. Nichols and his wife were outspoken abolitionists and the house served as a haven for runaway slaves.
From time to time, Wolf Pen Springs was abandoned and fell into disrepair. As Buchwald observed on our 90th anniversary hike, “It has consumed three fortunes.”
Another hiker that day, Dennis Tuttle, described his first trek to Wolf Pen Springs in the early 1980s.
“The first time I went on that hike, it had not been lived in for quite a few years and sheep were running through the house,” Tuttle said. “The inside was pretty well trashed but the magnificent stonework was still in mint condition.”
Among those who restored the house over the years was Mary Staats, who died in 1994. Tuttle recalled that, on one hike to Wolf Pen Springs, Staats invited Sub Alpine members to come inside.
“Mary invited all of the hikers to the basement where she showed us pictures of the glory days, where the runaway slaves would stop for food and water while on the underground railroad,” Tuttle said.
On the Feb. 15 hike, I had the opportunity to speak with Wolf Pen Springs’ current owner, who has gone to great lengths to refurbish it. He asked that I not publish his name. One of my shortcomings as a journalist has been my respect for people’s privacy, so I’ll honor his request.
He described the project not as a restoration but a “repurposing.” (Few mortals could afford to undertake a full historical restoration.) It was a huge undertaking that required stripping the house down to a sandstone shell. The result is a hybrid of form and function. The exterior has been restored to its former glory while the interior serves as a residence.
We can all be grateful to the current and past owners for resurrecting Wolf Pen Springs. This “fairy castle in the woods” will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Sub Alpine Club members, those who lived and toiled there, descendants of the slaves it sheltered, and all who value history.
This originally was published in the Ashland Times-Gazette and online GateHouse Media outlets.
Postscript courtesy of Ann Laudeman:
The house was actually restored by my uncle George Kahrl in the ’70s where they lived for 10 years before he sold it to Mary Staats. George’s father Fred Kahrl was one of the original hikers and George was a great admirer of the Sub Alpine Club, also how he knew about the house and learned it was available when he and his wife Faith were considering retirement to Knox County. My father Allin Kahrl brokered the deal for Uncle George to purchase the house and land. Jim Beam was contracted to do most of the work, including the addition of an elevator and a new kitchen. He glassed in the back porch and made a library in the basement with paneling and bookcases out of butternut wood.