The Circus is Long Gone but Ringling’s Mansion Still Has Strong Ties to Jefferson, the Town’s Storied Past and Hopefully its Future
There was just no getting through the mud that day. Horses strained at their bits, as wagon wheels dug deeper into muck on the township’s Longwood Lake Road.
The carriages loaded with animals and performance equipment were headed to neighboring Dover, where the R.T. Ringling Circus was expected. The carts had left stone buildings on Longwood Valley Road without mishap but were stalled on roads muddied by an earlier downpour.
But thanks to local farmers who hitched their tractors to the wagons, the circus made it to the neighboring town. There would be no disappointed children in Dover on that one particular evening back in the early 20th Century.
While the township’s camping ground for a circus run by Ringling family members is long gone, its memory lingers a century later in the native stone buildings that dot the area around Lake Swannanoa on Berkshire Valley Road.
There’s the building where lions and tigers were kept, that is now an artist’s studio. Jefferson Medical and Imaging occupies another, while a tall stone water tower sits empty nearby. Another building, once housing a generator, faces one of the lake’s two dams.
But burrowed among trees and shrubs, sheltered far from the asphalt thoroughfare now known as Berkshire Valley Road, lay the crown jewel of the township’s Ringling family legacy. It is the Ringling Manor, Jefferson Township’s hidden treasure. The columned, native stone building still stands as testament to a chapter in the town’s rich historic past, its existence still a relative mystery to many.
The extravagant three-story estate was conceived by Alfred Ringling, one of the family’s five sons who comprised The Ringling Brothers Circus.
The widely traveled ‘Alf,’ as he was known, is said to have visited the area declaring it was “the most beautiful spot” he had “ever seen” and purchased some 100 acres. The number of acres, which included what is now Lake Swannanoa, eventually grew to 550 acres of ownership.
Captivated by the area, but caught without his usual sketchbook, Ringling himself reportedly drew rough diagrams on a shoebox of the ‘mansion’ he envisioned.
Back in 1913 though, when Alfred Ringling first set eyes on his “most beautiful spot,” what is now the Oak Ridge section of Jefferson was known as Petersburg and Swannanoa was not a lake at all; it was Petersburg Pond.
Shoebox to Mansion
By 1914, construction of the manor was well underway with residents Joseph or Edward Headley of Headley Lumber managing the venture. The project, which would take until 1916 to complete, was a boon for Petersburg’s labor force.
Original documents provided to The Jefferson Chronicle by the township’s historical society include the names of local men – listing their trades, crafts and professions – who worked on the mansion’s construction. Laborers were paid $1.25 per day; craftsmen, $2.50 for each nine hours worked.
As recalled in a 1989 report by local resident Wilbur Fredericks, many farmers brought cobble stones to the mansion work site in wagons drawn by horses and oxen. “They were paid by the number of stones they delivered,” he told a meeting of the Jefferson Township Historical Society. The mansion itself was reinforced by 2-ft-thick concrete, ensuring it was fireproof.
When completed, the Ringling country home lived up to Alf Ringling’s vision: it was a mansion. Upon entering the palatial estate, guests were struck, no doubt – as were we – by the huge walnut and ebony fireplace mantle that graced the front room. Guests included members of “high society,” were “well-heeled,” and included many from all genres of arts and entertainment.
In addition to the parlor, the first floor consisted of a dining room, bathroom, organ room with terrace, billiard room and solarium, kitchen, dish and service pantry, check room and conservatory.
The second floor was comprised of eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, separate women’s and men’s lounges, card rooms and sun decks. On the third floor, there were even more card rooms, a sun deck and a ballroom. It was reportedly in the ballroom where Ringling exhibited circus acts, such as trapeze artists.
Unfortunately, Alfred Ringling died suddenly in 1919, not living long enough to fully enjoy his country get-away. While the manor has gone through several iterations in over a century, it still occupies a prime location in the township, a native stone’s throw away from the Lake Swannanoa shoreline.
A Century of Change
At the close of the Roaring Twenties era, the manor was the site of a “swanky” night club complete with a speakeasy in the basement, Christine Williams, president of the Jefferson Township Historical Society tells The Chronicle.
An ambitious plan to turn the mansion and surrounding land into the elite Lake Swannanoa Golf Club and Country Club Estates – complete with restricted membership and an air strip – came to a resounding crash, literally, at the start of the Great Depression. For a time, the manor housed the American Institute of Science.
While the manor itself remained vacant, or changed hands, the acreage around it was sold off by the Ringling Estate in lots for development of houses around the lake. But after some 15 years of vacancy, the mansion would again capture a chapter in the township’s vibrant history.
Purchased by the Spes Foundation in 1955, The New York Times reported Ringling Manor would become “the nerve center of a Roman Catholic organization … to aid Roman Catholic churches and religionists in Poland and other Iron Curtain countries.”
After the war, the manor became a refuge for Polish Capuchins who survived Nazi concentration camps. The manor hummed with activity, serving as a publishing house for anti-Communist books and material, a center for monitoring activity behind the Iron Curtain, and compiling reports. The manor’s basement is still awash with the accoutrements of a radio-monitoring station and includes other remnants of Cold War era trappings.
In the late ‘60s Ringling Manor was purchased by the Province of Warsaw Capuchin Order and became the Saint Stanislaus Friary.
Who Will Write the New Chapter?
Today, the friary has had but a solitary resident, the Rev. Deacon Jerzy P. Krzyskow, or just George as he prefers to be called. He’s lived alone in the manor for 14 years.
During an afternoon visit to the friary, “brother” George – as some in the township refer to him – discussed over several cups of coffee, the manor’s storied past and gave The Chronicle a complete tour of the manor.
Lake Swannanoa resident Ben Jackson, who knows the manor inside out, was along for the tour and pointed out structural details, including a tunnel in the basement that once led directly to the lake.
As we toured, Deacon George lamented the changes made to the manor’s interior during refurbishing. It was redecorated in mid-20th Century style, losing some of its original charm.
Wood paneling now covers walls and partitions separate some areas. He also noted many stained-glass windows were removed and replaced with clear glass, while artifacts were removed as well.
Nevertheless, the mansion has “good bones” – to use a ubiquitous 21st Century term – and Deacon George, to whom the manor has been entrusted, has hopes for its purpose in the future. And it is largely up to him what that purpose will be.
A few years ago, the manor was put up for sale with an $800,000 price tag. There were no offers, however, likely because of the estimated cost to bring the structure up to code.
Over the years, there has been local interest in the building. Former resident and 1980 Jefferson Township High School graduate Scott McArthur set up a Facebook page to stir up curiosity about the manor. He says he once had financial backing to buy it, but the deal fell through.
At this point, the township’s historical society maintains the most interest. The group’s Williams believes the manor would make an ideal community center; an idea she tells The Chronicle she discussed with township mayor Eric Wilsusen.
The mayor says he likes the idea and would be supportive. He is adamant, however, Jefferson is in no financial position to buy and renovate the township’s historic manor, which was awarded National Historical Monument Status in 1977. Residents would likely agree.
Both Williams and the society’s secretary Mary Parr hope for a community effort behind a vision to secure the manor for a township purpose. Parr suggests that the manor’s many rooms can make ideal meeting spaces for the multitude of township organizations.
“The manor has an illustrious past,” says Williams, adding it now stands “like a ghost. Why does no one want this?” she asks rhetorically.
Recently, two young Capuchins from the Warsaw Province were to meet with Deacon George to tour the manor and convey its status back to the province.
The Deacon is hopeful someone with a realistic vision – along with the drive, energy and necessary funds, of course – will come along. “Someone with a vision could really do wonders with this place,” he says, glancing around. “I will listen to anyone with a real vision,” he adds.
In the meantime, the next chapter of the township’s storied Ringling Manor waits to be written.