Posted by: Bill Tracy | August 30, 2010

August Sun

The light now wanes say astronomers,

Less each day we spin toward solstice.

Dog days now done, dust to dust,

Such as this we call late August.

Alarm clocks stop working the last two weeks of August. I’m sure of it. For me, that’s how it feels. While certain times of the year, holidays for instance, have a certain feel, none feel stranger to me than the last two weeks of August.

Maybe here in the northern hemisphere we’ve all had too much sun. So many people are on vacation in late August that workplaces, retail stores, doctor’s offices and such have a lax, semi-comatose feel to them. That’s the way it seems to me.

Hatteras Beach

Many people are more likely to be doing this than working in August.

One morning last week I made three astonishing stops on the day’s errand path. Statistically, the level of coincidence was staggering. First, I went into a Starbucks and was the only customer in the whole store. I don’t mean there was no line; I mean I was the only person in the building who was not an employee – all that WIFI bandwidth going to waste! Next I went to the post office. Again, there was not another customer in the entire place; I stepped right up to the waiting clerk and took care of business in less than a minute. Finally, and most amazing of all, I went to DMV. My wait was less than 90 seconds. My official business was finished in less than two minutes. Out the door in under five minutes! (I’m thinking of checking with the Guinness World Records about this one.) The book and other diversions I had brought along went unread and unused.

Congress relieves us of their meddling when the “members” go back to wherever they came from in August. The president traditionally goes on vacation, and the media chase the first family around like an excited father taking pictures of his son’s first bicycle ride. Retail operations are focused on “back-to-school” sales and laying in stock for the upcoming holiday “high season.”  Everywhere you look vacationers and tourists look somewhat like people from a different planet, confused, sunburned and out of place. Maybe the confusion comes from spending so much time in direct contact with your family – who ARE these people? Late August also seems to be a time for unusual, sometimes disturbing things.

Hatteras Boat

Usual routines throughout the year don't often include families sailing together day after day as they might do on vacation.

Late on the Sunday night of August 17, 1969 I set out from south Jersey on a New Hampshire vacation. Tuning in to WABC radio in the New York area around midnight I heard shocking reports of miles-long traffic jams coming out of someplace called “Woodstock,” New York. Seems there had been a music festival there and unexpected hordes of people had attended – history in the making. Five years ago a hurricane we call “Katrina” destroyed what was then the finest hospitality city in the country, maybe the world. And the person the leading scholars of presidential history now unanimously agree is the worst president of the modern era floated serenely overhead in his palatial presidential air chariot and declared that “Brownie” was doing “…a heckuva job” rescuing his devastated countrymen. Reality, we now know, was rather different.

It was late August 47 years ago when the noble and revered Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. For those of us who believe the ideals of this country are pretty special, it was no less than a brilliant starburst of enduring glory – an event of grand historical proportions, and simply impossible to besmirch. Try as they may, bloviating boy blunder Beck and his partner stupor woman Palin cannot sully that event by rallying this country’s emotional phlegm in the same hallowed place. Again, disturbing things sometime take place on late August weekends.

Preston Tour

Herding tourists on tour at Preston Castle, August 2010.

Here in the Sierra foothills we have a lot of tourists, especially this time of year. I spent time with a few of them last weekend. We toured the visually arresting “Preston Castle” in Ione, CA. Surely it’s the most out-of-place appearing building in the entire California central valley and foothills area. The little town of Ione, at 300-feet above sea level has a lot more in common with the Sacramento delta area than it does the gold-laden foothills to the east. During the California Gold Rush it was more of a base camp to buy supplies and get properly outfitted for prospecting than anything. The official city history says:

“During the days of the Gold Rush, the miners knew the town by the names of ‘Bedbug’ and ‘Freezeout.’ Unlike other communities in Amador County, which were founded on gold mining, Ione was a supply center, stage and rail stop and agricultural hub.”

Preston Castle

The Preston Castle in Ione, CA. Originally it was the main building of the Preston School of Industry, opened in 1894. Today, the Preston Castle Foundation is diligently working to restore the structure. Tours of the safe parts of the building are available.

Somehow a castle seems out of place in Ione; blame politicians. In 1894, the state of California created the “Preston School of Industry” as a place to incarcerate and reform youth offenders and other youth the state was responsible for. Political wheeling and dealing got the reform school placed in Ione. While mostly for teens, I’m told there were wards as young as eight-years-old in the early years. As far as I can tell, the institution was modeled on the penology science of the time. Zebulon Brockway’s model of rehabilitation through education, training in useful trades and hard physical work was in vogue and seems to have been the original philosophy at Preston.

The building known as the “Castle” was used through 1960; at that time it was abandoned and wards were moved to a new and more secure and modern facility nearby. Over the next 40 years the Castle was unused and suffered dramatic deterioration. In 2001, the Preston Castle Foundation began a restoration effort. It is now an architecturally historic site also rich in penological history.

Preston Castle Tour Guide

Preston Castle tour guide speaking inside one of the unrestored rooms inside the building.

While only four stories tall, there is a tower that must soar to 100 feet or more. The “Romanesque Revival” architecture seems to have been the dominant trend for educational institutions at the time Preston was built. And since emphasis was on education rather than incarceration, the architectural style seems appropriate. For fundraising and educational ends, the Foundation now provides tours on select Saturdays. See the Preston Castle Foundation Web site for more information.

In a few days the world will shift gears. The suns of August will fade into autumn. September begins this Wednesday, and next weekend is the Labor Day holiday weekend – the traditional end of summer. Students go back to school. Bosses get back to their desks and crack whips. The news media starts focusing again on Congress and the president and wars and economic distress and other such serious stuff. The minor league baseball season is over and major league pennant races are now hotly contested. The National League East may well come down to the final game of the season this year.

Room with a view

A room with a view inside the Preston Castle. The guard tower is active for the existing youth detention facility next door.

September means “normal” comes creeping back. Interrupted routines get put back in place with a grim determination. Then it’s all business until late November when one lucky turkey gets a pardon, holly wreaths show up and retailers pray their “Black Friday” is an unprecedented consumer orgy for them to wallow in. (With unemployment strangling us, folks will most likely be staying home for more conventional orgies this year.) I’m betting the birth rates go up next year.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Following are some other Preston Castle tour pictures. To see them all, transport yourself to Tracy’s Shooting Gallery.

Life imitates art.

In what was a shower room for incoming wards, today life imitates Art.

Family tourists

Families, perhaps on vacation, touring at Preston Castle.

Preston window

How did I get into this?? Outside looking into the "room with a view."

Save the Castle

Save the Castle. Contact the Preston Castle Foundation if you'd like to help.


  1. What a well written post. I would agree that late August 2010 has ushered in a number of unusual happenings.

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