Blanding’s Castle House undergoing a significant transformation
by Janet Wilcox
There are likely many locals who have viewed, with gaping mouths, the slow, but carefully orchestrated demolition of the Castle House in Blanding.
Anchoring the corner of Center Street and 100 West, the home has been an iconic landmark in San Juan County for more than 100 years. To some it may seem like the death a lifelong friend, or the passing of an era, but to Johnny Slavens, the dreamer behind the project, its future is as grand as the past.
“When my parents and I started discussing the project a few years ago it seemed impossible, but we started trying to figure out a plan,” said Johnny. “I still feel nervousness and anxiety as we continue to navigate through the project, one day at a time.”
The future of the Castle House will still give reverence to those who came before, yet provide a stable, modern facility that will revitalize the home. What appears now as an empty tomb will be renewed and improved by 2020.
Steve Francom is the local contractor of this ambitious undertaking. Slavens said, “Steve was built for this. There is no one better prepared or capable. The house was falling in. It was dying. The west and back walls were collapsing, making the entire roof unstable. The plumbing and electrical were shot. To save the house, something needed to be done. I am confident the house will rise like the phoenix from the ashes and be absolutely incredible when it is done and built to last a long time.”
The value of any home or location is increased when one understands its history and connection to other events, significant people. This is especially true of the Castle House.
Chronology and History of Castle Home Owners
The landmark home was built in the early 1900s by Jens Peter Nielson and his wife Martha Jane “Jennie” Roberts. Jens is the son of Bishop Jens Nielson and Kirsten Jensen Nielson, both Danish converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Jens Peter was born in Parowan, UT and was nearly 18 when the family came through the Hole in the Rock with the original pioneers. He drove one of his father’s three wagons down the precipice.
Like other pioneer arrivals, the family was destitute and ill-prepared for the hardships San Juan County handed out. Once arriving in Bluff, Jens Peter soon left with a team and wagon for the new town of Durango, CO, to seek employment. With his summer wages he purchased food and clothing for the family and returned to Bluff.
It was during this time as a teamster that he first met his future wife. His daughter later wrote, “My mother, ‘Jennie’ Roberts, first saw my father, Jens Peter Nielson, when she was a young girl. He had driven from Bluff to Mancos to get a load of flour. Her father was the miller at that time.
“Jens was 6’6” and very strong. He attempted to show off for the young, giggling girls. Each time he carried a load to the wagon, he increased the load of flour by one sack. He started out with two, then three, then four, and then five at which time he dropped one in the ditch. Nevertheless, the girls were very impressed, one being mother.”
Jens did not know what the word “fear” meant. His imposing stature demanded respect, but much more than that, the demeanor of his inner calm strength, his fearlessness, and his love and empathy for a man and woman struggling to support a family all combined to earn the respect of others.
Jens Peter traveled through the desolate Utah and Colorado country where he met the roughest of characters. Most of the men carried one or two pistols, but Jens never carried or owned a gun. Still, he had no fear of these men. He ate with them, slept in their bunks, and did business with them.
After serving a two-year mission to the Southern States, he returned and became a stockman. Jens wintered his sheep herd on Red Mesa and it was there he – once again – met Jennie Roberts. She had attended Brigham Young Academy and was now teaching school at Red Mesa.
Jens loved to dance and he and Jennie would attend the dances. A courtship ensued. They were married June 15, 1903 in Farmington, NM. It was Jennie’s 25th birthday and Jens was 41. They were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple in June, 1904.
Jens and Jennie soon set out to build a new home in the tiny community, initially called Grayson. Albert R. Lyman noted that it was July, 1906 when Jens Peter Nielson and five other families moved to the townsite, bring the count to about 12 families.
His son Jay later wrote, “It became obvious to my father that Bluff was too small to accommodate his large frame, his large ambition, his large energy, his large vision, his large drive, and hopefully a large family.” Consequently, Jens, Jennie, and two-year-old Helene filled their wagons and traveled to Grayson, later known as Blanding.
Like most new arrivals, they lived in a tent while he and hired Mexican workers built a cellar on the property. The original acreage today would cover two city blocks (Other early homes built by Nielson relatives on this original acreage include those now owned by Ben and Christian Haws, John and Michelle Lyman, and Ned and Linda Smith).
In 1908, Jens Peter’s family moved into a stone granary, and Jens hired Nicholas Lovis, of Salt Lake City, to design and build a dream home. Mr. Lovis lived in Blanding on the east side of town.
Karl Lyman wrote, “On September 10, 1912, Albert R. Lyman ‘finished the deal for the Nicklovis place,’ giving him a note for $770.” The Swallow’s Nest is located on the “Nicklovis” Ranch, named by Lyman for its former owner, Nicholas Lovis.
Between Nielson’s strong will, his wife’s wishes, and Lovis’’s modern ideas, there were often clashes. However, Lovis contended that turrets and round rooms with stained glass windows were in vogue and central to the Gothic Revival style he hoped to build.
The Castle house, however, is markedly simplified from traditional Gothic style of the day. The original house had 12-foot ceilings, which daughter May Biggs lowered to eight feet because the house was “difficult to heat.”
May claimed, “The house never actually had plans. They just added on as they went along.”
The original home had 24 windows and 22 doors, seven of them outside! Each room had hardwood floors covered with an assortment of Navajo rugs and European style ornamental rugs.
There was a large kitchen with a wood cook stove, a shelved pantry, and an adjacent cistern room with a well pump. This room also served as additional space for cooking, canning, laundry, and food storage, as well as the water supply. Wall drawers held wood for stoves.
The home became a free hotel for travelers in the remote desert country, most of them invited by Nielson in his many business travels. Miniature Chinese bells hung from the square tower light well. The light in the tower often served as a beacon to lost travelers trying to make their way back. This filtered light from the skylight down into the original square dining room adjacent to the round parlor. The windows in the light tower were opened and closed by rock-weighted hanging ropes. The parlor was furnished with a piano, a pedestal statue, and a wind-up Victrola.
Financial position and personality of a home’s owner often affects a home’s appearance and Jens Nielson’s generous and adventurous personality showed in their Castle. Nielson lost no time planting crops, gardens, and fruit trees. He obtained milk cows, sheep, cattle, pigs, and chickens.
Through Jens’s ingenuity, his holdings began to rapidly expand. He went into partnership with his brothers and the “Nielson Brothers” became widely known for their enterprises. They developed large fields of alfalfa, herds of sheep and cattle, a mercantile store, a confectionary, and an opera house in Durango, CO.
Jens would never let a child leave the confectionery without free candy.
May wrote, “We had one of the first cars in Blanding. It was a Chalmers with curtains. When my father wanted to stop the car, he would pull back on the steering wheel and holler ‘whoa!’.”
Some thought Jens was out of his mind to think he could raise wheat. Jens listened to the arguments, smiled and hired hard-working Navajos to grub the brush. He used large freight horses to plow and plant wheat. It was a bumper crop the first year.
The Nielsons owned a “5-mile” farm, a “10-mile” farm, and Jens’s favorite, a farm halfway between Monticello and Blanding called “Bulldog”.
Jens and his brothers made numerous contributions in the establishment of the city of Blanding. The Nielson brothers deeded ten acres of land for a new high school.
Later in life, Jens broke his hip in a wagon accident. It became infected leaving him crippled for the rest of his life. The dining room in the Castle then became his sitting room and office. He ran his businesses from there. It was difficult for him to move because he had no wheelchair. Therefore, he spent a great deal of time in this beautiful room with its large ornate windows.”
Jens had a large green push chair that expanded into a bed. He was on crutches until he died of diabetes in 1935. Jennie made her home in Ogden. She died on October 12, 1972 in Roy, UT and is buried in the Blanding City Cemetery.
Jennie and Jens Peter Nielson had seven children: Mary Kirsten, Helene Mildred, Virginia, Lucinda May, Caroline, Jay P, and Margaret.
May said her mother “had an unselfish love for children, held her head high and back straight. Her favorite song was ‘Count your many blessings.’ Mother often whistled while cooking, could chord on piano and play songs. She loved watching sunsets.”
May remembered them peeling lots of peaches together, learning old fashioned songs, and stringing popcorn for Christmas.
Jennie’s parting words: “Thank God for giving me a sense of realization that contacts my spirit with His, so that I may have an understanding of an existence of a glory and order in heaven, peace, and an organized progress that is worth living for, suffering for, doing right for, sacrificing for, and hoping for.”
Renovations and changes are nothing new to the Castle house. Most later changes in the Jens Nielson home were initiated by their daughter, May, and her husband. May met Ernest Biggs when he came to teach at San Juan High in 1937. They married and moved into the Castle house. They sealed off many of the original doorways to create storage. They added coal steam heating and put in full carpeting in addition to lowering the ceilings.
Rooms were converted into bedrooms, a den, and utility areas. Pantry areas were turned into bathrooms and one bathroom was converted into a photographer’s dark room. Some downstairs rooms were converted into apartments and rented out.
It was during this time that Ernest made friends with a young Japanese man who was also a photographer. He took many portraits of local people using the Bigg’s dark room.
LaRay Alexander was the next owner of the Castle. He also taught at San Juan High and was a close friend of Ernest Biggs. He made even more changes, converting the remaining rooms into apartments.
He managed the property until 1972, when his daughter Karen and her husband Jim Slavens purchased the castle house.
Jim was a building contractor. They worked to change the home back to its original floor plan. They removed two kitchens and a bathroom, tore out secondary walls, and added closets, Each room had a potbelly stove, and they added a fireplace in the downstairs center room. They enclosed the back porch, added a balcony, and replaced the furnace with natural gas.
For years the Slavens family worked to keep the house stable and safe.
However, “when plaster began to fall on our heads, we knew it was time to move and follow Johnny’s dream,” said Karen.
So instead of continuing to repair the old walls, plumbing, and ceilings, they have chosen to honor its location, history, and spirit by recreating a home that will continue to bless future generations.