For decades the mystery of the castle on Mesa Drive has captivated a select number of Oceanside residents. There are several social media threads in which people inquire “do you remember the castle house?” There are no pictures and little information. Only the memories of children and teenagers who remembered that the castle was haunted or spooky. Rumors or perhaps truth, that an old man lived there, who would threaten them with a salt rock rifle. The house looked odd and eerie. It was made entirely of beach rock they said.
Yolanda Mitchell remembers as a little girl growing up in the 1960s that the house was two stories, made of stone. It both captivated and frightened young children. “None of us had the nerve to go in there. In fact, we thought if you went in there you might not come out. So, we never did,” Yolanda said. But the memory of the castle is so vivid, even to this day, every time she drives down Mesa Drive, she still looks for the “castle.”
But just who built this castle-shaped house? Who lived there and what became of it?
Noah Freeman purchased a portion of Tract 8 in the Ellery Addition in about 1929. The subdivision was established by Henry E. Ellery in 1925, which runs along Mesa Drive from Rose Place to the then city limits (which ended just about where Pajama Drive intersects Mesa).
Little is known about Noah Freeman, but he was born June 19,1880 in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1920 he was living in Michigan working as a machinist. It appears he was never married. At some point, year unknown, he made his way to California and purchased a vacant lot in Oceanside.
Freeman lived a solitary life on his property off Mesa Drive, which provided expansive views of the San Luis Rey Valley. He made his living as a farmer and doing odd jobs. But as inconspicuous as the life of Noah Freeman was, the small home which he built upon his triangular shaped plot of land would make the newspaper for curious reasons. And little did anyone know — would become the stuff local legends are made of.
On July 15, 1934, the San Diego Union published an extensive piece about Oceanside, detailing its establishment and then its amenities as a city. Included in this feature were images of different architectural styles, namely the Mission San Luis Rey, the Healing Temple of the Rosicrucian Fellowship, the Oceanside-Carlsbad Union High School, Oceanside Pier, AND, the home of Noah Freeman, “self-made architect.”
It included the only image of the house that at present can be found. Are there others out there? It is very likely, but they have yet to be shared.
The article read as follows: “On Mesa Drive, [at] the rim of the hills east of Oceanside, is a residence that’s unique. It has been built, piece by piece and over a five-year period, by Noah Freeman, its owner, and behind its size and form there’s a story.
“Freeman first built a cracker box stucco room as a base for tending his avocado trees. Then he picked up a wheel barrel load of field stone and stoned one wall of the stucco house. ‘I had some stones left over, so I started a stone garage,’ says Freeman.
“Every time I finish something I had stones leftover, and I started something else. Then I had to get more stones to finish it, and I got enough to start something else again. I followed no plan or idea, unless it was subconsciously, and if the various units harmonize, it is because of intuition, not design.”
The article goes on to describe what would be known in later years as the “castle”: “The spectacular feature of Freeman’s rambling rock establishment is a tower room above the garage, barely large enough to contain a single bed. It is reached by a ladder, set vertically in the rounded interior of the tower’s base, so that the climbing visitor fits into available space, almost as smoothly as a cylinder in a pneumatic tube.
“In a single room of this distinctive structure, Freeman lives and ignores economic conditions almost entirely. ‘I keep a goat,’ he explains pointing to a newly finished goat yard built of old bricks burned in Oceanside in the 1880s, ‘and the goat keeps me. Her milk, with a little fruit and some vegetables, is all I require. I do odd jobs for money when taxes come due, and my avocados will bear pretty soon.’
The article finishes by saying that “Freeman is one of the many who have adapted to their own tastes like the slogan ‘Oceanside, where life is worth living.’”
Freeman was mentioned again in the San Diego Union on November 7, 1934, when it noted that “Noah Freeman, Oceanside, self-made architect, who designed and built his “most uniquest” home east of town climbed El Morro, nine years ago.” It went on to describe the large hill and the steep pitch reported by Freeman, but just why this was newsworthy, is unknown, but it suggests that Freeman had come to San Diego County as early as 1925.
Noah continued to occupy his property until 1938 when the Oceanside Blade Tribune announced on April 16 that “a ranch in the Ellery tract that was owned by Noah Freeman has been sold to Mr. and Mrs. George Babb of Kansas City.” The Babb’s did not occupy the property but may have leased it.
By 1940 Noah Freeman was living at the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles and working as a janitor there. The census record of that year has a notation that reads: “Wages in this institution are paid in board and room, plus small cash allowance.”
Two years later he was working and living at the Page Military Academy in Los Angeles. In 1950 he was living in a small house he owned on Quail Drive. Sadly by 1967 Freeman had been declared “incompetent” and his property sold. He died on May 29, 1968, and his passing was noted only by a small death notice published in the Los Angeles Times. No survivors or family members were mentioned.
While that marked the end of Noah Freeman’s life, the little castle on Mesa Drive lived on. In 1940 the stone house and the property it stood upon was sold to Karl Stebinger. If Noah Freeman was somewhat of an enigma, the same can be said about Stebinger.
Stebinger was born December 26, 1873, in Freiburg, Germany. He came to the United States in 1893 and became a naturalized citizen. In 1900 he was living in Riverside, California and making a living as a farmer. By 1917 he was in Kern County, California engaged in stock raising. Moving to his property in Oceanside he was listed as a “nurseryman” in public records.
Like Freeman, Stebinger never married and lived in solitude. He occupied his little “castle” but over the years apparently grew tired, then angry at curious passersby. Stories of Stebinger chasing off, or at least scaring, trespassers with a rifle were shared amongst neighbors.
One Facebook member posted her memories: “I grew up on South Barnwell Street from 1960-1972. There was an old man who lived in that castle in the early years who supposedly built it. I used to sell stationery and stuff for Camp Fire Girls and would be the only one who would go near it because the kids were afraid of it. The man was old, and not very friendly, maybe a little crazy. When I knocked on the door he just shouted, “NO SOLICITORS!”. My parents told me never to go to that house again. It was shaped like a castle, made entirely of beach rock and shells and mortar, and it stood out because it did not match any other houses in the whole neighborhood. Even back then it had very little if any landscaping, so it looked abandoned, but someone definitely lived there, did not have a car, and had a magnificent view of the valley from the rear.”
Karl Stebinger sold his property in 1964 to residents Dave and Barbara Jones, but he may have continued to live there until his death on November 10, 1968 (the same year as Noah Freeman died).
Now unoccupied, the “castle” could be explored by those brave enough to venture onto the property. One neighborhood resident remembered going to the castle with her friends in the early 1970s. She described it as “dirty” with “empty wine bottles around” likely left from other visitors.
Stories abounded and the legend of the castle grew. Tales spread like wildfire and rumors became truth solidified in ghost stories told at slumber parties. Many believed a witch lived there and surely it was haunted.
Frank Quan posted his memories which echoed the fear of many at just the sight of the castle: “I rode past there every morning delivering the Union. I’d pedal as fast as I could and try not look over there.”
Sean Griffin remembers that the castle looked right down at his house on Turnbull Street and can still picture its turret-like roof and the fear the castle evoked. “As a kid, I always thought it was huge, but I know it really wasn’t that big. Growing up on Turnbull Street in the 1960s, the rumors of how it was haunted scared most of the kids in the neighborhood. At night, I would always run home from my friend’s house because I was scared of the castle. The older kids would dare us to go up and touch the wall and we would run down the hill scared to death.”
By 1999 the land once owned by Noah Freeman was cleared, and the castle he built torn down. By 2000 four new homes were under construction and the property it sat on became part of suburbia. But the legend of the “castle” lives on in the memories (and perhaps nightmares) of a select number of locals who long for just one more glimpse of that rock house, to either satisfy their curiosity or make their heart pound with fear again.
Thank you to Sean Griffin, Janice Ulmer, Randy Carpenter and Yolanda Mitchell for sharing their memories.