200 Years of History
By R. Richard Willis
In Petersburg, long ago, Mr. Alfred T. Ringling sought
out a place to build his home. This area known as “Petersburg” was
once a place of a gristmill, distillery, store, saw mill,
wood shop / wood turning works, brick manufacturing, blacksmith
shop and forges. Over the years this area would prosper and
loose money as the economy varied. By 1900’s, Mr. Alfred
T. Ringling was looking for somewhere to build his country
Alfred bought Petersburg Pond and the surrounding land.
Eventually he had purchased some 1000 acres in and around
Petersburg. Mr. Joe Headley was the head construction boss;
local men and boys worked, building his house and out buildings.
Between 1913 - 1916 the construction of the estate continued.
Where the forges stood, a new dam was built to hold back
the water of the Rockaway River and another dam was built
to create a larger lake to be stocked with game fish and
provide water for the circus animals. All the buildings were
made of poured concrete with fieldstone facing. Mr. Ringling
paid the local farmers 25 cents a wagon load for these rocks.
The concrete was mixed by hand. It was a very heavy job of
mixing, then it was hauled in wooden wheelbarrows up inclined
plane to the ever rising height of the walls, the cement
would be poured into the forms.
The mansion had some 28 rooms, a massive pipe organ, large
Tiffany window, depicting a Native American in his canoe
and massive imported fireplaces with much hand carving. In
the dining room, there were carved relief on the upper walls,
depicting mythology figures. From the hill where the mansion
stood, the view of his boathouse, garage, blacksmith shop,
water tower, barn for circus large cats and elephant barn
could be seen. This would be his “winter” quarters.
During the summer of 1917, Mr. Ringling sent Joe Headley
out with the circus, their engagement was in Dover, but Longwood
Road, now Berkshire Valley Road, was impassable with mud,
wagons broke down and the caravan returned to Ringling’s.
Mr. Headley loaded the circus into trucks and became the
first motorized circus.
After Mr. Ringling died in 1919, his estate passed to his
wife, his son, Richard inherited the circus. Mrs. Ringling
lived for a few years at the estate. Then she sold the estate
and developers bought the land. The land around the lake,
now knows as Lake Swanannoa, were sold for building lots
and Mr. McAlester had a night club in the manor house. On
the third floor, there was a theater complete with stage.
Cartoon characters were drawn and painted on many of the
walls there were takes of speakeasy at the nightclub during
prohibition. In the 1950’s, the Catholic Church purchased
the building and was converted into a monastery.