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Medieval Ozarks: 13th century castle rises in Arkansas

Saturday, April 24, 2010 | 5:13 p.m. CDT; updated 8:32 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 26, 2010

LEAD HILL, Ark. — Lords and ladies, wherever you are, your castle awaits.

Just off a country road that lolls through a northern Arkansas valley, a medieval fortress is going up in the heart of the Ozarks.

It's an odd setting for a 13th century castle, and the concept has tinges of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but these builders aren't breaking character.

Here, it's the year 1226, period, and historical authenticity is a must.

Twenty-five laborers in tunics and straw hats split limestone, drag 200-pound cedar logs from the forest and fashion tools from iron using red-hot flame stoked by a makeshift bellows. They trowel mortar in between imperfect — and authentic — chunks of stone, hewn from a nearby quarry.

The project, billed as the only one of its kind in the U.S., is the brainchild of Frenchman Michel Guyot. He says he found the perfect spot for the castle on an estate owned by Jean-Marc and Solange Mirat, French citizens who retired in Arkansas 20 years ago.

But at this rate of construction, dear noble-born, you'll have to wait. The castle in the making, which opens for public viewing May 1, will take at least 20 more years to finish.

And that's the point.

"If we used modern equipment, we'd be done in six months," says frustrated laborer Jacob Adkins, working with two buddies on the moat and 15-foot-high guard tower. "Last summer, I was cutting logs for this, last fall I was splitting them."

These are the rules: No chain saws, no jackhammers, no bulldozers.

There are some exceptions, like the hardhats smuggled under straw hats, standard-issue safety glasses and the pack of Pall Malls stowed in the port-a-john.

Other than those, everything is going up 13th-century style: slow, deliberate, bordering on tedious.

"It's tough because your brain is functioning in today's society," says construction worker Juan Montiel. "You have to step all the way back and realize we're not going to do it in an hour; it's going to take a week,"

Today, the castle is a rugged skeleton of stone, with an American flag planted in the middle of what will be the courtyard.

The pressure is on to ready the grounds for opening day.

Organizers are hoping the location of the castle — a 35-mile drive from the tourist mecca of Branson — will help draw traffic.

Adults pay $12 and kids $8 for admission. They'll be able to tour the castle-in-progress and talk to the masons, blacksmiths, potters and laborers. The idea is for them to discover how these gigantic structures came up before the Caterpillar Age.

There's even a tour through a winding forest, designed to take visitors back in time to what life was like in the 1200s.

"We ordered the sheep this morning, and there's the medieval garden," exclaims the project's general manager, Julie Sonveau. "Four sheep, a donkey, a pig and chickens."

Sonveau is tightly wound and talks a mile a minute about the big plans for this attraction. She is one-part historian, one-part huckster: She wants to draw 150,000 people in the first year alone.

As she walks down the path visitors will travel she is already plotting to hire a medieval thief to jump out of the woods and scare the wits out of an unsuspecting tourist.

The workers here play their parts to perfection, stopping to answer questions and explaining how they signed up for this 20-year gig.

"It's not every day you get to build a castle," said mason Billy Williams. "This will last for 1,000 years, five generations from now. You can't do that with a house or a bank."

Blacksmith Rocky Horton, who is forging a brake for a pushcart, learned his craft from his grandfather, who made stoves and tools just like he is doing today. He sees his job as paying tribute to his past.

"There's no blacksmith anymore," Horton laments. "Everything's gone to modern tools."

Back at the moat, Juan Montiel and another laborer are cutting into a cedar log with a long tree saw.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Slow, rickety, wobbly.

Stop.

Time for some 21st century inspiration.

"We're trying to think of a song to sing," while we cut, he says. "We were thinking Lady Gaga."

 


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