A 13th-Century Castle Rises in Arkansas

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

An eccentric Frenchman, Michel Guyot, has decided to build a 13th-century castle in Arkansas:

For years, he renovated medieval ruins. In 1997, he set a grander course: He would build his own crenellated château in the Guédelon forest in Burgundy. To finance the project, he opened the site to tourists. It has been self-sustaining ever since.

The Guédelon castle, which is about halfway built, has drawn visitors from around the world, including Jean-Marc Miret, a French expatriate living in the Ozarks. He was so taken with the concept, he urged Mr. Guyot to build an American version on his estate in Boone County, Ark.

“We went on the Internet to check, where was this Arkansas?” says Noémi Brunet, Mr. Guyot’s wife and business partner. Her conclusion? “It was the middle of nowhere.”

It was also irresistible. Mr. Guyot and Ms. Brunet visited and fell in love with the remote county, best known for its annual crawdad festival. “It’s green and lovely, very authentic, very pure,” Ms. Brunet says.

Returning to France, Mr. Guyot raised $1.5 million from 14 investors—all friends of his—to buy a 50-acre parcel and begin construction.

He cheated at first, just a bit: Mechanized equipment was brought in to build a visitors’ center and a wheelchair-accessible walkway.

But when it comes to the castle itself, Mr. Guyot makes no concessions to modernity–except for those mandated by federal workplace requirements. Workers, though dressed in medieval garb, must wear steel-toed boots and safety goggles.

The stones are quarried at the site; the timber is cut from local trees; every nail and tile is made on premises. Knotted ropes are manipulated to measure angles. Two-ton boulders are hoisted by a foot-cranked crane that resembles a giant wooden hamster wheel.

The site manager has had trouble hiring a basket weaver, but there’s a blacksmith on site, a rope maker, a potter, even a flock of sheep to provide wool for castle tapestries.

Muscles straining as he hoists and splits 50-pound stones to set into the castle’s outer wall, mason Brad Fire Cloud says he dreams of power tools with shock-absorbent grips. “That crosses my mind all day long,” he says.

Six men quit during their first week on the job, including one before noon the first day. There’s no music on site. No cellphones allowed. No McDonald’s runs for lunch breaks. The floppy medieval hats look so goofy that mason Anthony McCutcheon says his wife “just about runs me off when I come home wearing it.”

Still, the two dozen laborers who stuck it out, for wages ranging from about $12 to $20 an hour, have discovered unexpected joys. The work is peaceful and challenging and, best of all, steady.

“Most jobs in masonry last three or four months. Out here, we got 20 years,” says Mr. Fire Cloud, who hides his Dr Pepper in a burlap bag to keep the ambience authentic. “That’s job security.”

To cover construction costs of about $1 million a year, the Ozark Medieval Fortress must draw 150,000 visitors annually — but so far tourism has been just over 1,000 visitors in a month:

But the tourist season doesn’t start in earnest until this weekend, and officials expect it will pick up. They’re marketing heavily in Branson, Mo., a country-music mecca less than an hour’s drive from the castle that attracts 7.5 million tourists a year.

I don’t see the obvious cross-over appeal between Branson and an authentic castle.

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