Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Castle keep. (Hey, it’s a job.)

I’ve been in a few castles in my day, and, for the most part, found them damp and drafty. I don’t imagine they would have been much fun to live in. Sure, it probably beat living in the alternative – a mud and wattle hut - and the improvements were more than marginal.

If nothing else, if you were in a castle there was less chance that a horde of invaders would stomp on your head in the middle of the night. No, you would have seen them coming, and had plenty of time to watch them rev up the old catapult and battering ram. On second thought, it might have been easier to just have them stomp on your head in the middle of the night and put you out of your misery. 

In any case, I have no doubt that I would have been living in the mud and wattle hut, and not in the crenellated, moted castle – other than as a servant girl.

Still, who doesn’t like the idea of a castle?

Not Michel Guyot, that’s for sure.

And M. Guyot is not just your every day idea man, dreaming of castles in the sky. (Source: Wall Street Journal.)


He started building a repro castle in the Guédelon forest in France a while back, and to finance construction, he opened it up as a tourist site.

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.


The first question is just how Jean-Marc Miret found his way to an estate in Boone County, Arkansas.

I suspect the trek to Arkansas isn’t the norm for most French ex-pats. (Hmmmmm. I could live in France, home of the baguette, champagne, and the Musée D’Orsay. Or I could move to Boone County, Arkansas, where I’m an hour’s drive from Branson, Missouri. So much for the myth of the culturally imperious French, non?) Maybe M. Miret came for the quiet and the fishing. Boone County is in the Ozarks, which is a very pretty area. Just not all that, well, cosmopolitan. (Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with not being all that cosmo…)


Anyway, a medieval castle’s now going up in Lead Hill, Boone County, Arkansas, and M. Cuyot is hoping to follow the same path as he took for his castle in France by having tourists fund the development. These tourists would come not just to check out another construction site. But to see something authentic in action. As you approach the site:

You can hear the plink of chisels, the creak of wooden carts, and the grunts of local laborers who are building the massive fortress by hand, using only tools available in the 13th century.

While M. Guyot and his wife weren’t all that familiar with Arkansas when M. Miret floated his idea to them:

"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.

Very authentic, very pure.

Well worth the $1.5M that M. Guyot raised to buy the property (presumably from M. Miret) on which to build his second castle.

And, while I’m sure that the area is pristine (i.e., underdeveloped), I’m also sure it’s not exactly crawling with authentic, 13-century artisans. Is it just me, or is it more likely that the average hammer-swinger in Arkansas drives a Ford F-150 to Home Depot for a new chain saw, wears jeans and work boots, and watches NASCAR on a flat screen on weekends?

Still, a job’s a job – especially in this economy.

Not only do the folks doing the construction have to rely on 13th- century tools, they have to work in 13th-century garb (other than workplace safety requirements for steel-toed boots and safety goggles. Oh, those regulating-happy feds: they ruin everything.)

I was going to speculate how these costumes go over in the local tavern, only to find out that Boone County’s dry.

However they have to costumer themselves, I’m sure that these folks are happy to have the work, which pays $12 – 20 an hour. (By the way, there’s an opening for a basket weaver. Recent college grads with BA’s in art history, take heed.)

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.

The workers aren’t allowed to listen to music on the site, either, although I suppose it would be okay to hum a madrigal or bust out in some Gregorian chant. They also have to hide their Castlemodern food and bev – for Mr. Fire Cloud, that means Dr. Pepper – in burlap sacks. No BPJ or Yodels back in days of yore.

But those who can make it are happy for the stead work. Work on the castle is expected to take 20 years.

To cover its costs, the castle needs to bring in 150,000 paying visitors each year. The draw, so far, is a lot less. But they only need a small percent of Branson visitors to head down to Lead Hill, in between shows yucking it up with the Baldknobbers. (Come to think of it, those Baldknobbers look a tad bit medieval, no? Click through on the link for a clearer, and far scarier look. And while they may look medieval, they sure have enough techno-savvy to keep me from cutting and pasting the image I wanted off of their site. Maybe if I’d made a purchase in their online gift store…)

While the castle is attracting some Branson tourists, it’s running into a bit of resistance, as some of the visitors have found that getting around the castle site on shank’s mare is too onerous.

…several tourists have suggested a golf cart be deployed to haul the tired and the sweaty to their cars.

Well, maybe not a golf cart. But perhaps a sedan chair. Of some type of stone-wheeled dray. Carrying the sedan chair, hauling the dray: more jobs for the locals. (I wonder whether they tipped in the 13th century?)

Hey, it beats the faux “castle” experience at Disneyland.

And you can bet that, eight centuries from now, no one will be replicating (most) 21st century construction in authentic garb. (“Here’s how we staple-gunned the sheetrock…”)

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