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A Fortress in the Forest

A medieval castle is taking form in the Arkansas Ozarks.
by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

In Austria, the hills are alive with the sound of music. The same could be said for the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks, where bluegrass, gospel, and country echo through the hills. But near Lead Hill in the Arkansas Ozarks, the sound isn’t music but a tap-tap-tapping by stonemasons cutting rock to build a medieval fortress.

fortress

A rendering of the finished castle as it will look in 2030. Ozark Medieval Fortress photo

As incongruous as it may seem to some, a full-size, fortified, 13th-century-style keep is being built, stone by stone and log by log, in the heart of the Ozarks. Begun in 2009, with a projected completion date of 2030, the fortress has become a tourist attraction, as well as an educational field trip for area schools and groups. It also has provided a source of employment and skills training for people in the area, enabling local artisans to work close to home instead of driving miles to the nearest metro areas. When finished, the fortress will have towers, a drawbridge and six-foot-thick walls made of stone quarried on the site.

Meanwhile, there is plenty for visitors to see. There’s a small keep built out of cedar that explains the fortress concept. Stonemasons and cutters, carpenters, rope makers, potters, and blacksmiths go about their daily tasks in authentic, old-fashioned ways. Gardeners point out the edible and medicinal herbs, plants used for dyes, and grains used for making bread, which is baked in a wood-fired oven. Wool from the small herd of sheep is transformed into fabric by fiber artists.

For a behind-the-scenes look at the fortress, one might think of interviewing one of the artisans, but the fact is they are not behind the scenes. Visitors get to talk to the artisans and craftsmen and learn about the authentic skills and techniques being used.

The behind-the-scenes story comes in the form of investors from around the world who saw the merit in this novel idea and backed its launch. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony in April 2010, the Ozark hills were alive with the French language, being spoken by Michel Guyot, the man behind the fortress, and by other Europeans involved in the project.

Guyot is 14 years into a 25-year construction plan for a similar castle project called Guedelon in the Burgundy region of France. Guyot also owns and restored the Castle of Saint Fargeau in France. Solange and Jean-Marc Mirat, a French couple who have lived in the United States since 1990, invited Guyot to come to Arkansas to consider a castle project in the Ozarks. A week after his visit, he had enough investors to launch the Ozark Medieval Fortress project.

Among those investors are Bernard and Caroline de Watteville of Geneva, Switzerland. We enjoyed using our rusty French to visit with them, although their English far exceeds our French. As founding partners, they have visited the project site many times, usually staying nearby at Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Mo. They think the Ozarks are beautiful, and they’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to get to know this part of the United States.

The Wattevilles have an estate in Burgundy and are familiar with Guyot’s Guedelon project there. They also are avid collectors and passionate about museums. They particularly like primitive art and enjoy collecting Inuit polar bear art from northern Canada and Himalayan masks from Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Tibet. Of course, traveling to these destinations, including the North Pole, is one of the joys of collecting, he notes with a smile. Some of their primitive art collections are now housed in the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Through their Bernard et Caroline de Watteville Foundation, they founded the Musee et Chiens du St. Bernard (St. Bernard Dog Museum, www.museesaintbernard.ch) in Martigny, Switzerland, in 2006. The museum includes a kennel and exercise yard for the dogs, plus displays on the history and tradition of the Great St. Bernard Hospice and Pass and the legendary St. Bernard dogs. There’s also a restaurant and gift shop.

This background of art collecting and of museum involvement are what made Bernard de Watteville “passionate about what Michel [Guyot] does. You have to be passionate.”

Just wander down to the Ozark Medieval Fortress in northern Arkansas and you’ll find passion aplenty, with a hint of a French accent.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Mo.

Jan/Feb 2012 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Ozark Medieval Fortress is at 1671 Highway 14 West in Lead Hill, Ark. It currently is closed for winter. The tentative reopening date is April 3 and it will be open Tuesday–Saturday. However, the official 2012 operating schedule will be posted in January on www.ozarkmedievalfortress.com.
To visit Arkansas, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Arkansas through the Free Travel Information online form.


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