"They're building it. Come see it." That's the understated advertising slogan from the coffee mug I bought in the gift shop, and it tells you pretty much what you need to know about the Ozark Medieval Fortress. A group of some thirty artisans, historians and architects are building a historically authentic French castle on a tract of land along highway 14 between Lead Hill and Omaha. That's 16 miles north of Harrison or 46 miles east of Eureka Springs or 24 miles south of Branson. Each stonecutter, blacksmith, potter, ropemaker and carpenter is using medieval tools and techniques to erect this fortress. Although not exactly historical reenactors in the mold of Old Williamsburg, the craftspeople do dress authentically (except for the safety glasses and steel-toed boots, insurance requirements) and use tools and techniques true to the period.
This is the chief stonecutter at the site, and he sat and talked to me for over an hour not only about the construction of castle walls, but also discussing the acoustic advantages of romanesque architecture over gothic. Turns out the simpler, lower, barrel-shaped vaulting of the romanesque ceilings are better at concentrating sound. The very high gothic arches with their complex vaults diffuse the sound, and all the extra glass in gothic walls is bad for acoustics as well. The point is, for the price of admission ($12 adult, $8 teens and 'tweens, free to tykes under six) you get to talk to people who know what they're talking about, and you don't get that every day. This is not a fantasyland Renaissance fair and it's not an amusement park. The lady at the cash register described it best as "archaeology in reverse."
So I asked the guy why this castle was being built on the side of the hill rather than the strategically important high ground, which is occupied by the gift shop. He told me that the image of the castle on the hilltop is largely the picturesque product of storybooks. While it is desirable to occupy the highest possible ground, it is also desirable to have a firm foundation, so a castle will be built where the bedrock is near the surface. It's also desirable to have a quarry nearby. Just like today, shipping costs figure into the price of the structure. It's also very important when withstanding a siege to have a source of water within the castle walls, especially a spring, and hilltops are unlikely places to find springs. Therefore in actual practice, fortresses aren't always built on hilltops.
They're not promising that every stitch and blow in the construction of this place is historically perfect. They're working some of the quarry with modern drills and explosives, for instance, and they've apparently done some excavating and land clearing by machine. But the construction materials and techniques used on the castle itself are accurate and typical elements of fortresses built in France in the 13th century. Seriously, be practical. They're building a castle by hand with a crew of thirty. If they used a chain saw to clear the land, I don't think anybody would accuse them of cheating.
They're allowing themselves twenty years to complete the fortress, and hope to augment their workforce by taking on apprentices. If you want to hook up with these guys and learn the art of castle building, their URL is http://www.ozarkmedievalfortress.com.
There's something about the Ozarks that attracts this kind of project, for example Monte Ne or the New Holy Land. The guy who put this project together is Michel Guyot, and he has done this before. He's got a similar project going in France right now. The URL for that project's website is http://www.guedelon.fr/. That construction is about ten years along, so this new project is no pig in a poke. There are lots of known elements and a decade of precedent and experience, insuring that the usual mistakes that plague new attractions will likely be avoided.
This whole thing came about when Guedelon, the abovementioned project, was visited by Jean Marc and Solange Mirat, a French couple who immigrated to the Ozarks 20 years ago. They contacted Guyot about the possibility of building a sister project on their land in the Ozarks. Guyot's wife visited the site and bingo. It happened just that fast. Quick like a bunny hop.
There's a certain appropriateness in building a French castle here. La Salle claimed Arkansas for France in 1682 and it stayed French until President Jefferson bought it from Napolean 121 years later in 1803. As a result, there are many place names in Arkansas derived from French words, including the word Ozark, from "aux arcs." Just look at the shape of the Arkansas River at the town of Ozark and the connection to "aux arcs" will be clear. The fact that the last letter of the word "Arkansas" is left unpronounced is a French habit, but as the old song says, that's what makes Paris Paree.
Just unfold your map, run your finger up the Arkansas River and count the place names derived from the French. Start at Little Rock (built at a place called La Petit Roche), go upstream to Maumelle (from "mamelle"), north to Toad Suck (perhaps from "taudis sucre") thence to Fourche, Petit Jean, Dardanelle and Ozark. Or you could have gone downstream to visit Dumas. During French ownership most travel was done by river, so river towns are more likely to have French names, as opposed to railroad towns which were built under white guy American ownership and tend to have English names like Conway and Clarksville.
This elegant gizmo on the right is a human powered crane. Once the walls get to be above the height of a man, this crane and others like it will lift materials to workers on the ramparts. It's powered by a man walking on the inside of the squirrell cage (called a hamster cage in France). The man on the left operates a brake to secure the wheel so a man can enter and leave the squirrell cage safely. The load on the right just rising from the ground is a section of a tree trunk.
When you visit, don't make the mistake I made. My expectations were low and I expected that two hours would be enough time to take in the whole attraction, to see and hear everything they had to show and say. Not so. If you and the kids have just watched Russell Crowe's new Robin Hood movie and you're all jazzed up about the middle ages, set aside at least four hours on site. The initial tour and lecture takes about an hour and there are about ten artisans within the construction site. You'll spend fifteen or twenty minutes with each of them.
Castles built like this have stood for a thousand years, but don't wait that long to visit. Part of the appeal is that you can visit every year or so and watch the castle grow. When finished it'll have a thousand feet of rampart and the tallest tower will be 45 feet high.
Stewart, Julie; "Stone by stone, medieval castle rises in Ozarks," Arkansas Democrat/Gazette, 10 January 2010; Section B, page 1, column 2.
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