Medieval Fortress under construction near Branson

6 Jun

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed on to do this story for The Joplin Globe. I’ve always been a history fan, so reporting on the construction of a stone fortress in Arkansas sounded like a great way to spend a couple of hours. Here goes: Enjoy.

LEAD HILL, Ark. — About 20 minutes south of the hustle and bustle of the Branson Strip, just across the Arkansas state line, is a construction site. It’s a unique project unlike any other under way in the United States.

During the next 20 years a staff of trained craftsmen and hearty volunteers will raise stone walls, build tall towers and recreate a 13th century castle and village in the heart of the Ozarks.

Ozark Medieval Fortress is the brainchild of Michel Guyot and a group of investors wanting to bring some European culture to American’s Midwest. Guyot, a longtime fan of castles, medieval culture and historic construction techniques, is no stranger to this type of project.

“He’s a Frenchman who has worked around stone and castles all of his life,” said Julie Cox-Sonveau, general manager of the attraction. “Ever since he was an adolescent, he worked on restoration projects. He’s restored seven or eight castles in France, one of which he lives in right now.”

Cox-Sonveau said that after working around castles and historic restoration projects, one question kept occupying Guyot’s thoughts: How did they do that?

“Working in this realm he has associated with art historians and castle experts and archeologists,” she said.  “There are still a lot of questions about how they built castles in the middle ages. So they thought, ‘Why don’t we just try it?’ because that’s the best way to learn.”

Around 12 years ago Guyot launched a castle project south of Paris, France, on which Ozark Medieval Fortress is styled.

”It’s a similar project, but very different because we are on American soil,” she said. “To answer theoretical questions is to use our own hands and try to build a castle and see what happens. That’s how the idea got started.”

While similar, Cox-Sonveau said the Ozark project will take longer to complete than its sister project in France.

“The 13th century is the time we are representing,” she said. “The castle we built in France represents exactly the same kind if castle that would have been in that particular area. The scope of our project is broader and encompasses both English and French history.”

Natural resources

Guyot met his Ozark Fortress business partners while they were vacationing in France in 2008. Jean Marc Mirat and his wife, Solange, were impressed with Guyot’s vision for his project in France and decided to make an offer.

The couple, who have lived in the Ozarks for two decades, had an idea.

“They saw his castle and came back and thought this area is like the French countryside,” Cox-Sonveau said. “We have some land with quarry and a forest, so why not bring a project like this to the United States.”

They sent a letter to Guyot and suggested he come to the Ozarks, check out the land they own and talk about an American venture. Guyot came last year, loved the area and the new partners set out to build a castle in the Ozarks starting with an initial $1.5 million investment and a 20-year timetable.

The natural resources on the Mirat’s Ozark property offered almost everything they needed to build the stone and wood structure.

 “We are building the fortress and we also have everything that goes along with it,” she said. “To build a fortress you need stone, wood and tools. So we have a blacksmith. And you need rope, so we have a rope maker and a potter. We have a workshop to show dying and spinning wool and basket making and a carpenter, all things that go with the medieval life and building a castle.”

All of the natural resources in the world are of no use if you don’t have the craftsmen and laborers needed to build the castle.

The attraction employs about 25 people, Cox-Sonveau said, but she is most impressed by the attraction’s volunteer program.

“People can come out for a day or a weekend or a summer and work on the project,” she bragged. “We have employees, but we also have volunteers that are working side by side with them. We have experts and novices working on it.”

 The project also has a scientific committee of accredited experts and novices who are learning together as the fortress rises from the Ozark landscape.

 The type of tools the staff and volunteers use in construction makes the project unique.

 “It’s surprising how many tools haven’t changes since Roman times,” she said. “There are specific tools you need to build a castle and we have our blacksmith forming all the tools we are going to use.”

No power tools or modern machines are being used in the construction. Craftsmen and volunteers wear historic costume while they work, but upon closer inspection also have on steel-toed boots and safety glasses.

“Our challenge in the United States is safety,” she added. “Safety and labor regulations and things like that are important. Our project is being built in the 13th century method, but we are not slave driving our workers. We are a construction site, but we have to keep our workers and our visitors safe.”

Want to go?

Ozark Medieval Fortress: 1671 Highway 14 West, Lead Hill Ark. between Omaha and Lead Hill on Highway 14. Phone: 870-436-7625. Open daily 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. through Nov., 30. Admission is $12 adults, $8 for kids. Guided tours available at an extra charge. Special events to be announced.


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