Peasant Dreams: ‘Medieval' Castle in the Ozarks Presents Grand Illusion

by George Waldon  on Monday, Mar. 4, 2013 12:00 am  

For Sale: Medieval-style fortress in early stages of construction on 50 acres in the far reaches of northern Boone County. The mostly wooded Ozark Mountain fiefdom located between the communities of Omaha and Lead Hill also is home to a visitors center. Amenities include a faux quarry, in keeping with the charade of building a monumental structure using modern technology while touting authentic 13th century methods. Established on French deceit, the endeavor preyed upon the trusting souls who toiled and toured its grounds. Serfs not included. Price: $400,000.

“That’s tough,” said Johnny Burleson, an early project manager on the Ozark Medieval Fortress. “But it’s accurate.”

The mock description of the property, which is indeed for sale, is based on an interview with Burleson and others familiar with the grandiose development.

Nearly all of the medieval construction on display when the project opened to the public on May 1, 2010, was made possible thanks to heavy equipment and modern tools, claims of historic technological authenticity to the contrary.

To the discerning eye, the tell-tale signs of modern incursions are evident despite the veneer of 13th century authenticity.

Air-gunned nails were used to assemble the tread-wheel crane, not handmade specimens created by fortress craftsmen. Door hinges were bought at Ace Hardware, not forged by the on-site blacksmith. Felled trees used in construction throughout the property were cut with chainsaws, not hewn by hand-powered 13th century-style blades.

The misrepresentation of the project’s historic authenticity reflected the true character of Michel Guyot, chief promoter of the Ozark Medieval Fortress.

Burleson worked on the short-lived tourist attraction during its non-public construction phase in 2009 and into January 2010. He dealt firsthand with Guyot and other members of the French inner circle pushing the project.

“They were royalty, and everyone else was peasants,” said Burleson, 51. “That’s the concept of how they dealt with people. It really could’ve been something good. But you just can’t surround it with all this.”

He believes the ill will and negative word-of-mouth created by Guyot and his minions doomed the Ozark Medieval Fortress as much as serious flaws in site selection and planning and authenticity issues.

The project was envisioned to bring a historic slice of 13th century France to the New World and draw a share of the tourism riches flowing around Branson, Mo., 30 miles away.

The anachronistic appeal of the fortress, however, only enticed sporadic visitors numbering in the hundreds instead of the expected thousands.

Too few dollars detoured from the commercial corridor of U.S. 65 and traveled 13 miles east on rural Highway 14. Not enough admissions flowed into the project coffers at $12 for adults and $8 for youngsters down to age 6.

Volunteers willing to pay $20 to work at the Ozark Medieval Fortress and provide their own food and shelter apparently were about as rare as unicorns. Such volunteer labor was part of the financial formula of success at Project Gueledon in Treigny, France.

This castle-building attraction in the Burgundy region, two hours drive time southeast of Paris, was started in 1997 by Guyot and others. The business model of the smaller Ozark Medieval Fortress project was patterned after Gueledon.

The backers of the Arkansas development hoped to replicate a scaled version of Gueledon’s success and profitability. In 2006, the Burgundy castle reportedly hosted more than 245,000 visitors and brought in about $2.6 million.

The Boone County project is entering its second dormant season after launching May 1, 2010, with much fanfare, backed by a purported $1.5 million in startup capital from intercontinental investors.

The grand opening turnout was so disappointing there was talk among some of the investors about cutting their losses and calling it a day, according to Burleson.

The Ozark Medieval Fortress closed at the end of 2011 after only two revenue-producing seasons, and its gates have remained closed since.

(Also see how other castles in the area have survived.)

The project was trumpeted as a top 10 tourist attraction in Arkansas in 2011, but Joe David Rice said that Internet-related popularity contest claim needs amending.

“I would say it was top 10 in Boone County,” said Rice, tourism director at the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. “There weren’t very many cars in the parking lot the few times I was there.

“That thing was probably undercapitalized and poorly located. They probably could’ve gotten a better location closer to U.S. 65 for about the same money and gotten a lot more traffic.”

Rice admits to wondering if the project was genuine when he first was contacted about Frenchmen developing a 13th century castle in the Ozarks as a tourism destination.

“The first time I heard from them, I thought it was Craig O’Neill calling me up to play a prank,” Rice said.

That initial skepticism was well placed, according to Burleson and others who worked and dealt with Guyot and Julie Sonveau, general manager of the Ozark Medieval Fortress.

Efforts to locate and contact Guyot and Sonveau were unsuccessful.

Burleson witnessed the French promoter make strings of broken promises to men and women who invested their time and talents to help make the dream project a reality.

People were hired at a promised wage only to see their hourly pay cut by $5 not long after arriving, according to Burleson. Some workers moved to the area and naively bought homes on Guyot’s pledge of 20 years of employment associated with the fortress.

Dishonest dealings extended to businesses supplying goods and services to the project, too.

Area quarries delivered truckloads of limestone blocks to assemble the fortress, Burleson said. However, Guyot wouldn’t authorize payment while enjoying a stockpile of free building material.

According to Burleson, Guyot’s credo was “If it wasn’t in writing, you were stupid to believe me.”

“I listened to them talk,” Burleson said. “They knew what they were doing. Everyone was cutting them slack, and they were taking advantage of it. They were using their foreigner’s status to get away with things. I do regret how it all came down and how people got hurt.”

Burleson didn’t speak out earlier about the shadiness of Guyot et al because people he helped hire still worked there.

The Ozark Medieval Fortress is poised to go down in Arkansas tourism lore as one of its most flamboyant failures. For now, the grand project remains in money-seeking mode in search of benefactors.

Its website proclaims: “Due to financial reasons, opening in 2013 is not forecasted. We are looking for financial American partners to continue the project.”

 

 

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