Once Upon A Time….
…there was a man, Howard Solomon was his name and this man wanted to build a castle in Florida. No, not the castle we all know about – the one owned by Princess Cinderella and Mr. Disney – but another one hidden in the middle of nowhere, another fantasyland in the tiny little town of Ona, Florida. Now when I say tiny, I mean very tiny with only a population of 314 (2010). So you might be wondering how on earth did this castle come to be built in this very tiny town in a faraway place in the middle of Florida?
Well, the story goes that in 1972 Mr. Solomon, who is a very creative and internationally renown sculptor, upon returning from the Bahamas was looking for a quiet place to work. After a little searching, he found a peaceful but cheap tract of land, 55 acres to be exact, in Central Florida which made him very happy until he realized after the purchase that it was actually swampland and didn’t have as much high ground as he thought.
Nevertheless, he still decided to build a place to live there. Being as creative as he was, it wouldn’t just be a plain old ordinary house, instead it would be a castle, pushing the saying “a man’s home is his castle” to the extreme. It would be three stories high, 12,000 square feet, complete with a tower, a moat and more than 80 stained glass windows. Why a moat in Florida you might be asking? Well, since he bought the land during dry season, he didn’t realize that it would become a swamp in the wet season. His solution – build a levee, drain the land and build a moat! Just what every homeowner would do!
Most castles are made of stone but not this one – he covered every exterior surface with thousands of discarded aluminum printing plates from a newspaper in downtown Wauchula. Indeed it turned out to be a very shiny castle, gleaming and sparkling in the sun’s reflection displaying a palette of colors never seen before in the little town of Ona. Ah, yes, it was so beautiful it needed a name so he christened it, “Solomon’s Castle”. Guess that automatically made him the King and his wife the Queen!
Not only were the living quarters of the King and Queen housed inside the castle but it also had a stained glass studio, a main entrance hall flanked by a couple of knights, one was black and named “Knight” and the other was white and named “Day”. They stood there day and night on duty in their shining armor guarding the extensive galleries exhibiting over 200 of King Solomon’s “found object” sculptures and his reproductions of numerous paintings.
“Found objects” being literally anything – tin cans, discarded engines, chains, old tools, old oil tanks, barrels, nuts, bolts, screws or anything else. You name it, he would use it, gaining him the titles of “The Rembrandt of Reclamation” or the “Da Vinci of Debris” . Talk about recycling! He would turn what others considered junk into works of art using his skills in over twenty trades that include welder, carpenter, painter, shipbuilder, cabinet maker, tinsmith, plumber, electrician, carver, artist, and others.
And when the castle was finished (not that it will ever be finished), being the type never to sit still, he then decided he needed to feed his people so he built the “Boat in the Moat,” which is a 60-foot replica of a 16th century Portuguese Galleon and a lighthouse that serves as the castle’s restaurant, run by his daughter and son-in-law.
Being a generous, entrepreneurial type that he was, he decided to share his castle, his restaurant and everything inside with the people, both inside his domain and beyond by offering tours for a small charge of $10. Oh, by the way, don’t plan on visiting in July, August and September because it is closed. And be sure to bring your wad of cash – no credit cards accepted.
Now, in that we were transients staying within 25 miles of his domain, we wanted to tour this rather eclectic and maybe what some would call weird castle. So on our second day in Wauchula, off we went following SR-64 to County Road 663S to CR 665, finally turning onto Solomon Road. Boy, is this place in the middle of nowhere. After passing through the gates and parking the car, we followed the yellow brick road (well, actually painted yellow bricks done with a crude, handmade stamp) towards the castle.
Wow, we both exclaimed at the same time! There it was in all of its glory, gleaming in the sun! With every footstep closer and shift in our viewpoint, the color of the castle changed from hues of blue to pink to purple! Quite different to say the least!
After greeting “Knight” and “Day” standing guard at the castle entrance, we entered the gift shop where we bought our tour tickets which would be narrated by Queen Peggy, Howard’s wife. She explained that sometimes the King, now in his 70’s, gave tours but he was in the restaurant having lunch. Moving from room to room, she pointed out the various works of art, each labeled with a very humorous (perhaps bordering on corny) title that described the purpose of its existence. According to an article in Roadside America, King Solomon had wanted to be a comedy writer. Good thing he didn’t pursue that job! Have to say the puns were funny at first, maybe for the first 15 minutes or so but started to wear thin as the tour progressed.
Hard to absorb everything we saw and certainly difficult describing it all or even a portion of it. For example, there’s a display wall with a large collection of guns like the “hernia gun” so heavy that you’d ruin yourself if you lifted the 65 pound weapon. Then there’s the Jesse James Gang’s pistol with three barrels since, according to Howard, the James’ brothers could only afford one gun. And then there’s the suicide gun with its barrel bent back toward the shooter.
In one room, there’s a small zoo of animals that he has twisted and shaped from fifty pounds of coat hangers.
And in another some almost life size animals, like a lion and an elephant that have been crafted in remarkable detail from metal sheets cut from old oil drums.
Interesting that the tour included a walk through the living quarters where the Queen showed us some of Howard’s first wood sculptures done when he was a child of four. Hard to imagine that in the midst of all of these quirky creations, people actually lived here! In the kitchen is a very noisy, electric elevator which goes to the bedroom, made from scrap material and operated by a car battery and a 12 volt winch.
At the end of the tour we were led to the “Boat in the Moat” restaurant where the tour ended, probably in the hopes we would spend more money on food while listening to a guy strumming a guitar and singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” – how appropriate. The food looked good, but since we had already eaten, lunch was not in the cards for us.
Instead we headed out onto the road next to the boat, walking past Howard’s work shop (lots of stored junk here) and the Chocolate House, where his daughter and her family live, to see “The Alamo”, a replica of the real one that Solomon built. Then a quick walk along the nature trail which weaves its way behind the castle along Horse Creek.
Finally it was time to leave this very quirky castle where we hope the King, Queen and their family live happily ever after.
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