Trip taken on April 2, 2014
I have to admit that I never heard of the internationally renowned artist/sculptor Howard Solomon and his famed Castle in the swamp (I must have lived under a rock for the first half of my life) until I was searching the Internet for yet another “adventure packed” tour on our bikes. As the artistic blood runs through my veins, I was interested in seeing his ‘re-purposed’ creations and a visit to the amazing Solomon’s Castle did sound quite intriguing.
The 75-mile ride (one-way) took us along scenic country roads and through some swampland, however the majority of the trip was along the extremely flat, straight as a board, just downright boring FL-31! (Guess you can’t have everything J) It was some consolation that we took our favourite curvy North River Road to spice things up before tackling the FL-31. Although I didn’t expect that much ‘spice’ with what happened next – (then again who would have)
View Larger Map
We were riding in the standard staggered formation of motorcycle riders, (I was a short distance behind and to the right) cruising along the peaceful N. River Rd. (FL-78) and enjoying the views.
As we straightened from a curve all of a sudden a vulture flies across the road right in front of my ‘honey’! For a split second all I could see were the wings sticking out from either side of his head. Thinking back, it was quite the comical sight, but at the time I was scared to death he would loose control while fending the bird off. Thankfully, he is a skilled motorcyclist. J
As quick as the bird had gotten in his face he dodged to the right and it went off in the opposite direction. (No animals were hurt in the making of this post) As I got closer to the spot where he had been rudely “attacked”, I noticed off to the right in the ditch there was still a group of vultures eating a tasty (I am just guessing that it was tasty) meal of road kill. The rumble of the Harley’s must have startled the first one making it fly directly into the middle of the road. While it’s companions decided they were too hungry to be bothered by the distraction and continued to munch on their free meal.
Not wanting the same fate as my ‘honey’ had just experienced, I fumbled to find my horn and shot off a couple of blasts before I reached their roadside picnic. At least the ‘half-witted’ bird’s companions had a better sense of direction and flew off toward the bush. (Whew, lucky me - danger averted)
When we turned onto FL-31 we pulled over for a break. I am pretty sure my ‘honey’ wanted one too after almost having bird for breakfast. (He was still spitting out the feathers from the incident)
After our wearisome ride along FL-31 we passed through the “thriving” town of Arcadia
. It is known for its historic downtown antique district and the Annual Watermelon Festival that happens in May. (or so their website tells me J
We only had to go a short distant along Hwy.70 before we were smack dab in the middle of nowhere USA, more commonly known as the little community of Ona, Florida. From what I could find, Solomon’s Castle is the only thing that Ona has to boast about.
At least the road finally got interesting as we turned onto CR-661, it was a pleasant cruise through orange groves and farmland, with a curve here and there thrown in to quell the tedium of driving on Florida’s flat landscape. Coming up to our next turn off onto the CR-663 there stood a forlorn sign with faded lettering baking in the sun, it was doing its best to assure us that we were indeed headed in the right direction to Solomon’s Castle. The pleasant cruise abruptly ended upon entering our turn off. We started dodging potholes and there were large sections of rough patches along with crumbling pavement that travelled the extent of the road. Several times I had to raise my 'butt' off the seat as not to get the full impact from the ones that were impossible to miss.
After being shaken like a martini from playing dodge the pothole, the road smoothed out as we turned onto CR-665. (Giving my insides a chance to settle back into their correct position) Another weather beaten sign announced that we were just about to get to our destination, 4585 Solomon Road.
As we made our way down the deserted road, I was half expecting that this was another one of my wild goose chases. Isn’t everything on the Internet accurate? – grin. But to my surprise after a short jaunt down the road there appeared tall white metal gates that were propped open, welcoming us in.
Cresting the top of each gate was the word SOLOMONS and CASTLE The Solomon gate was inlayed with a queen made of metal sitting on her throne and the other with a king on his.
To my surprise there were about fifteen cars in the parking lot and some people milling about the grounds. We had found Ona’s number 1 (only one) tourist attraction. J
Spanish Moss hung lazily from tree branches along the pathway leading to Howard’s Kingdom. As we ventured closer sprouting up from the earth stood the unconventional Castle with a multitude of plants and shrubs protecting its perimeter.
The artist/sculptor Howard Solomon combines his ‘eccentric’ artist style with a quirky sense of humour. His work is created from a collection of discarded debris that he has salvaged or was given to him over the years. His artwork is a mix of odds and ends from oil drums to beer cans and wood from old ladders from the citrus industry.
This earned him the name “Da Vinci of Debris”. But I guess it was a win-win for all involved because Howard got free material to create his sculpture and people got rid of their junk! Today he has gotten so much ‘junk’ from happy contributors that he has asked people to stop donating to him. He has completely run out of room!
He had bought this plot of swampland in 1972 so that he could build a modest homestead
for his family and provide himself a workshop where he could create his whimsical sculptures. Twelve years later it turned into his largest masterpiece and he moved his family into the 12,000 square foot fantasy castle. Building his entire castle himself, he salvaged old aluminium printing plates that had been discarded by a local newspaper in nearby Wauchula for the shiny siding. He also hand crafted each of the 90 stained glass windows portraying various designs and whimsical creatures. After it was completed he realized he should open it for tours. (I guess he figured that would be one way to pay for the upkeep!
As we wandered around the grounds there was no mistaking that the artist had devoted a lifetime in bringing his vision to life. Everywhere you looked amusing figures and sculpture merged with the landscape.
A lone white knight in armour stands on guard at the grand entrance to the castle. Howard named the white knight ‘Day’. The other side stands empty, apparently the black armoured knight, of course named ‘Night’ was MIA at the time we visited - might have been in the shop getting greased and oiled J.
As we entered over the threshold we were just in time for the next tour to start. I was a little disappointed that Howard himself was not our tour guide, but in his place was an amusing replica (my uneducated guess would have been a close relative) in his place. After each purchasing a $10 ticket we were asked to give them back as Howard recycles everything. We then shuffled along with about 10 seniors to begin the castle tour – must have been seniors’ day J
The musty smell of the old rooms added to the mystique of the Castle as our guide steered us through narrow hallways and roped off alcoves pointing out sculptures and artwork while adding a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour to his commentary about how each sculpture came by it’s name. The guide informed us that Howard had written the script and not to blame him for the anecdotes that were overflowing with puns.
We passed the ‘Evil Kornevil’ sculpture, named because it was made from a corn planter (and various other metal objects). It was clear that Howard certainly didn’t lack in his imagination or his sense of humour.
I was impressed at Howard’s resourcefulness at creating sculptures out of things that people had no use for anymore. He certainly is a master working with what he has on hand. (Our guide hinted that Howard was just cheap) There was even a zoo made from fifty pounds of wire coat hangers! (I guess the saying is true, one mans garbage is another mans treasure or in this case, work of art)
Some of his creations had moving parts, mechanical gears grinding together bringing his creation to life. Others had lights that flashed and one even played a tune reminiscent of a music box I had as a kid.
“Jeb the Bushman” The elephant sculpture that he created from seven oil drums, manatee ribs for tusks and clam shells for toenails.
I even found Waldo!
Howard Solomon's self-portrait also adorned the gallery
We wove our way through the Castle and were brought through
the well-worn living room into the kitchen where his talents continued with the
stained glass ‘story book’ windows. In the kitchen our guide demonstrated
Howard’s electric elevator that he had made from scrap material and operated by
a car battery. It screeched into life producing such a loud whining noise I
cupped my hands over my ears. The guide turned it off and said that Howard made
it that way so he would know if anyone tried to sneak up to his room.
Even Howard’s interpretation of a fence along the side of his Castle shows his unique take on what could be considered a mundane object.
As we exited the castle through the odd three-sided door we headed over to the ‘Boat In The Moat’ Restaurant. In true Howard fashion he built the 60-foot replica of a 16th-century Spanish galleon to sit in the moat that surrounds his Castle. Keeping it all in the family, his daughter runs the restaurant and gift shop that also features a relaxing outside patio.
The lighthouse sits next to it and is charmingly named ‘Lily Light’ serving as an event room that can be rented out for parties. (According to Howard, he built the lighthouse so his ship would never get lost)
As the guided tour ended we were told we could wander the grounds and that we might even catch a glimpse of the 78-year old artist/sculptor, Howard Solomon. As we approached his workshop almost like on queue the band saw whirled into action and there he stood engrossed in his work. As I watched him at the saw from behind the chained off doorway I was reminded of a mirage and thought that if I didn’t know any better the figure standing there was just another one of his mechanical sculptures - lol.
As we watched he continued running the saw until we left – weird though, as we were out of eye sight the saw abruptly stopped, hmmm…
Tucked behind his workshop as we headed toward the parking lot we came upon the Texas Alamo. Complete with canon and bowling balls.
Before we left, I made a quick detour to ‘Rooms To Go’ (his humour never ends -grin)
It might not have been a typical ‘magic’ kingdom with wild rides and entertaining shows but it was certainly an interesting and quirky place to visit just to experience the world through the eyes of the talented artist/sculptor, Howard Solomon.