When melancholy creeps like lead across the shoulders of a Tampa Bay resident, one possible remedy is only an hour-and-a-half away. Solomon's Castle is a place where you can find smiles, laughter and peace, when they can't be found anywhere else. It is a place where one man's creativity skips across the vision as merrily as a child at play.
Solomon's kingdom wavered at the edge of my memory for a number of years, thanks to guidebooks and the popular press and local television. In fact, I'd always intended to go there — had even made plans to go with acquaintances on a number of occasions — but never had. Then one day last spring, friend and photographer Pete Carmichael called from Solomon's and insisted I come right away. "You have to see this," Pete said, and he was right.
My only preconceptions before arriving were a vague thought of the Hearst Castle and Citizen Kane. I had not seen a castle since I was in Europe, and tended to think of them as cold, damp, drab structures of stolid stone. These preconceptions were woefully incorrect with Solomon's Castle, a place radiating sun and warmth, especially human.
From the parking lot, "The Yellow Brick Road" leads past sculptures made of gardening implements and a concrete horse labeled "A Horse of Another Color." The road itself is an asphalt path merrily stamped with color by the creator of the attraction, Howard Solomon. The road passes Igor, a live iguana of considerable length, and turns to confront a castle.
In front of the castle stand two knights in armor, a white knight called "Day" and a black knight called "Night." Windows of the castle are decorated in stained glass motifs, such as "The Seasons," "The Virtues" and "Partridges in a Pear Tree." Turrets stand atop the structure, while down a nature trail is a drawbridge, "because every castle has to have one." The silver shine to the castle's skin is from discarded lithographic printing plates affixed to the exterior walls. This use of a discarded item on the castle is a hint of what is to come inside.
To the immediate south of Solomon's Castle is The Boat in the Moat, a replica of a Spanish galleon, although some prefer to think of it as a pirate ship. It is 65-feet long and took four years to build. Inside is a restaurant offering homemade specialties, from apple pie to chicken potpie. Behind the boat lies a patio for those who wish to dine in fresh air under oaks draped with Spanish moss and resurrection fern. Attached to the ship's anchors are shovels for those who wish to be buried at sea. Underneath the stern, a 7-foot alligator suns itself, while children fish.
On his days off, the ruler of this fiefdom has been building his own personal lighthouse astern on The Boat in the Moat. You can come and enjoy the lighthouse. He wants you to. It is almost done. The lighthouse is the newest addition to the attraction. When complete, a mirror ball will twirl, casting a disco light over his domain for evening parties.
Lodged against the castle and The Boat in the Moat is a museum containing Solomon's art. It is the art that brings visitors, in part for its nature, but also for the wit and whimsy Solomon has attached to each piece. It is impossible to separate the attraction Solomon's Castle, the man Howard, the humor he has endowed his kingdom with, or the art, for they are all facets of a diamond, or if you prefer, a mirror ball.
The Castle is along one mile of Horse Creek, a tiny pristine stream that usually bubbles along, but floods so badly in the rainy season that last year there were waters three-feet deep in the castle. Solomon's Castle is located in Lily, Florida, a community so small it does not appear on most maps, and which gets its mail from nearby Ona. Ona? It's in Hardee County. Hardee County?
Solomon bought 70 acres there in 1972. Richard Nixon was still president. No two men were ever more different, for Solomon is a jokester, an imp and a man of incredible creativity.
In 1972, hippies and artists were pretty much the same in the minds of middle-class America. Hardee County was overwhelmingly rural and conservative. Around his castle were ranches with Cracker cowboys, and a few dominant families of power and wealth.
What a shock to the system his arrival must have been in those times. Rumors abounded, from communes of free loving, pot-smoking hippies to a haven for gay male artists. The real truth of what Solomon would do on this land could never have been guessed then, perhaps not even by Howard himself.
It is said that one day, cowboys who had been drinking drove cattle onto Solomon's lands. Swaying in their saddles, they spied a castle. Supposedly they went on the wagon then and there.
Howard is an artist who creates unusual things, sometimes from unusual objects. His medium is often recycled or used materials. His components have been metal drums, cylinders, motors, exhaust pipes, beer cans, transformers, trumpet valves, jacks, gears, gas cans, chains, screws, pistons — even a V-8 can. An inclusive list of junk used in his art might run longer than this article.
Tours of the museum and castle go on almost continuously on busy days from around 11:20 a.m. until late afternoon. Somewhere "under a million" visitors come annually to see his art and meet the artist. They come mostly because of word-of-mouth referrals from other visitors, although some come on tour buses, and others hold tour guidebooks in their hands.
The usual reaction to Howard's art and the stories associated with each piece is amused laughter. A little headshaking goes on at times, and a pun deciphered after the fact may cause a touring visitor to laugh out loud long after the art has been left behind.
Forget about the old trendy pet rocks, for example. Howard created pet blocks. They greet you when you purchase your ticket to tour the museum and castle. A pen trapped in wood represents "Writers' Block." There are cellblocks, round the blocks, mental blocks, and chips off the old blocks.
Within the museum, the art varies from the small to bigger-than-life. The "Kevorkian's Gun" is a derringer with two barrels pointed at the shooter. For the mammoth art, look to "Jeb the Bushman," made in 2000 during the election. This elephant is made from sandblasted drums, with manatee ribs dredged from sandy Peace River bottom for tusks.
Others: A motorcycle sculpture created from an old-fashioned corn planter is entitled "Evil Cornievel." The metal cat with a red heart is known as "Tomcat with a Heart On." Another gun composed of a jack and a hacksaw is referred to as a "Hacked-off Jack Saw."
In fact, it could be said Howard had a gun period in his art. A small wall is devoted to things like the 60-pound "Hernia Gun." Another gun shoots a plunger, while still another fires a fork to get a waiter's attention.
His roller-skate period is reflected in cars that drive both ways for drivers who don't know where they want to go. These were made, perhaps appropriately, for beer companies, who ordered over 300.
Creatures made from coat hangers exist in one part of the castle. These include a penguin. Elsewhere there is a flying lawn mower ("for people with tall grass").
Of the larger sculptures, one I am overly fond of is "Ethyl Merman," since I saw her born. When first I visited his workshop in the spring, Solomon was creating her, half-woman and half-fish. This metal sculpture stands over seven-feet tall.
In her rough-work stage, Ethyl looked a might industrial — something like the creature from the black lagoon and the cover of A. Merritt's The Metal Monster. Now within the museum, she is fitted in boots and bathed in suitable marine colors.
Like her namesake, Ethyl's mouth is open in song. Looking at her, there is only one possible reaction: a smile, small at first, moving into a broad grin. Then come some chuckles, then the laugh. When the laughter dies down, it is time to consider all the work and craft that went into creating her.
Junk comes to Solomon, often even if he doesn't want it. Howard has become something of a junk magnet. People leave junk at the gate anonymously, and sometimes offer it aboveboard. Solomon has a small warehouse full of stored discards. Everyone gives Howard Solomon junk they hope he will use in his latest creation. It could be a crate of belt buckles or a barrel of washers.
Perhaps the strangest junk was an offer of alligator skulls. Howard expected them to arrive, you know, clean. Instead a pick-up arrived with grisly remains: full heads from gators freshly killed for meat.
A digression to express appreciation for Howard Solomon's art and the sheer wonder of it:
Sometimes the comedic content of the art keeps the viewer from appreciating what has been accomplished at Solomon's Castle by an individual human with a gift. Yes, Howard has built nearly everything himself — the castle, the boat, the lighthouse, the art. It is a feat that is humbling and awe inspiring for those who cannot do anything well with their hands.
During the reign of terror that were my junior high school years, I was assigned a class in shop. We were taught mechanical drawing, in order to design a piece of furniture we would build using the machines in class. We then could take home to our supposedly pleased and proud parents something we had made that could be put to use at home.
For an entire term, I drew a simple stool hundreds of times, never once getting the dimensions right. My grades slowly went from low C to D and then lower. I set out to build my stool masterpiece under the watchful eyes of a shop teacher who made fun of me at every turn.
When the stool was finally finished, the assembled pieces held together by wood screws and varnished, I was forced to carry it home on the school bus to my father. If you set my stool on the floor, it sort of shifted back and forth awhile until gravity forced it to settle on three of its four legs.
It should be noted my father was a builder, and that the Mac I now write on sits atop the desk he built more than 50 years ago; beside it sit the three towering bookcases he built to hold my youthful books. Until a few years ago, when it finally fell apart from abuse, my writing chair was one he had built for me when I was a boy.
With little choice and great shame, I carried the stool I had made from the bus stop up the circle on which we lived and tried to slip into the house without Dad seeing it. No such luck. "What's that? Bring it here." He looked at it quizzically, picking it up, turning it about to examine it from each uneven side, while I croaked, "It's a stool," as if saying so might accomplish what my hands could not.
This is all mentioned as a prelude to how amazed I am at the montages of Howard Solomon.
This is an artist who works without sketches or drawings. His thoughts must be like light waves carrying visions in his brain into the real world where his hands make them reality. The complexity of some of the images and how they are fitted together is remarkable.
In Solomon's house hangs "Barcelona," a sizable wood montage taking a good bit of a wall. It is one of five "Barcelona" creations, some much larger. "Barcelona" was conceived solely in Howard's wonderful head and crafted with his gifted hands without drawings to aid him or even a rough sketch. I'll wager Howard never had a plan for his castle, The Boat in the Moat or his lighthouse either, and even if he had been forced to produce a plan for some building inspector, he probably would have put it away as soon as the official left and gone on working from his brain.
It is said on the tour that "Barcelona" contains more than 500 individual pieces. I don't know, as I did not count them. For me, the whole is too enthralling to look at the pieces. One piece was left moveable, like Hemingway's feast, because the joke goes, Howard ran out of glue.
Put the comedy aside and try to imagine, as I who cannot build a stool imagine, making "Barcelona" from a plan only in mind, creating a reality of 500 pieces crafted and assembled.
Five times now I have passed by "Barcelona," and each time I have stopped and gaped in awe. I imagine for Howard it comes naturally, and that he might in his humorous way poke fun at my reverence for "Barcelona." It is to me, however, a miracle that one man's vision could call such a wonderful image into life through his hands.
It should be noted that Howard, who began building things with his hands from patterns in his head at age four, had a somewhat similar father experience to share. Next to "Barcelona" sits a wooden bowl such as my mother would have filled with nuts during the holidays. Howard made it on a lathe at age ten when most of us were still trying to figure out how to zip our pants.
It's called "The Bowl Dummy," for when Howard, thinking he had created something new, took it to his father, his dad said, "It's a bowl, dummy."
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in Creative Loafing and Weekly Planet in the year 2000 or 2001. Sadly since then Howard Solomon and Pete Carmichael have passed on. Solomon’s Castle is still open and operated by his descendants. I flew to Denver, Colorado, in 2008 to visit my newly found half-sister, and walking through the airport I spied on one wall a montage promoting Solomon’s Castle.