By Kathy Cutforth, Correspondent
On an emerald island in Killarney Lake, over a narrow track through woods and bog, a castle built over decades opens its gates once a year. As the early morning mist rises, vendors bustle to ready their wares and listen for the sound of thunder as riders wind their way to pay homage…
Each September during the annual Tomahawk Fall Ride, approximately 3,000 visitors come to a secluded spot north of Tomahawk to see the unexpected: a real castle built in the forest of the Northwoods.
Pete Kelley, electrician by trade and castle builder by avocation, comes from a family of builders and always dreamed of building something big. At 13, he wanted to build an airplane. At 14, he thought about building a pirate ship. At age 19, he resolved to build a castle.
And he knew just where he wanted to build it, by the shores of Killarney Lake, on land that has been in his family since the 1890s. In fact, his great-uncle financed, and his father engineered, the dam on Little Rice River that created the lake. “My earliest memories are of the construction of Kelley Dam,” Pete said.
“If you are going to build a castle, I tell people you have to love the process, not just the outcome,” Pete shared. He didn’t just think about building a castle, as he says, he “planned on it.” While he was in the Marines, he “obtained a library of castle books.” When he got out, he traveled through Europe studying castles, “starting in Naples, up through Italy, to Switzerland, up the Rhine River, over to England and the Tower of London and all that.”
When Pete returned to the States, he gave up career opportunities in computers and became a licensed electrician. He studied his father’s engineering books and drew plans based on the rectilinear English style of castle. In 1987, he finally was able to begin the process and spent five years clearing the land he inherited, building the road and installing the septic system. Like castles of old, the building process has taken decades, more than 30 years thus far.
Kelley Arms Castle is no mere pastiche of pressboard and Formstone. This is a load-bearing masonry structure built on top of a hill fringed by conifers and reached only by a narrow footbridge. The footings measure 32 inches wide “as wide as a sidewalk” and four feet deep to support the massive walls of concrete block faced in granite. The castle appears taller than its actual height, capped at 35 feet tall to meet the residential building code.
The granite was sourced locally from a quarry north of Wausau. All heavy materials are brought in during the Winter after the shallow water encircling the site freezes solid. Construction takes place from late Spring to Fall, solving one challenge at a time, drawing knowledge from friends in construction and reference books, or these days, from YouTube. Unlike castles of old, it has all the conveniences including plumbing, heating, electricity and fully equipped private living quarters.
“It was better that I was an electrician than a mason,” he said. “You see that little light out there? I put that in five years ago, but I stubbed it out 15 years ago. Every light switch and outlet upstairs is built into the walls. A mason wouldn’t have done that.”
At first, he built for his own pleasure in his spare time, having his young daughter Arleen, now 34, hold the hose as he mixed mortar, and calling on his family only as needed.
As word spread, others sometimes joined him to help build, and some started coming by to look, especially during the Fall Ride. “I work with bikers. I have friends who are bikers. They come up for the Fall Ride and they are like, ‘Let’s go see Pete.’ I found that I was getting visitors every 40 minutes and I couldn’t get anything done,” he explained.
In 2009, he decided to “sweep the floor, mow the grass, and open the gate” once a year, during the Fall Ride. Each year, about 3,000 people visit, with a team of Pete’s friends and relatives to greet them. Food, beverages, T-shirts and castle knickknacks are sold. In 2015, the Knights of the North joined in to provide entertainment for the kids including medieval-themed displays and conducting a knighting ceremony in the throne room, complete with 20-foot tall coffered ceilings and a huge salvaged window overlooking the lake.
In 2009, he decided to “sweep the floor, mow the grass, and open the gate” once a year, during the Fall Ride. Each year, about 3,000 people visit, with a team of Pete’s friends and relatives to greet them. Food, beverages, T-shirts and castle knickknacks are sold.
In 2015, the Knights of the North joined in to provide entertainment for the kids including medieval-themed displays and conducting a knighting ceremony in the throne room, complete with 20-foot tall coffered ceilings and a huge salvaged window overlooking the lake.
Pete, dressed in worn work clothes, holds court on the ground floor of the castle, next to the bar decorated with cobwebs and skeletons. He is happy to show visitors photos of the castle’s construction and to answer their questions, explaining the intricacies of the multi-layer roofing system and showing the trap door to winch up building supplies and firewood.
Time permitting, he also enjoys taking them outside to see the 450 pound forms for the cantilevered corner towers, piles of building materials and the unfinished backside, festooned with masonry ties glinting in the light, awaiting its facing.
The castle is half finished, he estimates. The exterior is about 75% done, and there is much to finish inside. Each year brings a new project.
Looking back on his life’s work, Pete said his father, a WWII Marine veteran and civil engineer, was his biggest influence. His father was a practical man. “He could imagine a dam or a bridge, or maybe a Ford dealership,” Pete recalled.
They did not always see eye-to-eye, but they both valued setting goals and hard work. “Before he died, I told him, ‘Thank you for giving me the security that allowed me to dream.’”
It is a dream he is passing on to his daughter, Arleen, and to others for as long as he is able.
Learn more about the Kelley Arms Castle on their Facebook page.