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The Da Vinci of Debris

Somewhere between Arcadia and Bradenton, where you’d least expect it, is a real fantasyland. This place is miles from nowhere but if you go to the tiny hamlet of Ona on highway 64, then follow Horse Creek about nine miles south through swamps and cow pastures you’ll find it. Of course if you don’t want to get your feet wet, you can take either county roads 663 or 665 south from highway 64 and you’ll soon see a sign directing you to this most unusual place. Howard Solomon, an internationally known sculptor, has taken to the extreme the old saying “a man’s house is his castle”

Using what others have thrown out, he has built a 12,000 square foot castle complete with towers, a moat, 80 stained glass windows each with a story, and an electric elevator built from junk. The entire castle is shiny silver, that’s because it’s covered with thousands of aluminum printing plates discarded by a local newspaper down the road in Wauchula.

Howard Solomon was gracious enough to show me around his kingdom. Now you may be wondering why he built a castle so far from the hustle and bustle of Florida’s mainstream. It all began with a purchase of fifty-five rural acres because as Howard explained, “The land was cheap and so was I.” Now the first thing you have to learn about Howard Solomon is that not only is he an artist, he is the funniest fellow you will ever meet. He finds art and humor in every thing, a quality that is reflected in all his creations. Howard is truly a king of puns but he is better known as the Rembrandt of Reclamation or Da Vinci of Debris. When he bought his land it was in dry season, little did he know that it would become a swamp in the rainy months. But Howard is a resourceful guy; he built a levee and pumped the water out. Then he built a moat and as if his castle was not enough, Howard built a boat. He calls it the “Boat in the Moat.” Hey, I’m not talking about a row boat, Howard does things big, he built a full size 16th century Spanish galleon, complete with masts, sails, cannons, rigging, and decks. It’s sitting right there in the moat as big as you please, although Horse Creek will never be deep enough to float this ship to the ocean.

Guarding the boat in the moat is an alligator, a “lady gator,” no Howard did not make this critter, this one is real. When I visited with Howard he had just finished another big project, a full size lighthouse which is named “Lily Light.” That may sound weird, but if you have a ship sitting in your moat you certainly need a lighthouse. Howard explained that he built the lighthouse using balsa wood. I should have known better than to ask him “Why balsa wood?” Without cracking a smile Howard answered, “Because it’s a ‘light’ house!” Since building his lighthouse, Howard boasts that he has never lost a ship.

Originally from Rochester, New York, Howard is skilled in over twenty trades that include welder, carpenter, painter, shipbuilder, cabinet maker, tinsmith, plumber, electrician, carver, artist, and others. Howard quips “I never finished high school, but, I’m not a dropout, I was asked to leave.” He took me in his royal golf cart up to see his workshop where he recycles junk into art. It was an impressive sight, a large shop filled with sanders, grinders, metal cutters, drills, and just about any tool needed for building a castle and a boat in the moat. Howard gave me a sneak preview of several pieces of his work that were scheduled to appear in a Chicago art exhibition. His work reaches way beyond Florida and has been shown in both national and international exhibitions.

We returned to the castle for a tour of the inside. At the royal entrance stand two tall knights in armor, a white one and a black one. “That’s a knight,” remarked Howard, “and that one is day…night and day.” Howard doesn’t mind telling folks that some people call him “How-weird” and I really found out why during the crazy tour of his castle. There are several large gallery rooms inside, all filled with Howard’s quirky creations recycled from just about anything you can imagine. He’s got a small zoo of animals in one room that he has twisted and shaped from fifty pounds of coat hangers. There’s a two-speed unicycle, and a motorcycle made from an old corn planter that he calls “Evil-Corn-Evil.”

There’s atleast 200 pieces of Howard’s work on display. One wall has a large collection of guns…well guns according to Howard’s talent and imagination, 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’s humor, the James’ brothers could only afford one gun. Other weird weapons include the “square shooter” with the square barrel and the suicide gun with its barrel bent back toward the shooter.

Throughout this place of marvel are statues, creatures, contraptions, and several 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. There’s a clipper ship called “lead sails in the sunset” because it’s made of lead and weighs about 300 pounds. A Floridian’s favorite would be the dredging crane that looks like a bird. Howard says it’s the state bird, or the state’s weapon of mass destruction.

In the kitchen is an electric elevator made from scrap material and operated by a car battery. Beneath the living room floor is a trap door to the basement and sitting down there is the children’s Nanny. You never know what you will find in this strange place but one thing for sure, whatever it is Howard will have a gag for it.

You might wonder how Howard can manage his big kingdom of fantasy, it is because this is really a family affair involving daughters, sons, grandchildren and even a few friends and his wife Peggy who takes care of all the natural botanical wonders. There’s all kinds of flowers and plants around the grounds and a nature trail that winds through the surrounding wilderness. Solomon’s Castle has been featured on numerous television programs and in publications around the world. It is one great enjoyable escape from reality if you can visit it and the best part is that you can. You see, Howard finally kept adding so much stuff to his property that he had no choice but to open it for tours. But if you get a chance to visit this whimsical wonderland, be prepared to laugh yourself silly.

Weird Florida

 

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