Don Kracht's Castle Island
Junction City, Kansas
Don Kracht is an open, affable guy with a ready laugh. Those traits alone distinguish him from others in his chosen fraternity, the one-man castle-builders, who tend to be driven by a vision -- sometimes a cryptic vision -- leaving a vaguely disturbing legacy that someone else has to maintain or tear down.
Don isn't like those guys (solo castle-building is exclusively a male pursuit). His vision, if you even want to call it that, is straightforward. He owned some wooded land behind his house on the outskirts of Junction City, Kansas, and decided that he'd like to turn it into a garden. But the soil turned out to be too wet, so he opted instead to dig a pond. Naturally, the pond needed an island, and then Don decided to build a waterfall on the island.
"And then I asked myself, 'Well, what are you going to put up there with that waterfall?'" he said. "And there was an old stone house down the road, and that's when the idea of the castle just kinda came on me."
"I went to the library and saw a lot of pictures and stuff," Don recalled, "and then I just started doing it. I didn't ask anybody."
That was back in the mid-1990s, and Don's steady work has produced impressive results since then. The words "Castle" and "Island" are embedded in an entrance wall, flanking a gateway under miniature turrets. A path leads to a wooden suspension bridge. On the far end is a rock-paved plaza -- what's left of the old stone house that inspired Don -- wrapped around a "Pool of Venus" dotted with lily pads, fountains, classical statuary, and isolated Doric columns. It looks like a Bollywood version of Mount Olympus. A little stage, jutting into the pool, is where couples stand when they get married here. An adjacent path to a gazebo is paved with stones bearing mathematical symbols and formulas, a nod to the builder's long career as a high school math teacher.
The castle, some 40-feet tall, sits back amid lushly landscaped terraces, a mad mix of not-quite-life-size towers, battlements, and hand-made suits of armor, reminding us of a miniature golf course castle thats gone out of control. Pennants flutter from the turret-tops. Don says he was inspired by the Neu Schwanstein castle in Bavaria, but the net effect is more Disney cartoon than Medieval Europe. Which we prefer, of course
"Do you want me to turn on the waterfall?" he asks eagerly, and a flick of a switch sends water gurgling from some hidden place beneath the battlements, down the slope of the island, and into the pond.
Don lights his entrance torches, leads us through a home-built portcullis and on a climb to the Round Table Room, the King's Chambers, and the Bell Tower, up stairs that are often uneven and around turns that would squeeze a more corpulent king. There's no plumbing or electricity in the castle, and it would flunk any test for accessibility. Don says that the local tax assessor came out, looked the place over, and went away without assessing Don anything. Geary County has no tax code for what Don Kracht has built.
Out behind the battlements is another fairyland structure -- a wooden palace -- with construction materials piled about, evidence that Don is still hard at work. He says that this new building will have the dungeon that the castle currently lacks. He points to a door leading underground, and says that he's looking for a human skeleton that he can hang in chains from the dungeon wall -- one of many little touches he constantly adds to his creation. Don's wife, Glenda, offers her own seasoned view of her husband's preoccupation. "He tells me, 'Oh, I don't want people to see it because it's not done.' He's never gonna be done! You don't finish a castle!"
Don concedes that he's often asked, "How many workers do you have?" and even we had to gently prod him to admit that he's built Castle Island all by himself. "I didn't even tell anybody that it was back here for a long time," he says. It is an odd place for a castle, set far from the road, invisible in the trees (except in the winter). "He's too modest," Glenda adds. " It's nothing to him."
That isn't exactly true. Don and Glenda enjoy their castle as a place to hang out and have parties (and occasional weddings). Don is as anxious to show us his beer fridge as he is his waterfall. And he genuinely gets a kick out of "canonizing" visitors by firing volleys from the battlements.
"I could lie and say that the Conquistadors built it," Don said with a smile. He often has to correct visitors who believe that his castle is an ancient relic. "One day a lady stopped by -- just showed up -- as I was working, and she asked, 'How long has it been falling down?' And I said, 'No, lady, it's going up.'"