In Colorado, it’s hard to avoid looking up. But building up? And up?
Jim Bishop was just fifteen in 1959 when he paid $450 for a two-and-a-half-acre parcel of land at 9,000 feet on the edge of the San Isabel National Forest, outside the tiny town of Wetmore. “It was money saved from mowing lawns, throwing newspapers and working with his father, Willard, in the family ornamental iron works,” according to the story on bishopcastle.org. “Jim had dropped out of high school that year over an argument from his English teacher, who yelled at him, ‘You’ll never amount to anything, Jim Bishop!’” But Bishop had towering ambitions. For the next ten summers, he and his father would work together at Bishop Ornamental Iron Shop, then head up to the mountains, where they’d camp and think about building. In 1967, Jim married Phoebe, and “in 1969, at the age of 25, Jim decided it was time to start building a cabin in the mountains they so loved. Since rocks were plentiful, everywhere, and free, he chose to start building a one-room stone cottage...”
But he didn’t stop there. He kept building, and building, “and the construction that began as a one-room stone cottage with an Eiffel Tower-shaped fireplace gave birth to this country’s, and maybe even the world’s, largest one-man Castle,” reports the site devoted to Bishop Castle. He designed the place as he went along, milling fallen timber, digging holes twelve feet deep for the foundation, hand-mixing mortar, moving rocks in from state highway ditches (which got him in some trouble with authorities). Jim estimates he touched each rock six times, thinking about where and how it should go, before it was finally put in the proper place. He had no plans, no blueprints, no drawings, and he started describing the castle as “built by one man with the help of God.” As his castle grew, he began adding ornamentation using his ironwork skills. And while the interior of the building remained largely empty, Jim kept looking up: He created a dragon and a dome, and added a thirty-foot steeple that topped off at 160 feet — the height of a sixteen-story building.
While the castle’s construction was a one-man project, Phoebe was working, too. After juggling paperwork for eight years, she secured 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, designating the Charity for Newborn Heart Surgery as the official beneficiary of Bishop Castle. The couple set up a donation box for the visitors who were coming more and more frequently, and Phoebe managed a gift shop across from the castle for the next thirteen years, putting all the proceeds into the foundation and back into Bishop Castle. The result was so amazing that the castle earned a chapter in roadsideamerica.com, which rates it “major fun” but also alerts potential visitors that Jim Bishop is “a tough-talking man with strong, extreme beliefs, and sometimes he expresses them bluntly and loudly. If you and your children want to avoid potentially offensive rants (involving politics and race), you may want to steer clear.”
But on the castle’s website, its creator is much more restrained. “Today’s visitors to the Bishop Castle will find an impressively monumental statue in stone and iron that cries loud testament to the beauty and glory of not only Having a Dream, but Sticking with your Dream no matter what and, most importantly, that if you do believe in yourself and strive to maintain that belief, anything can happen.”
Yes, anything — because here’s what happened next.
Someone tried to capture the castle.
The last few years have not been good for Phoebe and Jim Bishop. Phoebe was diagnosed with breast cancer, which required several operations, and “Jimmy totally lost his mind,” she remembers. Turned out that he had cancer, too, a rare form known as Merkel cell carcinoma, which required many tests, surgery and radiation treatments. While Jim was fighting for his life this past winter, David Merrill, a man he considered a friend, talked Jim into making him a trustee of Bishop Castle. But soon, Merrill was claiming that he owned the property and was turning it into Castle Church — for the Redemption, according to the Custer County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. At one point, he claimed that he was giving the castle to his mother, the late Louanne Van Pelt, who was reportedly the inspiration for Lucy in “Peanuts.” But there’s nothing comical about Merrill’s postings on the web, which range from rants about God to sovereign-citizen-movement statements.
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“He tried to take over the castle, tried to enact his own rules,” Phoebe remembers. “We made him trustee on the condition that when we wanted him to step down, all we had to do was say so — and when we said so, he said, ‘Get a lawyer.’”
So they did. So far, the Bishops have spent $20,000 trying to get a clear title to Bishop Castle, and to get Merrill’s name off all paperwork. Whenever they think they’ve secured a victory, he files more court documents — the last one was 180 pages — and tries to change the venue, forcing the couple to keep spending money they don’t have. But they did manage to secure a restraining order that prohibits Merrill from going to Bishop Castle, and they’ve found supporters who are helping raise money for their cause. (The next Save Bishop’s Castle Think Tank Meeting is October 2 at Pikes Peak Harley-Davidson; in the meantime, Phoebe assures people that donations to the Paypal account on bishopcastle.org go to the family, not the interloper, and the couple's daughters handle the account as well as a Facebook page.) “I think he’s hoping we’ll give up,” says Phoebe. “Will we? Hell, no. I’ll fight ’til I die.”
Even in his weakened condition, her husband has still managed to get up to Bishop Castle just about every day this summer, working on his creation, greeting visitors who marvel at what just one man can do, once again king of his castle — until the next court battle. He’d like to get his project to 250 feet, a nice round number that’s closer to heaven.
Jim Bishop is still looking up.