Bishop the king of his castle

by Jon Michael Pompia
The Pueblo Chieftain

Although a three-story medieval castle nestled in the forest 24 miles northwest of tranquil Colorado City is something unique, the structure may not even be as colorful and interesting as its creator.

Since 1969, Jim Bishop, 56, has toiled laboriously and diligently, both building the castle by hand and battling those who have raised objections to his project and attitude. And despite a host of setbacks - including the loss of a son in 1988 - the feisty and outspoken owner of Bishop Ornamental Iron in Pueblo carries on, adding to his masterpiece as he sees fit, all the while paying little mind to his detractors.

'This is a true castle because it's under siege,' said Bishop, who refers to himself as a 'rebel with a cause.' It always seems to be in the middle of one battle or another. But it's here for the people. That's why it's free.

The towering iron- and stone-adorned creation - which stands at least 160 feet above the ground - draws some 90,000 visitors each year. The one-of-a-kind castle, however, had a rather humble start. It began as a couple acres of land, which Bishop and his parents purchased for $1,250 more than 40 years ago. For 10 years, Bishop - who dropped out of South High School after his junior year to assist his father Willard Lee at the ornamental iron shop - and his father worked the land by hand. All the groundwork was done by hand - making roads, cutting down trees, removing stone and so forth.

After a decade of blister-generating labor, Bishop decided to construct a stone cottage on the cleared-out land 'as a place to get away from the city. With Bishop working on the cottage, his father began building a stone staircase around a discarded water tank the Bishops retrieved from the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Pueblo.

'Once people saw the rock work on the staircase, they began calling the structure a castle,' said Bishop. 'And although I didn't have any money, it was then that I decided to start building Bishop Castle. I always liked big buildings, castles and skyscrapers. So I figured if I built it, they would come.

Collecting rock from roads located near the soon-to-be castle, and utilizing scrap metal from his ornamental shop, Bishop - working without a set of plans or even a pre-conceived notion of what the structure should look like - began his quest to bring a bit of the medieval to Southern Colorado.

Continuing to operate the ornamental iron business, Bishop devoted every spare moment to erecting the castle - and thus spent a lot of time away from his family. Despite the strenuous and dangerous work, Bishop enjoyed bringing his creation to life, and compared the time spent in the forest to being on vacation. It's a lot cooler in the forest so it's very enjoyable to be there. It wasn't even like working - more like a vacation.'

Although his father did lend a hand, Bishop is quick to declare that the castle project 'was mine.' I stayed with it. Despite what some people say, it was not my dad's project. Bishop did note that his father spent time working on the complex's gift shop and guesthouse before suffering a serious heart attack in 1983.

Slowly, surely and strangely, the castle began to take shape. Like a blue-collar Frank Lloyd Wright, the blowtorch-wielding Bishop fashioned the structure in his own images, using scrap metal from his shop, concrete, and rock collected from the roadside.

As the castle began taking shape, interest from the public swelled. It wasn't long before a multitude of visitors began stopping to admire Bishop's handiwork. Adamant about not charging visitors an entrance fee to tour the castle, Bishop opted to seek tax-exempt status for his complex and operate on a donation only basis.

Noted Bishop, 'That allowed me to keep the castle open and free, and also not have to worry about property taxes.'The castle belongs to the state of Colorado the people own it, through 31 years of my community service. When I die, I can't take it with me, so why not let the people have it?

As a nonprofit entity, Bishop Castle donates 25 percent of the collected donations to a newborn heart surgery fund. 'Imagine that,' Bishop quipped, 'a foundation started and run by poor people.'

Work on Bishop's 'lifetime project of my determination' continued unabated until 1987, when he was temporarily sidelined following esophagus reconstruction surgery. And the following year, Bishop and his family were rocked by a tragedy, which threatened to pull the plug on the castle project. While trees were being cut across the highway from the castle, Bishop's youngest son Roy was fatally injured when a stump blew over onto him.

'After that my wife pulled away from the place,' said Bishop. She turned over the operation of the gift shop because being at the castle was too much like being at a funeral. I was still recouping from the surgery at the time but I tried to work through it. I grieved a lot, working and crying.'

With the memory of his late son firmly embedded in his mind, it wasn't long before Bishop returned to the project with a newfound passion. And the more intricate and awe-inspiring the castle became, the more the public enjoyed it.

At least the majority of the public.

From the federal government to religious leaders, Bishop has gone head-to-head with those who have raised objections to his cherished edifice and the way he goes about building it. Bishop said he is especially proud of the fact that he has met each challenge without the use of legal counsel.

'The federal government wanted me to obtain a commercial permit for the rocks I was picking up around the roads,' he noted. 'But I wouldn't have it. So I ended up getting a special use permit, which allows me to haul all the rock, I can for $80 a year. And the state highway department raised objections because of my signage on the highway. They told me there is supposed to be no advertising signage on state highways - it's the 'Ladybird Johnson law.' But since the castle operates on a true donation basis, I was able to get around that.'

Bishop has also had to contend with 'hypocritical' neighbors who opposed techno music raves held at the castle. 'They managed to get a judge to issue a permanent injunction against the raves, so now we call them 'private parties,' which aren't illegal.

Government leaders - who publicly questioned whether Bishop was abiding by zoning, health, noise and sales tax regulations - and religious folk - who see a Satanic influence in the castle - have long confronted Bishop.

'I've had people ask if they could pray over me,' said Bishop, who classifies himself as a Christian. 'They heard I was hosting a heavy metal concert and they became concerned. I invited them to the concert to save our souls and save the party.

'Other people raised objections to the dragon chimney, which I made from discarded metal food trays I got from St. Mary-Corwin. They said it symbolized Satan. I said, 'This is a family place, and anyway, why does everything have to symbolize something?' The devil's power lies in deception. If he comes as something wicked and ugly, like the dragon, people will run away and he has no power. If he comes as something beautiful, people will be deceived.

'Beside, I wouldn't want to have the chimney in the form of Jesus. If smoke was coming out of Jesus' nostrils, can you imagine the uproar?'

Interestingly enough, Bishop said he is now an ordained minister in the New Life Church. He obtained his minister's credentials at the request of a young woman who asked him to perform her marriage ceremony at the castle.

With a hint of pride, Bishop said more than 50 weddings have already taken place at the castle.

While the castle remains a big part of Bishop's life, he has shifted his focus to his family, which includes his wife, son and two daughters. 'My family did without for so long, I've been spending a lot of time with them. We go to restaurants, the movies, and travel around. I'm doing more with them now at 56 than I was at 36, when everything centered on the castle.

Nonetheless, in Bishop's eyes, the castle will never be completed and so there is much left to accomplish. 'It's an ad-lib, ongoing, free form, art form monument, he said, explaining that in the future, a tunnel dungeon, authentic moat, kitchen and third-floor convention hall will become part of the complex. 'My castle is a testament to what one poor man in a free country can do if he applies his body and mind. Many people told me I'd never amount to anything. So this is my response to them - a tribute to freedom, liberty and justice.

'Granted, it's unconventional and not balanced. I've used a 'guestimated' 47,000 ton of rock and gone through five trucks hauling materials. But the heavier it gets, the sturdier it gets.'

Unconventional and sturdy - words which also describe Jim Bishop, king of his castle.