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This Castle in Tomahawk Has Been 30 Years in the Making

Jim Skibo
Kelley Arms Castle on Killarney Lake north of Tomahawk

We continue our We Live Up Here series this week with a story about an ambitious DIY project that has been 30 years in the making.

The story comes in response to a listener question to our Curious North series. Dennis Marquardt from Tomahawk asks: What is up with the castle on Killarney Lake?

Jim Skibo has the story.

The fog lifts over Killarney Lake and Kelley Arms Castle appears on a rise. Are we on a tour of castles in Ireland? Nope. We are in Oneida County just north of Tomahawk. The castle is a three-decade long do-it-yourself project for Pete Kelley, who lives in Wausau but commutes each weekend during the warm months to the shore of Killarney Lake.

He first got the idea to build a castle when he was a teenager. While other boys his age were dreaming of playing quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, Pete was making sketches of castles.

According to Pete, by age 19 he decided to build the caste. In 1987, he started clearing the land, surveying, putting in water and the septic system, and about 5 years later, he was ready to lay the first block.

Credit Jim Skibo
A long footbridge provides the only access to the castle across this natural moat.

As castles go, this is a small version, but when you walk up to it is not only seems out of place in the Wisconsin pines, but its 35 foot tower, imposing walls with battlements and turrets can’t  help but leave you a little awestruck. 

Pete tells us that his daughter sums it up well. “She says you can tell people what it looks like and show them pictures, but when they see it the reaction is always the same. It is ‘Oh my God.’”

Pete has done most of the work himself, with the occasional help of a mason or a plumber. He is a licensed electrician, by training, so that has been a bonus, as he had to plan far in advance for the electrical wiring. Medieval castles didn’t have electricity, so he wanted to make the wiring as inconspicuous as possible, which often required planning way ahead when laying the block walls.

Most masons, according to Pete, don’t think about how the electricity is going to be installed. The electrical planning is especially tricky in this project as sometimes there is a gap of many years between laying the block and installing the wiring. As Pete says, “I hooked onto some lights two years ago into a pipe that I had put in 15 years earlier.”

The design of the castle was years in the making. It is not modeled after a particular castle, but rather he has borrowed dozens of architectural elements from a variety of castle designs. He even visited another castle enthusiast, Harry D. Andrews, who spent his life building a castle near Loveland, Ohio. Pete was 19 when he visited the builder, who was, at the time, over 80 years old. Because he knew that building a castle was a life’s work, he told Pete that 19 was the right age to start such a project.

Although he may have borrowed many design elements from other castles, Kelley Arms is one of a kind. The castle is really two buildings connected by a common stairway. One side is what he calls the “lab” and it includes the Great Hall, and the other side is personal quarters.

To get to the tower you must climb three flights of creaky stairs. The top of the tower is like a patio. Not only does it have a commanding view but, according to Pete, no bugs in the summer as the mosquitos don’t come up that high. The tower has a grill, refrigerator, and a pulley system to get ice to the top of the tower. The flat surfaces on parapet walls were made to the width of a beer can, so tower-top revelers would always have a place to put their cool beverage. This certainly makes it uniquely, Wisconsin.

After three decades of work, there is much to show for the effort, but there is still a long way to go. He is often asked when it will be completed. According to Pete, it is too overwhelming a project to think about when it will be finished. Instead, he focuses “on what I am going to get done this year and that is all I think about.”

This year’s project is just getting underway. He is going to focus on the south side of castle on what he calls the “Great Hall,” which will include an impressive bank of windows facing the lake.

What makes the construction of the castle even more of a challenge is that it is only reachable by foot during the summer months. A long footbridge provides the only access across this natural moat. The stone and other heavy supplies are delivered in the winter when large trucks can approach the castle after the ice freezes.  A dolly sits permanently near the bridge to help the heavy loads cross the moat during the summer months.

Although one can see that Pete has been working extremely hard on the castle, he does leave time for his medieval sense of humor.

Credit Jim Skibo
Pete Kelley's wife, Ann, on the impaler, a popular photo opportunity for castle visitors.

In the front of the castle, there are two stockades and an impaler, which is a 10-foot-long vertical spike used to torture and kill prisoners. Of course, this one is just for show and, according to Pete, is one of the most popular photo ops for visitors, who are invited to climb up the device. At the right angle, the volunteer victim does appear impaled by the ling spike. 

While Pete’s long-term goal is to open up the castle for Halloween and perhaps weddings and other events, it is currently not open to the public. In fact, he discourages visitors with a sign near the entrance, “If you can read this, you are in range.” However, he does invite motorcyclists in the Tomahawk Fall Ride to stop by during their annual event. This year the Tomahawk Fall Ride will take place from September 9th through the 15th.

Jim Skibo and his wife, Becky, are junior high basketball coaches, he is also a writer and retired archaeology professor and they live in White Lake, Wisconsin with their dog, Lucky.

This story was written by Jim Skibo and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: The Silver Hatch by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue) and luis_audpvia Free Sound.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

Do you have a question about the Northwoods or the U.P. that you'd like WXPR to investigate? Submit it to our Curious North series below.


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James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.
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