Castle Arkdale: from manure to book storage

Some people with a passion will make sure you hear all about it. They are self-proclaimed experts who are slick and aggressive about soliciting attention for their collection, cause, crusade, candidate.

Others proceed more quietly, but with just as much verve. The fire seems more a matter of love or personal mission than for public accolade or profit.

Here is one example of a largely unheralded passion that has gone public in Wisconsin. It was a gem to discover, and the search is on to find others.
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About seven miles south of Green Lake, past a field where wild turkeys strut and peck at snow-covered vegetation, is the Castle Arkdale. It is in the middle of nowhere, it is a former manure storage tank and it holds thousands of used books. There are century-old books, banned books, five-for-a-buck kids’ book, rare books, first-edition books.

“People can be overwhelmed a bit,” longtime farmer Lloyd Dickmann acknowledged, as he began the property tour in a machine shed, bursting with more stacks, boxes and displays of books. All told, there are about 500,000 titles on this farm.

This is the passion of Leonore Dickmann, a retired University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh education professor. She wasn’t around when we visited, but Lloyd knows his wife’s story well; she also tells it in a book published in 2004.

For more than a decade, Leonore stored and sold books from a nearby one-room schoolhouse. She called it Happy Tales Bookshop, and it had no heat or indoor bathroom. Many of the books came from auctions, flea markets and rummage sales – “we’d take everything for one price,” Lloyd says. Such book buying trips have taken them all over the country.

After an electrical fire destroyed the family farm’s barn in 2000, the machine shed was built and all the books were moved in. When that got too full, Lloyd emptied and power washed an adjacent, 400,000-gallon manure storage bin, added knotty pine walls and a castle-like entrance. It opened in 2003.

Why a castle? The thought “had to come from my subconscious,” Leonore writes, noting that books about King Arthur “kept turning up” during the 15 years she has been in the book business.

So she focused on castles and King Arthur for a while, through research and in the books she bought, so there was a literary presence to match the castle motif. That type of vigor is not unusual; she also has shown a penchant for researching ghosts “or whatever topic somebody wants,” Lloyd says.

Castle Arkdale merchandise is organized in all kinds of ways: author-signed books, famous animals in literature, books about books, books about American geniuses, books that influenced world thought. Prices are penciled inside each cover.

Some lay on tables that are covered with homemade quilts., with comfortable chairs for lounging nearby.

The result is an amazing space for diehard book lovers and scavengers. It is a massive bookstore that is unadvertised and typically open only one day a week.

“We may put out a little sign when we’re open,” Lloyd says, but it was nowhere to be seen when I visited.

The Dickmanns are getting more selective about the books they buy or accept as donations. There is not room, for example, for more Reader’s Digest condensed books. “Everybody saved them,” Lloyd notes. “There are so many out there.”

Magazines, generally, are of little interest unless they are from the 1930s, or older.

The biggest sales volume is from children’s books. The biggest money per book comes from the rare titles, like a 1942 first edition of Steinbeck’s “The Moon Is Down,” which sold for $75 recently.

Lloyd, a good-natured guy, is a crop farmer who works about 300 acres and grew up in Fond du Lac County. He shares his wife’s enthusiasm for Castle Arkdale.

How much does Leonore love books? “She always has 10-15 (titles) going at a time,” Lloyd says. Sometimes she’ll read them out loud, so they can be on the same page together.

Leonore was not the average college professor, having earned Johnson and Danforth foundation awards, plus UW-Oshkosh’s Outstanding Educator Award in 1972. She continues to work as a consultant in creativity and literature.

Her “Seven Sides of Symmetry” curriculum work in the 1970s, described as “a model for education in the future,” was presented to the United Nations for discussion.

Castle Arkdale, W1778 County K, is near the intersection with County N. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, or by chance or appointment. Call (920) 398-3375.

When does a passion become an obsession? I have no idea, but I’d love to hear about other personal immersions that have become tourist attractions. The lesser known it is, the better.

The king of such collections, the late Alex Jordan, gave us the House on the Rock, near Spring Green. More than 250 dollhouses, the world’s largest carousel, multiple collections of circus, music and weapon memorabilia are a part of what makes this attraction a standout.

House of the Rock reopens for the season on March 15. Go to www.houseontherock.com or call (608) 935-3639 to learn more.