By Dick Dace
The day we arrived at Newman’s Castle, 115 “marauders” had mustered outside its walls, waiting to be granted access by its “king,” Mike Newman. Newman, dressed in his white chef’s coat, adjusted the gold bejeweled crown on his head, grabbed his sword, took a deep breath, exhaled, and said to me with a smile, “And to think, I built this castle to keep people out!”
Six days a week, Newman welcomes crowds with a few words about his castle—which he points out is his actual home. He even anoints a few of his “subjects” and invites them to storm the castle and save the beautiful princess—all of which reminded me of a flash mob of community players. And storm the castle they did, ringing the four bells high in the tower to signal their victory!
The castle becomes much more impressive when one learns that Newman personally built it himself, often with the help of one day-laborer, working 14-hour days for more than 10 years. Built of cinder blocks, rebar, and concrete, the castle has an iron portcullis, five round turrets, a 63-foot-tall bell tower, a chapel, a courtyard, and a central keep—all surrounded by a moat studded with lily pads and a 3,000-pound working drawbridge that can be raised or lowered by walking inside a large wooden wheel (think of a giant hamster cage).
“I have one last project,” he confessed. “I am adding five bedrooms for overnight guests in the bell tower.”
Over the years, Newman has hosted his now-famous holiday party for 200 in addition to catered corporate events through Death by Chocolate’s Mystery Café, wine tastings, birthday parties, Renaissance-themed weddings, corporate retreats, festivals, and other events.
While touring Europe in his early 20s, Newman met a beautiful girl from Ireland whom he married in Gibraltar. Once back in the U.S., Newman decided that instead of working for others, he would ask a Houston friend to teach him the bakery business. After working for a year as an unpaid apprentice, Newman’s baker friend asked, “So Mike, when are you going to open your own bakery?”
The very next day, he moved back to Bellville, bought a small place on the main drag, and a few weeks later he opened his bakery—serving nothing but glazed donuts on his first day. On his second day of business, he was also selling chocolate-covered donuts. By working with suppliers who would send instructors to teach him and his staff how to use their products, his business grew. Today, his cases overflow with breads, buttery croissants, cakes, pies, and cookies. He also serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week.
For our lunch in Bellville, we opted for a slice of BBQ heaven at the Bellville Meat Market—where we were greeted by the distinctive aroma of green pecan-wood smoke, a full patio, and a line out the door. Brothers Jerrod and Marcus Poffenberger are second-generation owners of the Bellville Meat Market. Jarrod runs the restaurant, meat market, and online sales, while Marcus operates a processing plant across the street that makes 21 signature sausages—fresh or pecan smoked—every day. He also processes other meats such as wild game, deer, and elk.
And these guys are serious about smoking. Growing up, their father had only one rule for his boys: it didn’t matter how late they stayed out, as long as they added one log to the smoker before they came home. That same smoke box, welded by their father in their childhood backyard, is still used in their recently built processing plant. “It’s perfectly seasoned,” stated Marcus, “and the smoker allows us to continue to provide the same taste and quality that our parents did.”
Peter “Cowboy” Szymanski blames his love of steel on his childhood fascination with the legend of King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. As a child, he was crazy about knives and learning how forged steel changed our world. That interest led him to apprentice with several blacksmiths around the world, and to his current career as a bladesmith and cutler. Before he set up shop in the Historic 1891 Blacksmith Shop in Bellville, he ran a professional blacksmith shop and conducted demonstrations at the George Ranch Historical Park, much like he is doing now.
When we arrived at Szymanski’s Phenix Knives business in the blacksmith shop, he was interviewing a 12-year-old boy and his father about the possibility of the boy apprenticing with him. Szymanski said he usually has three or four apprentices of all ages working with him at any given time. “It’s important to keep this trade alive,” he added. The child was visibly disappointed when he learned that he had to be 14 years old to apprentice, but also excited by the list of books Szymanski suggested he study. He then demonstrated for them, and us, how he uses the large bellows to stoke the fire and raise the temperature to the 3,000-degree melting point of steel. He then began to shape a piece of steel into a sword with just a hammer on the shop’s original 1891 anvil.
Many of Szymanski’s knives are created by folding together as many as 19 layers of steel, forging them into a blade that appears to have a wood-like grain. It’s a 40- to 70-hour process to create one knife with that effect, which Szymanski refers to as “Damascus.” Equally impressive are the wood and horn handles that he also expertly crafts.
“A knife is the only tool all humans use every day of their lives,” stated Szymanski. “Shouldn’t it be as beautiful as it is it functional?”
Bellville tour highlights:
Call Newman’s Bakery at 979.865.9804 to make tour reservations or to book your special event.
Newman’s Bakery, 504 E. Main, Bellville, TX 77418
Bellville Meat Market
Serving BBQ and quality meats and sausages seven days a week.
36 S. Front, Bellville, TX 77418
Historic 1891 Blacksmith Shop and Phenix Knives
305 E. Main, Bellville, TX 77418
Dick Dace loves castles, BBQ, and knives. He is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.