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Living History

July 15, 2005—Indiana County’s very own Norman keep sits on twelve acres in Strongstown. Just shy of three years old, Dane Castle, made of split-faced concrete block, is surrounded by forest, fields, and Amish neighbors.

Dane Castle

Dane Castle

Its owners, Mike Mahalko M’80 (Food and Nutrition) and Cathy Homer, began planning the structure over twenty years ago as a place to reflect their love of history and show off their large collection of ancient and replica arms and armor.

Cathy Homer and Mike Mahalko M'80

Cathy Homer and Mike Mahalko M'80

The hundreds of weapons and pieces of armor they collected over the years proved too much for their previous home to store. “Our collection had grown too big,” said Mahalko. “There were axes and armor and everything else just crammed into our house, and even filling half of my dad’s house. But nobody could see any of it.”

Wanting to show off the collection rather than pack it away, the couple took action on creating their dream home and drafted their own castle plans. After six home builders refused to take on the project, they were finally approached by a local contractor who agreed to build it and stay within their budget of $200,000.

Construction began with a priest blessing the site using medieval prayers. Eighteen months later, the castle was completed, sitting in an open field in front of four acres of woods. The site will see continuous improvement over the next few years—a jousting field will be built in front of the castle; an archery range will be added to the side; a forge will be constructed; and a barn will be raised to house Scottish highland cattle.

Mike in the Great Hall

The swords, shields, polearms, tapestries, and furniture now displayed in the Great Hall reflect their shared passion, as do the Thailand fighting swords Mahalko and Homer gave each other as wedding gifts. They don’t polish the weapons, preferring the “gnarly,” naturally-aged look.

Tours are led by the couple, wearing full period clothing. Guests are led on a timeline from Greco/Roman weapons and armor through Celtic, Viking, Medieval, Scottish, Renaissance, and the near and far East. Pirate and fantasy pieces also appear, along with other miscellaneous artifacts.

They especially love giving living history school group tours. This usually involves twenty to thirty children and adults, although they found their limit when about 150 showed up for one tour. Touching the lives of children is important, especially if they are underprivileged, abused, or disadvantaged. All children in a tour can look forward to receiving a craft gift and a snack.

Medieval weapons on display

Mahalko’s reign at Dane Castle is the latest in a diverse array of jobs. After family matters forced him to leave school in the early ’70s, he worked as a police officer for the town of Nanty Glo and spent several years in the fire and safety department of Bethlehem Steel. During this time, he met and married Cathy. Both were working in the martial arts—she taught self-defense for women and children and Mahalko was teaching the classical arts, including tae kwon do. He soon took up a decade-long career as a professional wrestler.

“I wrestled with the old WWF, usually as the bad guy,” he said. Known as Iron Mike Mahalko, the Executioner, and, as part of a tag team, the Great Danes, the matches were scheduled anywhere from a few times a week to several a day. Undefeated for several years, Mahalko’s vacations and weekends were usually spent traveling to wrestling matches.

He returned to IUP and, in 1980, received a master’s degree in food and nutrition. His wrestling career continued through school and into his next job as a clinical dietician for Pennsylvania. But the constant travel was grueling—eventually he recognized the signs of burnout and left the wrestling business, continuing to work for the state from 1982 to 1995 until his disability retirement.

Quattro

Mahalko and Homer turned their hobbies into a business called Joust Horsing, and began traveling with their horses. However, they wanted a place where people would come to them instead, and so their own jousting field is on the planning book.

In the meantime, they offer therapeutic horse riding and find time to rescue and adopt dogs, horses, ponies, and birds. They especially love Great Danes (which happens to be the Pennsylvania state dog), and their ranch-style home in the castle basement is guarded by their seven-year-old Great Dane, Quattro.

Castle events have included weddings, reunions, and feasts at the forty-seat table in the Great Hall. They also teach the use of weapons—their “knights” are volunteers and professionals who teach swordcraft, shield-making, and knife throwing, to name a few.

Items on display

Items on display include a miniature, fully-functional trebuchet (front right)

About a dozen core people are associated with the castle’s warrior arts program. In addition to martial arts training and sword fight demonstrations, artists, craftspeople, musicians, and other related trades are featured in a sharing of knowledge.

“We’re always looking for people who want to become involved,” said Mahalko. “This is a life’s dream for us.”

Mahalko doesn’t push the wrestling part of his life with the children who visit, unless it’s needed to send a message.

“I learned that no matter what happens, keep going,” said Mahalko. “If we can help some people along the way, share something with them that brightens their lives, then we’ve done our job.”

Gargoyles guard the entrance

For more information about Dane Castle, visit the Dane Castle website, write to Dane Castle, Box 10, Strongstown, PA 15957, or call 814-749-7341.

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