MENLO, Ga. — Most mornings, Stephen Werner wakes up at 4:30 in a small bedroom in his family's castle, where his father's darkroom was supposed to be. He drives down Lookout Mountain to work the loader at a local lumber mill. He comes home around 5 p.m., shoots the breeze with a couple of neighbor friends until dark. Then he goes to sleep. Then he does it all again the next day.
But on weekends, Werner gets up "when I darn well please." He likes to sit in his recliner, alone with the quiet.
There's always work to do here, on 240 acres off Highway 157, about 12 miles west of Summerville. Werner began helping his parents erect a castle on the property 22 years ago. He screwed together custom cuts of metal siding, winched them up to stand 32 feet high. He built battlements on top and fastened concrete stones to the outside walls.
The construction halted about half a decade ago, though. Most of the castle's exterior is still uncovered metal, like a warehouse. Old photos and books sit haphazardly scattered in unfinished rooms that carry the steel and concrete radiance of prison cells. In the yard, weeds stand about waist-high.
On his days off, eventually, Werner hops on his brush hog and cuts grass for a couple of hours. He doesn't feel like he's making progress.
"It's too much," he said. "I can't take care of all this."
In 2015, after their parents died, Werner and his siblings listed the 26,000-square-foot castle for $2.5 million. The property is still on the market, with the price tag now down to $999,999. Werner, 46, isn't sure what he will do next if a suitor buys the land. Also, he doesn't care.
"Pretty much spent most of my actual dang adult life in this place," he said. "I had all these other things I was going to do. And mom was like, 'Come help us.' It turned into this. My entire life was ruined in this place."
There is an old, close-up photo of a single drip of water, emerging off a shower head. It looks like a tear. Within a millisecond, the fat end of the drip will triumph, pull away, disappear. But at this moment, when the camera caught it, the drip's thin tip desperately clings to the metal.
Dale Werner took that picture in college, when he studied photography. He wanted to master the form, and he spent three days in the bathroom, trying to capture the water at the perfect moment.
Dale and his wife, Leona, were a good match, said their son, Dale Werner Jr. They were both brilliant and obsessive. They married young and quickly began to have children. Dale went to college at night to become an engineer. Their Midwestern upbringing forged their philosophy.
"If you wanted something, you had to work hard," Dale Jr. said. "And you would get it. You would focus on it, and you would not give up."
After landing a job with Westinghouse Electric Corp., Dale worked on train systems in Seattle, San Francisco and São Paulo, Brazil. In the 1970s, the family moved to Georgia as he helped create the rail line at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. He stayed with the airport after the project, earning contracts to oversee the system, as well as the electronic parking signs and the runway lights' backup generator. He also filmed training videos for the airport's security team.
Leona, meanwhile, made plates, bowls, tea sets and porcelain dolls. She was a romantic, said her daughter, Debbie Rowe. She loved fairy tales and claimed to have traced her ancestral line to an English castle. On trips to Disneyland, she made the children earnestly contemplate life inside Cinderella's domain. At some point — her children can't say exactly when — she decided that she, too, should live in a kingdom.
She and Dale toured Belgium, England, France, Ireland and Italy, taking notes on the castles they visited. Back home, she built models with sugar cubes and foam boards. Dale drew sketches with his computer's CAD system.
They bought the property on Lookout Mountain in 1992 and planned four buildings. The one on the left would be dedicated to Leona's hobbies, the one on the right to Dale's. The building in the back would hold heavy equipment.
The front building would be the focus. You would cross a drawbridge over a moat, through a portico, into an entrance hall. A wedding chapel would be to your right, along with dressing rooms for a bride and groom and a private master bedroom. A dining hall would be to your left, with a ballroom around the corner. The second floor would hold nine guest suites. An arcade and movie theater would be in the basement.
When they finished, Leona and Dale decided, they would open the castle up as a bed and breakfast. They would add an observatory, a funhouse and a maze. They would also design it with hidden passageways and secret rooms for their guests to find.
"THE CASTLE'S SECRETS ARE FULLY DOCUMENTED," Leona wrote of her plans, "BUT WILL REMAIN SECRET EXCEPT TO THE OWNERS."
Of the six siblings, Stephen Werner was the youngest by 10 years. He was especially close to his parents.
"He never really had any brothers or sisters," Dale Jr. said. "He was basically the only child, by default."
By his own estimate, Stephen is a genius. He said his IQ is above 200. (Dale Jr., himself a Mensa International IQ society member, has no doubt his brother is smart, though he had never heard that Stephen's score was that high.) Even so, Stephen said he dropped out of high school after a teacher sent him home one day for wearing a shirt with a marijuana leaf on it. The place just wasn't for him.
For a while, he drove a wrecker around College Park. When his parents started building the castle, he came to the mountain to help. They had a construction team at first. But pretty soon it was just him, some guy named Tommy and his father. He worked from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. one day digging out the basement with a backhoe. Eventually, he moved up there full time.
The other siblings visited, especially for the family's big Fourth of July and New Year's Eve parties. They stayed in a lakeside cabin the Werners owned nearby. But Stephen was the only one there every day. He and Leona talked about design ideas. He and Dale talked about construction.
"There wasn't much else to talk about," he said.
But money dried up after airport officials declined to renew Dale's maintenance contracts. Between 2005-09, county records show, they failed to pay $24,800 in property taxes. (They eventually paid them in 2010; Stephen says they sold some property elsewhere to cover the bill.) A notice of foreclosure was filed with the local newspaper in January 2007, though that never went through.
One day around 2012, Stephen was sitting on a tractor when Leona gave him a hug goodbye. She was heading to the doctor for a quadruple bypass.
"She was supposed to be in and out in a day," said Rowe, her daughter.
Leona had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia and went into shock. Stephen said she died on the operating table, but doctors revived her. She remained in the hospital or rehab for six months. Before she returned home, Stephen built her a small bedroom and kitchen in the castle's left wing, where she had planned to work on her projects. Her kidneys had failed, and she couldn't walk anymore. She was on dialysis. Stephen treated her from home until she died in September 2013.
He and Dale were no longer motivated to finish the project, but they returned to work. They decided their next step: grouting the portico and attaching more stones to its walls. In March 2015, Dale needed to go to a doctor for some sort of operation. (Stephen said his father had stage four cancer but hadn't told him; Dale Jr. said he has never learned what his father's condition was.)
Dale died in the office. The doctor tried to call Stephen, but cell service is shoddy on the mountain. The doctor then moved down Dale's list of contacts, called one of his daughters. She drove for hours and found Stephen inside the castle.
"He was like, 'Where the hell is dad?'" Dale Jr. recalls. "'He's supposed to be here.'"
The family spread some of Dale's ashes on the property and shot the rest off in a rocket. Then the other siblings left.
Eleven months later, in February 2016, someone pounded on the front door of the castle around 12:30 a.m. Stephen grabbed a gun, sneaked outside and heard more pounding. He called 911 and asked an operator whether any local officers were on his property, looking for a fugitive.
"I was hoping it was the cops out there and not " he began.
"No," an operator said. "We don't have anything going on up there. I've got an officer on the way. Just let me know what happens, OK? And just keep an eye on him."
Stephen saw a flashlight, beaming from the second floor of the main building. The light moved down the steps, toward where the wedding chapel was supposed to be.
"Hey!" Stephen shouted. "Thief! I'm armed!"
He heard feet on the concrete, running away.
"All I had to do was squeeze the trigger, and his ass would have been dead," Stephen told the Times Free Press.
The half-built castle on the mountain has become an obscure attraction. Strangers have emerged from the woods. Others have hopped the gate, peered into his windows. Visitors happen upon the castle while driving down the highway, hear about it from their friends or see the online real estate listing. A couple of weeks ago, Stephen said, he came home from work and found people from South Carolina at his gate. They didn't want to buy the place; they just wanted to see it in person.
He is weary of the attention. He has security cameras and alarms set up near the driveway. An electric buzz rings in the castle when people show up.
"I know you're coming before you even see the place," he said.
Dale Jr. worries about his brother. Two years ago, he flew in from California for a month to help Stephen fix up the property. They bought plywood and drywall, but there was just too much work for two men. The siblings are selling the castle because they don't have the time or money to see it through. (Stephen is bitter that his brother and sisters will share the profits: "They're going to reap all the rewards for nothing, and my life's a ruin.")
Stephen was 20 years old when Dale and Leona purchased the land. He's 46 now. He's not sure what he will do when a buyer takes the castle off his hands. He suspects he'll crash with friends for a time. There's a good group in south Georgia he doesn't get to visit enough. He has a daughter, too.
"I just want to get out," he said. "Find a small place with my tools. Be happy."
Some potential suitors have emerged over the years. One man tried to buy it, but Dale Jr. believed he was a fraud. A couple came through with a vision similar to Dale and Leona's: a bed and breakfast, along with Halloween and Christmas festivities. Investors were going to help them buy the place, Stephen said, but they couldn't secure a construction loan.
For several weeks now, he's hosted a potential suitor out of the Atlanta area. He believes the intention is to host Renaissance Fairs up there. Makes sense to him.
Last month, he stood on the balcony in the back of the main building and pointed at the courtyard. His father planned to run model trains out there. Now, Stephen can't remember the last time he hacked away at the tangled weeds. He needs to replace some of the faux stones on the wall, too. He's tried to cut down a tree, but it keeps growing back.
He stepped back from the balcony.
"I give up," he said to the tree. "You won."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.
This story was updated Nov. 21, 2018, at 10:45 a.m. with more information.