The Rev. H.D. Dennis’ tribute to wife has attracted people from across the globe|[2/20/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 21, 2005

The paint is peeling and chipped now, and some of the letters once nailed to perfection are crooked, but the Rev. H.D. Dennis’ Biblical castle on North Washington Street still stands strong after 20 years.

Dennis and his wife, Margaret, for whom he built the roadside phenomenon, both turn 90 this year, and as they reflect on their years together, it’s clear their love for each other and for God and his word are as passionate as when they first met.

But not all is as bright as the colors on the castle. His health is declining, and he’s lost most of his hearing, said Margaret Dennis.

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A downturn in the number of visitors, which she attributes to terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, have made paying medical bills and electric bills tough for the Dennises.

In December, the couple learned the castle needed a new breaker box for the lights that illuminate the structures outside. It will cost $632.

“We don’t have that kind of money. We get donations here and there from visitors, but during the winter we don’t have as many people come by. The church took up a donation, but we still don’t have enough,” she said.

Margaret Dennis said she knows they can’t live forever, but she has no idea what might happen to the place after they’re gone.

“We haven’t really discussed that. He has two children, but I’m not sure what will happen,” she said.

Still, the two keep a positive outlook.

“Everything we have is God’s,” she said. “We own nothing. Everything belongs to him. He’ll help us through the hard times,” she said.

The two were married in June 1984 after being introduced by two of her friends. They were both 69, though she is two months older.

“I robbed the cradle a little bit,” she said.

“My friends said, ‘Margaret, we know a man that’s here in Vicksburg. He’s a preacher. He needs a wife, and you need a husband.’ Then we met, and he asked me to marry him by promising to turn my store into a castle,” she said.

The two were married six months later, and H.D. Dennis got to work on his promise. The store, Margaret’s Grocery, had been her home and workplace for 39 years. He started by clearing the inside shelves for candelabras, Bibles and trinkets and decorating the walls and ceilings with red and white paint and tin foil.

Then he started on the outside, using scrap iron and wood to make signs reflecting the couple’s belief in God and equality for all.

For diversity, Margaret Dennis added the pink and yellow paint, which she said also reflects their love for all mankind.

“We don’t see black and white, so the colors here are for everyone. We only see God’s children,” she said.

H.D. Dennis pointed to the sign above the roof.

“All is welcome Jews and Gentiles here at Margaret’s Gro. & Mkt. and Bible class.”

The castle has been written about in numerous newspapers, magazines and travel guides throughout the South, across the United States and some other countries.

Its oddity is not unnoticed locally, either, said Samantha Hosemann of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Folk art is a thriving niche market for the tourism industry, and Reverend Dennis has been a major draw for Vicksburg,” she said. “His personal touch makes visitors feel special. We can not place a dollar amount on what he has done for Vicksburg and the tourism industry.”

Hosemann said Dennis once visited the VCVB to see what he could do to help tourism. He took a business card and had his printed on the back so he could send visitors to the VCVB office after they had visited Margaret’s Grocery.

Vicksburg artist and Attic Gallery owner Lesley Silver said Dennis has made his home a treasure for all to see.

“It’s not just artists that appreciate it, either. He’s made it an environment that I think is somewhat obsessive in him. He felt the need to do it, and we can all appreciate the end result,” she said.

“People come from all over just to see what he has done. He brings the ordinary to life and makes it extraordinary,” she said.

Silver said the structure is something many Vicksburg residents take for granted.

“Many people might ride by and point because the fear of the unknown scares some people, but others seek it out. His castle is something that should always be preserved because there will never, never be anything like it,” she said.

Margaret Dennis said in her years living at the castle and in Vicksburg, she’s seen a lot change.

“I want to say I’ve been here in Warren County for 64 years now, and I’ve never met anyone nicer than these people,” she said.

“There used to be houses all across the street there and along this side, too. Now, there’s not really anything left. Everything’s changing now. Oh, goodness, how things have changed. But I’m satisfied,” she said.

People in general are more loving now, she said.

“I think racism is much better now. People are learning better. I just think there are good people, and then there are those who are just ignorant. I tell them you can’t hate for something in the past. It happened a long time ago, and the people now didn’t do anything to you. God made you the color he wanted you to be, and there’s not a think we can do about it,” she said.

As for the castle, it’s in need of a few cosmetic repairs, but Margaret Dennis said they usually stay on top of things, even at 90.

“It’s holding up pretty well. We usually do what touch-ups we can in the spring,” she said.

Times have changed, but H.D. and Margaret Dennis have stayed strong.

“He has good and bad days. It’s not Alzheimer’s, but it’s something like that in his mind. We think it’s from he was wounded in the head in World War II,” she said.

Though his health is slowly fading, the reverend wakes each day with the same mission he had when he was ordained in 1936 – to preach the word of God.

His walk is a little more feeble now, and his voice a little more shaky, but the message is the same.

“We’re all supposed to be sisters and brothers, but our country is divided. Mankind is divided. We’re all supposed to live together in equality,” he said.

“I’ve seen people from all over the world stop by here to see this church, and I’ve given them the word of God. I hope they listen,” he said.