"Besides hammering nails and drilling holes, it was an education as well as an experience. Physics fun? Who'd a thunk it?"








by Vin Mannix, Bradenton Herald Columnist

Every summer, Pete Blews and his son, Taylor, build something just for fun.

A monorail. A remote control airplane. A rowboat.
“We’re always getting into something,” Pete said, laughing. “But this time we outdid ourselves.” Oooh, yeah. When it comes to definitive father-and-son experiences, this looks like an absolute smash.

They have built a 16-foot-tall replica of a trebuchet, a catapult-like siege engine that was the terror of medieval warfare in 13th century Europe. Towering as high as five stories, it was used to hurl 400-pound stone projectiles hundreds of yards at castle walls. Or launch dastardly objects like dead animals and the heads of decapitated soldiers over them.

All of which fascinates a 13-year-old boy such as Taylor.
“They’d freak people out and spread disease and stuff,” he said, gleefully. “Pretty nifty, huh?”

Pete, who’s 49, shook his head. “Isn’t this a great thing to do with your kid?” he joked. “It’s a strange thing, but it appeals to the kid in me, too.”

Presently under construction in their Palmetto back yard, the Blews’ trebuchet isn’t intended to fire rocks at anybody, understand. Launching watermelons, pumpkins and large canteloupes in an open field around Labor Day is more like it. The Manatee County Fairgrounds might do. “We’re going to have this huge party,” Taylor said. “Just bring dessert and something to throw.”

They got the idea from a NOVA documentary on medieval warfare last year, researched it and went to work after school let out in May. Besides hammering nails and drilling holes, it was an education as well as an experience. They used Taylor’s laptop to compute the dimensions and leverage of their trebuchet. The key is the counterweight, the heavy end of the long firing arm that launches a missile from a sling at the arm’s opposite end. Physics fun? Who’d a thunk it.

“People don’t realize when the counterweight drops and hits the end of its swing, it’s building some tremendous speed,”  Pete said. “When we add 400 pounds of dirt, it could tear itself apart. We had to figure out if it was actually going to work.” Neighborhood kids and friends got involved, too.

Jeffrey Haynes was one of them.

“When they told me they were building a trebuchet, I went, ‘A what?’ ” he said, chuckling. “It’s neat. I can’t wait to see how far it can throw stuff.”

Neither can Bradenton’s Frank Zaremba, whose sons, Nick and Frankie, also helped. “When I took the boys over there and saw its size, I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ ” he said. “I can’t imagine building something like that.”

The fellas even impressed Mom, who remains amused by the commotion. “When they started researching it, I thought they were nuts,” Cindy Ritchie said. “I call it our ‘backyard testosterone trap.’ It seems to attract males universally. I recommend one for every girl out there.”

That’s not so farfetched. When trebuchets weren’t being used to sack castles, they were used to launch roses at ladies during tournaments in peacetime. Something for Taylor and Pete to consider? “I saw a modified sling online that would throw a person into the river without hurting them,” the son said, enthusiastically. Said Dad, “Let’s not go there.”


by Vin Mannix, Bradenton Herald Columnist

Taylor Blews grabbed the rope and yanked with all his might. “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” the 13-year-old shouted.

The home-made trebuchet, a catapult-like siege weapon from medieval times, sprang into action, hurling a three-pound cantaloupe more than 250 feet away, smashing it to bits in an open field.
“YYYEEEAAAAAYYY!!!” cheered some 50 amused onlookers, gathered picnic-style beneath the trees lining the north side of Palmetto’s Blackstone Park for an offbeat Labor Day celebration. “Never thought I’d hear people cheer watching my fruit fly,” joked produce market owner Billy Bob Whisnant.

“This is a blast,” said Pete Blews, Taylor’s dad. Sixteen-feet high, the wooden trebuchet was built as a lark, a collaborative summer project by Taylor, his dad and his neighborhood pals. Their inspiration came from a NOVA documentary, and after working on it in the Blewses’ back yard since May, they had the trebuchet ready for its debut.

Sort of. On the first two firings, the cantaloupe was flung straight down, sort of like a slam dunk. Another was flung backward. “Cleaning up won’t be hard at this rate,” Palmetto Police Sgt. Mike Stinson joked.

Pete was unfazed. It had taken them two hours to disassemble the trebuchet, transport it, and reassemble it. So it just needed tuning up.

“We knew we might have some problems,” he said. They’d already overcome the biggest one. After setting up, the trebuchet team was briefly stopped by Warren Kinder, a Manatee County Parks & Recreation worker. Since the field was county property, he needed to see some authorization and the Blewses' didn’t have it. The impasse made for some long faces.

“We thought we weren’t going to be able to do it,” said brothers Frankie and Nick Zaremba. Seth Turner, Jeffrey Haynes, Cory Brunson, Seth Winkel and Jeff Drewes nodded glumly. “We needed somebody with pull, but who could we get on Labor Day?” Pete said. Chuckling, he added, “So I called my wife.” She initiated a series of phone calls that ended up involving Palmetto City Council members Brian Williams and Shirley Bryant, the Palmetto Police and County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann. Von Hahmann phoned Stinson with her OK and he sorted it out with Kinder.

When Stinson gave the trebuchet team the thumbs up, he was greeted with heartfelt applause. “Heck, I wanted to see the kids shoot the dern thing, too,” he said. And shoot they did, hurling some 20 cantaloupes up to 300 feet to the crowd’s delight.

Megan Howard and Bethany Brunson, King Middle School classmates of some of the boys, marveled, “It really works. It’s kinda cool, too.”

Debbie Coffin, the Blewses’ next-door neighbor, said, “I had no idea what was going on over there this summer, but I love it.”

Her sister, Peggy Carriere added, “It’s neat to see the efforts of all the kids in the neighborhood.”

Homer Stickle agreed. He’s Pete’s uncle and a master carpenter who helped out. “Those boys were working right over top of each other, loading it up this morning and putting it together,” he said. “They took it seriously.” The trebuchet team’s efforts made Labor Day enjoyable, indeed.

“We know the Blews family so we knew it would be interesting,” said sisters Olivia and Angela Posani. “It’s one of the craziest things we’ve ever seen.”