Tom Gaskins and His Cypress Knee Museum
Tom Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum
(article from roadsideamerica.com)Palmdale, Florida
The Tom Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum, now under the command of a second generation Tom Gaskins, sprawls across both sides of U.S. 27, the museum on one side and the swamp catwalk and gift shop on the other. All glorify the bizarrely twisted "knees" that grow out of the roots of cypress trees.
The Museum is an open-air arcade that surrounds the world's largest transplanted cypress tree. The air here is usually hot and thick. Visitors are cautioned to be watchful; snakes sometimes slither into the exhibits.
Row after row of showcases display the cream of Tom Gaskins' vast cypress knee collection, gathered from 23 states. Most have little signs in front that explain what (or who) each resembles: Josef Stalin, Flipper, or "lady hippo wearing a Carmen Miranda hat," the most spectacular in the collection.
A five-minute video in the gift shop shows Tom Sr. boiling, peeling and removing wood fiber from the knobby knees in order to give them "that satin look." Tom removes the wood fiber from the knees with his tongue. "If it wasn't for wood fiber, you and me wouldn't be alive on this earth," he explains between licks. "In case times ever get real hard and there are famines across the earth, you know what to do."
Out behind the gift shop stretches the 3/4 mile cypress knee catwalk, one of the scariest anywhere. Hand-built by Tom Sr., the catwalk is nothing more than a series of rickety 2x4s held high in the air by cypress poles sunk into the muck. It runs past Tom's experiments in "controlled knee growth," which began in 1938. Here, Tom attempted to alter the shape of selected knees by carving designs into them, shoving bottles (and, in one case, a phone receiver) into them, and flattening them with heavy weights.
Tom Sr. displayed his knees in the Florida pavilion at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, and he still holds the only US patent (#2,069,580) on articles of manufacture made from cypress knees. The Museum has been featured on Carson, Leno, and Sally Jessie Rafael, though the Gaskins' turned down an offer to appear on Letterman because they thought he was too mean.
Tom Sr. didn't buy his first pair of glasses until he was 82 and jogged five miles through the swamp every day into his mid-'80s. He has recently retired to Miami, leaving the business in the capable hands of Tom Gaskins Jr.
"This place is real Florida. It's not a plastic mouse show," says the younger Tom, defiantly. "I'm a Florida Cracker, a piney woods rooter. I know how to survive on acorns. It'll be a long time before anyone ever shuts us down."
Life in the '90s has been a battle for the Gaskins. Their principal foe has been the "Lady Bird Johnson law" that forced the removal of all of their homemade cypress billboards from Florida's highways. But Big Government has also been kind: new wetlands laws prohibit the cutting of cypress knees, so the Museum's collection can never be duplicated.
"I guess I've learned just about everything I can from the knees," said Tom Sr., just before he headed south. "But, you know, this business...it's a helluva thing."
June 2000: CLOSED! The museum has been closed after a break-in, when many of the best knees were stolen. Tom Gaskins Jr. hopes to recover the purloined knees and open in a more secure venue.
May 1998: Tom Gaskins Sr. died in early May, at a nursing home in Florida. His contributions to the science and art of cypress knees will probably never be surpassed...
Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum
(article from lostparks.com)
Come see Tom's knees said the crudely made signs, fashioned from twisted cypress tree parts with big black letters. Lady if he won't stop, hit him on head with shoe. You might still be miles from Palmdale on US 27, and Palmdale was miles from much of anything, but you knew that Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum awaited ahead.
In the 1930's Tom became fascinated with cypress knees, those knobby protuberances that cypress trees grow from their roots up above the surface of the swamp water that often surrounds them. He collected them, especially those that looked like something else to him, be it a person or even a "Lady Hippo Wearing A Carmen Miranda Hat." And he performed experiments on them, making them grow around objects like coke bottles or a telephone receiver, and he tried to control their shapes with wire and weights.
Tom wanted to share his cypress knee fever with everyone so he opened a roadside museum, gift shop, and cypress knee factory where he peeled and polished cypress for sale to the tourists. On one side of the street he built a rectangular, open museum building -- glass walls fronting displays of knees all crudely labeled with what their shapes suggested to him they looked like. On the other side of the street was his shop, full of knees for sale, and a boardwalk through the swamp: a crude affair made of two-by-fours nailed to cypress stumps and live trees, running long ways in parallel, making for a narrow, somewhat rickety and scary tour of the swamp. If you were lucky he would walk along beside you, on the ground, barefoot, and show off his living cypress knee experiments.
In later years he would also probably insist that you photograph him in his cypress hat, which he called "the most photographed hat in the world." If you didn't bring your camera he would be disappointed but insist that what you saw that day you would never forget, even without photos to remember him by.
While US 27 had once been the main Southbound artery through Central Florida down to Miami when Tom opened his museum, it was eventually by-passed by the Florida Turnpike, as well as I-95 to the East and, later, I-75 to the West. The flow of tourist traffic by the museum slowed to a trickle, not unlike the reduced flow of water through Tom's swampland once the Army Corps of Engineers got through with its area dykes and canals.
Tom Gaskins died in 1998. Tom's son, Tom Jr., tried to keep the museum open, but was hampered by an edict by the Lykes company, which owns much of the land in that area, to remove the famous signs from their property. Then thieves broke into the museum one night in 2000 and carted off many of the best pieces, delivering the final blow, and museum shut its doors. But, even though it's gone, Tom was right: once you'd seen it, you'd never forget it.
This article Copyright (c) 1997-2007 by Robert H. Brown
Copyright © 2007-2012 kozmicdreams.com. All rights reserved.
All materials contained on this site, including text, graphics and icons, are the property of kozmicdreams.com.