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Tom Gaskins and His Cypress Knee Museum

Tom Sr., talkin' knees agin . . .


Tom Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum

 (article from

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'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...










    Cypress Knee Museum Founder Goes to Big Swamp in the Sky

    (article from

    Tom Gaskins, kneefinder general and founder of the Cypress Knee Museum, died Saturday, May 2, 1998. He was 89.

    In the late 1930s, Tom began homesteading along Fisheating Creek, which flows into the west side of Lake Okeechobee, FL. He quickly grew enraptured by the "knees" of cypress trees -- knobby root growths that rise, often in fantastic shapes, above the swamps.

    Tom would dig out the knees, steam, peel, and core them, then polish them to a satiny golden finish. In 1951 he began exhibiting his favorites in a home-built museum near Palmdale along U.S. 27, then a major tourist route. Miles of signs hammered together from dead cypress trees announced the museum's approach. " Lady If He Won't Stop Hit Him On Head With Shoe" was Tom's favorite.


    Glass display cases in the museum's open air arcades were jammed with hundreds of knees, most named for what their shape resembled at least to Tom. Josef Stalin, John Wayne, and " Lady Hippo Wearing a Carmen Miranda Hat" all enjoyed equal billing in Gaskins' knee universe. The Cypress Knee Museum so dazzled our jaded eyes that we named it one of Roadside America's original Seven Wonders of Tourism in 1986.

    Years passed, the knees grew dusty, some of the signs fell down. Interstates bypassed U.S. 27. But the museum and Tom remained -- small, wiry, and cantankerous as ever. He actually began to resemble a knee.

      Usually barefoot, Tom would take anyone who stopped on tours through the swamp and point out his experiments in "controlled knee growth." To avoid snakes, Tom insisted that visitors stay on an elevated, home-made catwalk - which struck some as more dangerous than the swamp itself. Standing shin deep in muck, wearing only shorts and a loud sport shirt, Tom would denounce the "ditches" that had drained the water out of Florida, enriching land speculators and screwing up the weather. He enjoyed posing for pictures wearing a cypress knee hat.

    Tom, a devotee of physical culture, jogged five miles through his swamp every day, barefoot, well into his 80s. He encouraged people to eat wood for its nutritive properties. "That's the cambium layer," he'd say through a mouthful of pulp, licking a newly peeled knee. "Without it there'd be no life on this earth!"

    Without Tom's sixty years of relentless research and promotion, the Cypress Knee would have been just another forgotten gnarly growth. Towards the end of his career, Tom reached his biggest audience during two appearences on the Tonight Show -- merrily licking and waving knees at the uninitiated.

    The Gaskins family plans to continue operating the museum. [05/23/1998]




Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum

(article from

Photo courtesy of the Florida State Archives Photographic collection.

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

November 21, 1986|By Bob Morris of the Sentinel Staff




Heeerrreee's Tom And His Amazing Feet

(article from Orlando Sentinel)

November 21, 1986|By Bob Morris of the Sentinel Staff

Yes, I was somewhat concerned Wednesday night when I saw my friend Tom Gaskins, the legendary swamp rat and noted authority on cypress trees, turkey hunting and all kinds of important Florida stuff, appear on the Johnny Carson show. I had called him the day before to ask whether this shot at the big time was going to change him.

''Ain't gonna change me at all,'' he said.

''Meaning, you ain't gonna wear 'em?'' I asked.

''I ain't gonna wear 'em!'' snapped Tom. ''It ain't a damn funeral, is it?''

We were talking about shoes. To his friends, Tom Gaskins is known as Ol' Barefoot. I've known him a good 10 years and I haven't seen anything on his feet except the hide that they came with, hide that has grown as tough as any leather, thanks to 77 years of shoeless living.

Tom Gaskins gets up every morning and jogs 3 to 5 miles barefoot through the swamp near his home along Fisheating Creek in Palmdale, about 30 miles south of Sebring. When he goes to work at his World Famous Cypress KneeMuseum, a business he started 52 years ago alongside U.S. Highway 27, he greets his customers barefoot.

He does everything barefoot, except go to funerals. He has a pair of 20- year-old black wingtips he wears out of respect to the departed.

But there was Tom the other evening, strolling out to gladhand Johnny Carson, one of his original cypress knee hats atop his head and -- I wouldn't have believed it unless I had seen it for myself -- shoes on his feet. Okay, they were sandals. But they were shoes nonetheless. And I don't know where Tom got them. They looked sort of Californiaish to me.

Anyway, Johnny apologized to Tom for ''cramping your style'' but explained that NBC has regulations against going barefoot, which no doubt accounted for why Tom wasn't his usual gracious self when Johnny asked him if he had ever watched the show.

''No, sir,'' said Tom. ''I'm a working man, myself. I have to get up in the mornings.''

Oooooo-kay, said Johnny, so how do you like L.A?

''Well, I tell you,'' said Tom, ''I'm gonna give it you. You can have all you want of it.''

This is not to say that Johnny and Tom didn't hit it off. It's just that 8 to 9 minutes on a late-night talk show isn't nearly enough time to spend with Tom Gaskins. With him, it pays to sit a spell. As it was, they were ushering Tom offstage to make way for some fast-talking comedian before he had a chance to properly explain how he had spent the better part of this century collecting cypress knees and making his living from them.

He couldn't even get Johnny Carson to understand what a cypress knee is.

''A cypress knee isn't the root. A knee is a knee is a knee,'' Tom told Johnny.

Nor did he seem to understand it when Tom told him that ''in every cypress tree the soul of some lost sculptor might there be.'' That explains how Tom has collected all sorts of wondrous cypress knees for his museum, even cypress knees that bear uncanny resemblances to people like Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx, Nikita Krushchev and Dwight Eisenhower.

What's worse, Tom didn't get a chance to talk about why everyone, especially everyone who lives in Florida should go barefoot. He has told me many times though, so let me share it with you:

-- Economy: ''Shoes cost money. Bare feet don't.''

-- Longevity: ''Figure that a pair of shoes weighs a pound. Figure that an active person picks up his feet about 5,000 times a day. This is 2 1/2 tons of picking up. You're saving strength if you go barefoot.''

-- Agility: ''You go barefoot long enough and your feet grow wider and longer. This gives you better balance.''

-- Air pollution: ''If you wear shoes, then your feet stink.  Go barefoot and they get a chance to air out. Most folks can appreciate this.''

After Tom Gaskins said his goodbye the other night, Johnny Carson did allow that ''I love people like that.''

''They treat me like I just fell off the turnip truck.' Johnny said. And the audience laughed.

If he gets lucky, maybe he'll tumble off the turnip truck down near Palmdale one day. Might do him good, might do everyone good, to sit a spell with Ol' Barefoot.


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