Crazy Old Coot, Artistic Genius - or Both?
Off the beaten path, directly in the heart of Kansas, is a site so odd I have never been able to shake its memory. In fact, this is the first I’ve written of it.
Perhaps I should start at the beginning.
Years ago, before the Internet made it easy, my mother somehow found an obscure, out of the way place that we just “had” to visit. In fact, we’d make a day of it by driving to central Kansas.
As I recall, the drive was pleasant enough. We stopped first at an Indian burial ground so we could learn more about the natives who once roamed the state.
It was not until our next stop that the trip took a sharp left into the land of the weird. Somehow, Mom had come across information about a small town called Lucas, and in Lucas, a peculiar homestead that had to be seen to be believed.
Referred to as The Garden of Eden, this tourist attraction was built by one Samuel Dinsmoor, a civil war veteran, farmer, political radical, and artist. Upon settling on the land, Dinsmore used cement to construct a house, barn, and pyramid. He even built a concrete spring, and being the stinker he was, Dinsmoor illegally tapped into the town’s water main to supply that spring.
Although he died in 1932, there is so much of the old man’s spirit on the property that he might as well have been our tour guide. I have learned in the years since that visit that the Garden of Eden is famous and that Dinsmoor is considered a folk artist, but you would not have guessed it on that hot Kansas day. I know there must have been someone there to collect our entry fee, but I genuinely don't recall seeing another soul.
As he grew old, Dinsmoor encircled the house with more than 150 concrete statues and supported them with 29 concrete “trees” standing 40-feet high. Some of the statues are of Old Testament Bible characters and some are politically based, a perfect representation of Dinsmoor’s populist beliefs.
Years later, as I recall that dusty day, I find myself asking the same question I asked then: Why? Why would a man dedicate 25 years to creating art that so few people were likely to see? Why, when visitors stood outside his property gawking at the oddity before them, did he taunt them by speaking into a tube that ran from the interior of his house to the mouth of a cement angel? And for the love of all that’s good, why, after the death of his wife, did Dinsmoor have her body exhumed from a local cemetery and moved into a mausoleum on the property?
By the time I learned that at the age of 80, Dinsmoor impregnated his teenage housekeeper, I was not even slightly surprised. The fact that he married her and went on to have another child with her was met with a mental shrug. Samuel Dinsmoor was anything but normal.
As we walked the property I was surrounded by the feeling of restless energy, as though Dinsmoor’s mania did not die with him. And speaking of a dead Dinsmoor, as the tour ended, there was a 40-foot-tall limestone mausoleum where Dinsmoor was entombed, his body perfectly visible beneath the glass lid of his coffin.
To say that I was ill-prepared is an understatement. In fact, to this day I cannot tell you how or if my mother showed any reaction to the sight of his dead body.
Dinsmoor left clear instructions that he was to be displayed there, the ultimate exhibit of his artwork. His directions were clear: “None except my widow, my descendants, their husbands and wives, shall go in to see me for less than $1.”
They say his corpse looked pretty good -- for 70 years, that is. At some point, the glass covering Dinsmoor cracked, air and moisture seeped in, and his face took on a greenish hue.
I know it should creep me out, but I have a feeling Dinsmoor would have loved it. Nature as art.