Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum (Closed)
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...