Sight of the Week: Oct 24-30, 2016 | Archive

Girl reaches for soldier as she's grabbed from behind by evil octopus.
Girl reaches for soldier as she's grabbed from behind by evil octopus. Folk art in cement at the Garden of Eden.

The Garden of Eden

Field review by the editors.

Lucas, Kansas

Sam Dinsmoor, in his 1927 guidebook to the Garden of Eden, wrote that he was crazy. "I am bughouse," he declared cheerfully, and everyone in the town of Lucas probably agreed. Dinsmoor, among his many accomplishments, had dug up his dead wife from the local cemetery and entombed her in a mausoleum that was part of the Garden tour. For a quarter, he'd pose for photos in his own coffin.

Dinsmoor looks at his dead self in a postcard he sold to tourists.
Dinsmoor looks at his dead self in a postcard he sold to tourists.

Dinsmoor created the Garden of Eden as a tourist attraction, living on the property with his family. He built it near the town train station, which was how most people traveled to Lucas in the early 1900s.

No one could miss the Garden, because Dinsmoor placed some of its sculptures on concrete "trees" 40 feet high. A giant Eye of God included a lightbulb iris that blinked. The eyes of a horned Devil glowed, courtesy of a bulb inside its head.

With the crosscut saw of the Ballot, Americans cut down the flimsy prop of Chartered Rights.
With the crosscut saw of the Ballot, Americans cut down the flimsy prop of Chartered Rights.

Dinsmoor expected curious visitors to pay for a tour. When they merely gawked from the sidewalk, he would nag them through a speaking tube that ran from inside his house to the mouth of one of his angel statues.

After Dinsmoor died, his second wife -- who was his teenage housekeeper until the 80-year-old Dinsmoor impregnated her -- quickly remarried and sold the property to pay off her taxes. One of its later owners offered $100 to anyone who would bulldoze it into rubble. "But no one would touch it," said Mary Ann Steinle, a Garden of Eden tour guide and a Dinsmoor relative. "There was a kind of a fear about this place." Rosslyn Schultz over at the town's Grassroots Art Center concurred. "They were too scared to tear it down."

The Garden sat abandoned, spooking the locals, until it was bought and reopened as an attraction in 1969. In time the town gradually came to accept the Garden, and it was eventually recognized as an example of "visionary art." In 2012 it was restored by the Kohler Foundation, which cut down trees and vines and cleaned the artwork of years of encrusted lichen and mold, revealing the original tinted concrete underneath. Clothes that the town had asked Dinsmoor to add to some of his statues were removed, baring nipples that had been hidden for 90 years.

Entrance to the Garden of Eden. Dinsmoor said he put up the name to stop people from asking him,
Entrance to the Garden of Eden. Dinsmoor said he put up the name to stop people from asking him, "What is this?"

Labor crucified by Doctor, Lawyer, Preacher, Banker.
Labor crucified by Doctor, Lawyer, Preacher, Banker.

The Garden tour begins in the "Cabin Home" Dinsmoor built in 1907. It was the first house in Lucas with electricity and running water -- because Dinsmoor had secretly tapped the town's water main. Every door and window is a different size. "He did that on purpose," said Mary Ann, "to get people to come in and take a tour."

Thanks to its evil reputation, the house has survived mostly intact. Visitors can see dead stuffed animals from Dinsmoor's backyard zoo, and the room in which he died in 1932.

Then it's outside to the art. Dinsmoor encircled the house with a web of concrete statues whose theme was initially Biblical, with Adam, Eve, and their incestuous children. Abel's wife/sister finds him bloody and dead; Cain is banished with his wife/sister and his murder-weapon hoe. Above them Father Time guards the Tree of Life so that no one else can live forever.

Dinsmoor tomb.
Sam Dinsmoor's tomb. Visitors enter to view his corpse through its glass-topped coffin.

Dinsmoor then shifted his energies to political art, spurred, some say, by the 1914 Ludlow Massacre. These displays are editorial cartoons in cement; Dinsmoor called them, "modern civilization as I see it." An evil octopus of conspiratorial Trusts, balanced on a flimsy prop of Chartered Rights, grabs at the North Pole, the Panama Canal, a woman, and a baby. Elsewhere the Goddess of Liberty stabs another Trust monster in the head while citizens attack its Chartered Rights plank with a crosscut saw labeled, "Ballot." Dinsmoor's last artwork, Crucified Labor, combined his Biblical and Populist themes, but age caught up with him before he could complete it, and it remains unfinished.

The tour ends, as it did when Dinsmoor was alive, inside his 40-foot-tall limestone mausoleum. Dinsmoor is entombed, above his first wife, in his photo-op concrete coffin, beneath a glass lid. "For about 70 years he still looked pretty good," said Mary Ann, shining a flashlight on Sam. But the glass cracked in the early 21st century, air and moisture got in, and Dinsmoor's face is now a greenish blob. "I've had some people say it's exploitation," said Mary Ann. "But it's what he wanted. He put it in his Will that he wanted people to come see him. He wanted to be a permanent part of his artwork."

Dinsmoor in his guidebook wondered what it would be like to visit his attraction in the future, correctly guessing that he'd have to leave his mausoleum to do so. "Some dark night I will slip out and take a look at it," he wrote. "Or some other people will see it, which will be just the same." He would be pleased that he still draws a crowd.

And Mary Ann doesn't think he was crazy. "15,000 people a year still come here, from all over the world, because of this man," she told our tour group, gesturing toward the corpse in the coffin. "I think he knew what he was doing."

The Garden of Eden

305 E. 2nd St., Lucas, KS
In town, on the southeast corner of 2nd St. and Kansas Ave.
Summer daily 10-5; Spring 1-4. Or by appt. (Call to verify)
Adults $7.
RA Rates:
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Nearby Offbeat Places

Mini-Mount-Rushmore of Florence DeebleMini-Mount-Rushmore of Florence Deeble, Lucas, KS - < 1 mi.
Grassroots Art CenterGrassroots Art Center, Lucas, KS - < 1 mi.
Bowl Plaza: World's Most Artsy Public ToiletsBowl Plaza: World's Most Artsy Public Toilets, Lucas, KS - < 1 mi.
In the region:
1930s Mobil Gas Station, Bunker Hill, KS - 16 mi.

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