Tom Gaskins in 1991.

Cypress Knee Museum Founder Goes to Big Swamp in the Sky

Palmdale, Florida

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

Tom Gaskins in the Knee display.
Tom Gaskins in the Knee display.

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.

Bottle Experiment preview.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.

A younger Tom.
A younger Tom.

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!"

Tom at his knee workshop, 1987.
Tom at his knee workshop, 1987.

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 appearances on the Tonight Show -- merrily licking and waving knees at the uninitiated.

After Tom's death, his knees, signs, and family all gradually disappeared from the property. The cinder block Cypress Knee Museum building still stands, although it's overgrown with weeds and trashed by morons. However, the land has been leased to the county -- protecting it from the bulldozers -- and in 2017 a local nonprofit began fundraising to clean the place up and reopen the museum with a focus on local cultural history and ecology -- including, of course, Tom Gaskins and cypress knees.

Also see: The Hall of Immortals

Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum

Directions:
Hwy 27 where it curves. Museum was on the west side and Tom's swamp walk was on the east side.
Hours:
Closed since 2000.
Status:
Gone

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