One attraction I’ve longed to see during several trips to Lucas – but haven’t yet caught up with – is a traveling museum featuring “The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things.”
I’ll give you a moment to absorb that properly.
It’s a clever idea – by an artist and free spirit named Erika Nelson who moved to Lucas, next to the Garden of Eden. She drives her museum (inside a van) to kitschy roadside attractions, often in little towns that overcompensate for their littleness by producing a LARGE version of something or other that, with hope, puts the town on the map. Then she makes small versions of these large things and exhibits them in her van, err museum.
Nelson has also compiled a state-by-state list of the world’s largest things and I’m pleased to report that I’ve seen several including the World’s Largest Swedish Coffeepot and Cup in the small Iowa town of Stanton (which doubles as a water tower); the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Ks. (although this claim is disputed by Minnesota twine-ballers) and the World’s Largest Tire near the Detroit airport (a highlight of my Michigan youth). There is a larger point – that these quirky things make these towns and cities distinctive and, as such, should be celebrated. (Nelson is into “combating genericana” i.e. all the generic fast food restaurants and chain stores you see in one town after another that makes them all seem the same.) Check out the list at – www.worldslargestthings.com/wllist.htm
One final (as if) note about Lucas: this is the only place where I eagerly look forward to eating baloney – in this case homemade Czech bologna made at Brant’s Meat Market, an 85-year-old store on Lucas’ tiny main drag. The beef jerky is good too!
I never like making errors but maybe it’s a good thing I was tired last night when blogging (that’s my excuse) and made two errors in my post about the Garden of Eden BECAUSE I got an email today from the great-grandson of S.P. Dinsmoor (yes it’s S.P. – for Samuel Perry, not E.P. as I mistyped yesterday) politely setting me straight. Which I appreciate. And it’s interesting to hear from a vigilant member of the Dinsmoor clan. The great-grandson also noted, rightly, that technically S.P. is entombed, not buried, in the mausoleum. Again, I stand corrected.
What really put Lucas, Ks. on the map, is an astonishing place called The Garden of Eden, which was built by an eccentric Civil War Veteran named S.P. Dinsmoor. The Garden is in the backyard of Dinsmoor’s small cabin made of limestone logs (vs. wooden logs.) I’ve struggled for years to describe it properly. It’s a true concrete jungle, made of concrete and stone vines and pillars with statues of Biblical figures (Adam and Eve are there) as well as pro-working Joe tableaux (such as the working man being crucified by the banker, the lawyer, the preacher, and the doctor.) One of my favorite parts is the large limestone mausoleum where Mr. Dinsmoor is entombed. A guide hands you a flashlight so you can enter and look through a plate of glass at Dinsmoor’s disintegrating skeleton. I have a priceless photo of my sister, who was visiting from the east coast during the late 1980s when I lived in Kansas, outside the mausoleum looking at me with a “You’ve got to be kinding me” expression.
While grassroots art can be found – as it should be – scattered in random rural locations throughout Kansas, there also is a self-conscious concentration of it in the small Kansas town of Lucas which has a storefront museum in some old limestone buildings devoted to grassroots art. This is the art stereotypically practiced by self-taught, iconoclastic loners – like farmers and ranchers – but also by trained artists and savvy hipsters living in remote places and it ranges from enticing odd to childlike to a little scary. A relative of folk art, grassroots art sometimes is called visionary art, naïve art, or primitive art.
You’ll see it all in Lucas – not only at the Grassroots Art Center but at a few other locations in town. When we visited a few years ago in December, someone from the museum took me, my husband and two young-teen kids, to a plain little unheated bungalow on a quiet street a few blocks away – and inside was the most astonishing sight. Every single room was covered with Barbies – yes, that Barbie – and other dolls. There were Barbies dripping from walls covered in aluminum foil and piled up in the bathtub, Barbies exotically-decorated and decked out in every which way. If this hadn’t been labeled “art” it might instead be viewed as a “cry for help.” We were all a bit spooked walking around this ice cold bungalow of Barbies – including my daughter who was never a huge Barbie fan but played with them occasionally. Check it out yourself at http://www.kansastravel.org/isis.htm
In the backyard is local Lucas legend Florence Deeble’s Rock Garden – a rather worn collection of “concrete postcards” – sculptures depicting famous places Florence visited, such as Mount Rushmore. A few blocks away, is the real Lucas masterpiece (which inspired young Florence and spawned the Grassroots Art Center) known as The Garden of Eden. Again, stay tuned.
A Wall Street Journal reporter seems to be mining the kooky Kansas beat, which I used to fancy as my own. After writing about the Big Well in Greensburg, Ks., she wrote a piece on the eccentric roadside sculpture in nearby Mullinville, Ks., pop. 202, which has long been a source of fascination for my family as we drive to and from my in-laws house in western Kansas. Last December, in addition to slowing down on the not-that-busy state highway to look more closely at the ever-growing line of scrap-metal whirligigs, many of them with political references of an indeterminate nature, we turned north on a country road in town and past the sculptor’s workshop – a shed with heaps of scrap metal and half-finished whirligigs (maybe that’s gigs.) There must be several hundred by now along the road – made of junk metal, glass bottles, presumably pilfered road signs, toilet seats, tractor gears, bowling balls, all whirling in the wind.
From the WSJ story, we learned that the sculptor is 79-year-old farmer named M.T. Liggett, that his subjects include three former wives and many girlfriends including one portrayed as a mouse in pearls holding a piece of cheese, caught in a mousetrap. (Guess that relationship didn’t go so well.) Among his favorites is one of Bill Clinton with a padlock welded to the zipper of his pants. Word has it that the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore – which I was dismayed to discover was closed on the Monday I visited – is displaying Liggett’s work.
It’s part of a genre of art by self-taught folks known variously as grassroots art or naive art – and Kansas is full of it. Stay tuned.
For more, see: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052748703894304575047461204497670-lMyQjAxMTAwMDAwOTEwNDkyWj.html
Would you drive to the middle of nowhere to visit a National Tornado Museum? Or to go on an eco-tour?
Maybe not – but the Tornado Museum does sound pretty cool, especially if it’s located on the very site where a ferocious tornado struck. Apparently this is part of the ambitious thinking of Greensburg, Ks. – the town I wrote about yesterday that also is trying to revive its fortunes by creating a museum out of its erstwhile leading attraction: the world’s largest hand-dug well.
The tornado museum doesn’t sound as far along in the planning as the Big Well Museum but one idea is to leave a block of Greensburg tornado-ravaged so people can see for themselves the real destruction caused. Interesting.
Last I drove through Greensburg – in late December – several new buildings had been built, some that looked a tad out-of-place, more akin to the architecture found in a suburban strip mall. But it was heartening to see some new building and growth, 21/2 years after the tornado almost wiped out the town and killed 11 people.
As for that eco-tour – it’s available now! No joke. “Greentown Greentours” (a free self-guided tour or a $5 per person guided tour) are being offered by Greensburg GreenTown, a local nonprofit helping Greensburg reinvent itself as model for green living and sutainable building. For more info on the Greentours see: http://www.greensburggreentown.org/greentown-greentour/
p.s. Am I the only one who is suddenly humming the theme song to a certain 1960’s TV show?
You guessed it:
Green acres is the place to be
Farm living is the life for me
Land spreading out,
so far and wide
just give me that countryside.
Fate (or chance or destiny?) has taken me to some unexpected places, sometimes repeatedly, and one of them is Greensburg, Kansas – a small town (pop. 1000) in the state’s windy west that was almost blown off the map in 2007 by a brutal tornado that killed eleven people and destroyed most of the town. (An event that ironically put Greensburg on the map.)
In the past 23 years, I have driven through Greensburg oh, maybe, 23 times, during our annual trips to visit my in-laws who live about an hour west in the even smaller wind-swept town of Wright, Ks. (pop. about 100) near Dodge City. Until the tornado struck, one of my favorite parts of our Kansas trip was going through Greensburg, driving under – if my memory serves me correctly – an almost hand-written sign blowing in the wind over State Highway 54 (US 400) that read: “BIG WELL.” With an arrow pointing due south.
I did visit the Big Well (aka “the world’s largest hand-dug well”….32 feet wide and 109 feet deep) at least once and don’t remember it being that Big a Deal. But that Big Sign – way cool! Something about its no-nonsense, no frills, bluntness struck me as classic Kansas. It is what it is.
But after the tornado – which blew the sign to God knows where – the sign never reappeared.
So I was pleased to read in a front page Wall Street Journal story yesterday (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703906204575027323116293074.html) that the Big Well may soon be an even bigger tourist attraction – as Greensburg continues its valiant efforts to recover from a tornado whose devastation – flattened buildings, chewed-up trees, piles of random rubble – I’ve seen firsthand.
Apparently Greensburg is emerging as an eco-tourism hotspot ( environmentalists including Leo DeCaprio are helping to resurrect Greensburg as a “green city” ….geddit?) – and the city has plans to develop a $3 million Big Well museum, contracting with big shot New York museum designers.
Good for them. I just hope they remember to string up that Big Sign again. (And maintain some of that low-key, quirky, Kansas charm.)