Outré| o͞oˈtrā |
(adjective) Unusual and startling.
I’m going to briefly diverge from our “Geologic Wonders of Kansas” theme and spend a little time on some man-made wonders. As a big fan of roadside attractions, folk art and weird things, I have wanted to visit Lucas, Kansas, for decades. Whenever we passed it on I-70, we always seemed to be in too much of a hurry to stop. Not so on this trip. In fact, I made sure Lucas was one of our destinations. We actually ended up spending an extra day there, and I want to return soon because we barely scratched the surface of the town’s quirky treasures.
We started the quirkiness off with an AirBnB stay at the “Hippie Chic Oasis in the High Plains” near Colby, Kansas. It was a cool, weird, peaceful respite after a dusty day exploring the varied rocky remains of the western interior seaway. The next morning, we headed east and peeled off at the Lucas exit with plans to see the famous Garden of Eden and the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Version of the World’s Largest Things (I was really excited about this).
I should have known one day would not be enough when the town’s welcome sign was an oversized souvenir travel plate. I was particularly intrigued by the fleeting inscription on the plate about “Ed Root ‘neath Lake Wilson,” but more about that later. When nature called and we visited the Bowl Plaza first thing ~ public art + public restroom ~ I was smitten with the town.
We wandered up the street from Bowl Plaza and saw, to my dismay, the shuttered storefront of the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Version of the World’s Largest things. “Erika’s out of town,” called a woman who was locking up the Grassroots Arts Center across the street. While we were disappointed, we still had the Garden of Eden, and Jeannie (of the Grassroots Arts Center) gave us some great tips:
1) The Grassroots Arts Center and nearby gallery would both be open the next day.
2) Since it was such a nice day, we might want to check out the Rocktown Trail at nearby Wilson Lake (Rocktown? We most certainly did!).
3) The local convenience store had great sub sandwiches.
We thanked Jeannine and headed to Conoco for a couple of sandwiches and started our self-guided tour of the Garden of Eden with a picnic lunch on the handmade concrete tables S.P Dinsmoor had built for his guests almost a century ago.
Born in 1843, Ohio native Samuel Perry Dinsmoor grew up in a very religious home, but, like many who witnessed the horrors of the Civil War (he served as a nurse for the Union Army) he began searching for other ways to understand humankind after the war ended.
At this time, the free-thought movement and a number of secret societies proliferated throughout the United States. These influenced Dinsmoor considerably, and when he retired from farming and built his retirement “cabin” in Lucas, he decided to use it as a political statement/tourist attraction.
It’s hard to imagine the Garden of Eden without seeing it in person. First of all, it’s huge, rising stories above the nearby homes in an otherwise ordinary residential neighborhood. Larger-than-life Adam and Eve statues flank a welcome tunnel leading to the back yard while various other sculptures tower above, like ship’s masts, populated with a wide range of hand-sculpted figures and animals, with themes ranging from religion to politics to everyday life and the human condition.
Dinsmoor constructed the structures and art at the Cabin Home and Garden of Eden between 1907 and 1928. According to his own writing, “The porches, side walks, fence, strawberry and flower beds, fish pool, grape-arbor three US flags, Adam and Eve, the devil, coffin, jug, visitors’ dining hall, labor crucified, two bird and animal cages, and wash house are all made with cement … over 113 tons or 2,273 sacks of cement have (sic) been used. The Garden of Eden is on the west; the front, or north represents present day civilization. There are fifteen cement trees from 30 to 40 feet tall. On trees, mausoleum, cages and dining hall are forty-eight electric lights. The most unique home, for living or dead, on earth.”
True to his word, Dinsmoor resides forever at the site, in the mausoleum he built for himself … in a glass-front coffin of his own design. Tourists still flock to see the Garden, and perhaps Dinsmoor smiles whenever someone stops by to pay homage to his creation.
Next door to the Garden of Eden is the smaller, but still impressive Miller’s Park, a roadside attraction built by Roy and Clara Miller in the 1920s. They created dozens of miniature buildings and structures, fashioned from a dazzling variety of rocks and shells they had gathered on their travels. It has had several homes over the years and fell into disrepair, but it has been lovingly restored and placed back in Lucas where it belongs.
I think what struck me most about the Garden of Eden and Miller’s Park is the sincerity and genuine passion of their creators. True to the roots of folk art, they just felt compelled to create something meaningful with the materials they had readily available. I love this about folk art. It strikes a chord and makes art accessible.
There is much, much more to see in Lucas, so stay tuned for more about our Rocktown hike, Ed Root’s ill-fated folk art collection, tucked-away fence post art and the psychedelic and somewhat creepy Garden of Isis.