Twenty years ago, I took my two sons to Kansas’ Garden of Eden, one of the oldest, oddest and most memorable tourist attractions in the state. The garden got its start in 1907 when Samuel P. Dinsmoor, at the age of 64, erected a “log cabin” made of limestone to lure travelers off trains passing through Lucas, smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. But the retired teacher, farmer and Civil War veteran didn’t stop there. Over the next two decades, he turned his yard into a sculpture garden—but not like any you might imagine.
More than 150 concrete statues of life-size humans, animals and mythical figures, many perched atop the reinforced concrete “trees” and “branches” that snake around his property, serve as visual commentaries espousing Dinsmoor’s religious and Populist political views. The eccentric artist gave tours of his property, married his 20-year-old housekeeper when he was 81 (they had two children), and wrote in his guidebook, still sold on-site, that his home was the most unique on earth for the “living and dead.”
S.P. Dinsmoor’s Cabin Home and Garden of Eden; Photo by Doug Stremel/Courtesy of Kansas Tourism
He made good on his word by building his own 40-foot-tall limestone mausoleum, inside of which is a glass-lidded coffin. The view of the reposing Dinsmoor, dead since 1932, stays with you.
When I returned to Lucas this year—this time without my now- adult sons—I texted them to ask whether they remembered visiting S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden. Boy, did they. My youngest, who was six at the time of that first visit, texted back: “For a while as a kid, I thought when people referred to the ‘Garden of Eden’ that they were talking about that place.” I suspect Dinsmoor, ever the showman, would be amused.
The Garden of Eden put Lucas on the map and also lit the flame that has turned it into a hot spot for way-out-there self-taught artists. In 1932, locals Roy and Clara Miller began fashioning conical “mountains” and miniature buildings from rocks they collected from more than 50 trips to Colorado. Florence Deeble, born in 1900, grew up watching Dinsmoor create his menagerie and was in her fifties when she began using rocks and cement to build “postcard” scenes in her yard of famous tourist sights such as Mount Rushmore.
Lucas native Florence Deeble re-created “postcard” scenes in her backyard of favorite vacation spots, including Mount Rushmore and Estes Park, from the 1950s until her death in 1999. Photo by Beth Reiber
“Lucas has a history of more than 100 years of people being funky in their yards,” says Rosslyn Schultz, executive director of Lucas’ Grassroots Art Center, which documents and promotes more than 120 self-taught artists, mostly from Kansas. Even Lucas’ public restroom, called Bowl Plaza, is a spectacle, its exterior and interior covered with mosaics made from colored glass, broken pottery, tiles, toys, mirrors and other objects; you’re forgiven for mistaking it for an art gallery.
It’s little wonder that this farming community of about 400, tucked in north-central Kansas about 212 miles west of Kansas City, has been dubbed the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas.
Both Bowl Plaza and Grassroots Art Center are located on a two-block stretch of downtown Main Street, bookended by a silo and a water tower and home to the post office, fire station, library and several small businesses. Even the telephone poles on Main Street are decorated with artwork.
Telephone pole art on Main Street; Photo by Beth Reiber
Lucas’ small-town, creative atmosphere, as well as its geographic location in the middle of the country, is what convinced artist Erika Nelson almost 20 years ago to make the town her home base for The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things. She travels the country searching for the world’s largest roadside attractions, monuments and artist-built environments, which she then re-creates in miniature form. Kansas superlatives in her collection include the world’s largest ball of twine (Cawker City) and the world’s largest cow hairball (Garden City).
The marquee of the building displaying Erika Nelson’s World’s Largest Collection; Photo by Beth Reiber
“Creativity has always been a part of Lucas’ fabric,” she says, adding that the town’s isolation helped preserve it. “We’re hours away from a big city and too small for Walmart. It’s a magic combination, being open to visitors and not being gobbled up.”
Her collection, along with photographs and the stories behind the attractions, is on view at her Roadside Sideshow Expo on Main Street, open “by chance or appointment” April through October. (Visitors are encouraged to call, email or text her in advance.)
Just across the street, the Grassroots Art Center occupies three limestone buildings with a wondrous display of works by self-taught artists who’ve employed a variety of media, from scrap wood and cow bones to pull tabs and chewing gum. Mostly retired when they began creating, these artists come from all walks of life, including a veterinarian, sheriff, research chemist, farmer, storeowner, janitor and assembly worker. Among the works exhibited are button art; hooked rugs; intricate woodcarvings; a sculpture made from items found at the bottom of a drained lake, historically correct, three dimensional dresses made of paper; and art painted on seed sacks and cardboard boxes. Some pieces are hilarious, such as the cameo portraits made of chewed gum by Betty Milliken. Others are intricately detailed and mindboggling.
Circus-themed art exhibited at the Grassroots Art Center; Photo by Beth Reiber
Included in admission to the Grassroots Art Center is access to Florence Deeble’s modest home, just a few blocks away. Its interior, a gallery called the Garden of Isis after the Greek goddess, is an explosion of fantasy created by artist Mri-Pilar, who covered the walls with silver foil as a backdrop for her more than 1,800 sculptures fashioned from recycled dolls, toys, computer motherboards, kitchen gadgets and other found materials. Mri-Pilar’s name rang a bell with me. After returning home, I confirmed with her via email that she was, indeed, the artist of an abstract painting I’d bought almost 20 years ago.
A marvelous coincidence, but being in Lucas made me realize that it’s just a springboard for discovering even more grassroots artists and their art environments all over the country. I’d driven to Lucas, 15 miles north of I-70, via the Post Rock Scenic Byway (Kansas Highway 232), named for the limestone fence posts left by early settlers on the treeless plains.
Limestone fence line the Post Rock Scenic Byway; Photo by Beth Reiber
For my return trip, I headed east on Highway 18, and when I spotted metal creatures rising from farmers’ fields, I was delighted but not surprised. Lucas had changed my perspective, making pieces of yard art like these seem perfectly at home.