Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum
Come see Tom's knees said the crudely made signs, fashioned from twisted cypress tree parts with big black letters. Lady if he won't stop, hit him on head with shoe. You might still be miles from Palmdale on US 27, and Palmdale was miles from much of anything, but you knew that Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum awaited ahead.
In the 1930's Tom became fascinated with cypress knees, those knobby protuberances that cypress trees grow from their roots up above the surface of the swamp water that often surrounds them. He collected them, especially those that looked like something else to him, be it a person or even a "Lady Hippo Wearing A Carmen Miranda Hat." And he performed experiments on them, making them grow around objects like coke bottles or a telephone receiver, and he tried to control their shapes with wire and weights.
Tom wanted to share his cypress knee fever with everyone so he opened a roadside museum, gift shop, and cypress knee factory where he peeled and polished cypress for sale to the tourists. On one side of the street he built a rectangular, open museum building -- glass walls fronting displays of knees all crudely labeled with what their shapes suggested to him they looked like. On the other side of the street was his shop, full of knees for sale, and a boardwalk through the swamp: a crude affair made of two-by-fours nailed to cypress stumps and live trees, running long ways in parallel, making for a narrow, somewhat rickety and scary tour of the swamp. If you were lucky he would walk along beside you, on the ground, barefoot, and show off his living cypress knee experiments.
In later years he would also probably insist that you photograph him in his cypress hat, which he called "the most photographed hat in the world." If you didn't bring your camera he would be disappointed but insist that what you saw that day you would never forget, even without photos to remember him by.
While US 27 had once been the main Southbound artery through Central Florida down to Miami when Tom opened his museum, it was eventually by-passed by the Florida Turnpike, as well as I-95 to the East and, later, I-75 to the West. The flow of tourist traffic by the museum slowed to a trickle, not unlike the reduced flow of water through Tom's swampland once the Army Corps of Engineers got through with its area dykes and canals.
Tom Gaskins died in 1998. Tom's son, Tom Jr., tried to keep the museum open, but was hampered by an edict by the Lykes company, which owns much of the land in that area, to remove the famous signs from their property. Then thieves broke into the museum one night in 2000 and carted off many of the best pieces, delivering the final blow, and museum shut its doors. But, even though it's gone, Tom was right: once you'd seen it, you'd never forget it.
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Photo courtesy of the Florida State Archives Photographic collection.
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