The Garden of Eden is actually nestled on a quiet residential street in the small town of Lucas, Kansas. And unlike the bountiful paradise described in Genesis, it's made almost entirely of cement--more than 113 tons of it. An amalgam of traditional religious imagery and homespun Americana, this bizarre backyard tourist attraction embodies the quirky personal theology of Samuel Perry Dinsmoor-Civil War vet, farmer, Populist reformer, and feisty old coot.
When he died, in 1932 at age 89, Dinsmoor instructed that he be mummified like an Egyptian, placed in a glass-topped coffin, and put on permanent display in a mausoleum next to his strawberry beds. Any visitor who paid a dollar would be ushered in to view Dinsmoor resting in peace. "If I see them dropping a dollar in the hands of the flunky," the old man wrote, "and I see the dollar, I will give them a smile."
After 70 years of moldering in an airy coffin, Dinsmoor doesn't have enough of a face left to smile with. Which is a shame, because with the collapse of Enron, reminding us all of the limitlessness of corporate greed, Dinsmoor would have plenty to smile about.
Dinsmoor was part of a vanishing native breed, once common on the American plains, who believed that unregulated big business is by definition bad-very bad. Dinsmoor had reason to grouse. He moved to Kansas to take up farming in the 1880s, when the federal government, in the name of promoting settlement, had allotted railroad companies enormous amounts of property. The railroads had the pick of the best land and helped themselves to stretches some 200 miles wide. That left the worst of the land for homesteaders, and many soon starved or left. State laws passed by farm voters and meant to protect local planters and consumers were nullified by the federal government, which also sanctioned the railroads' price fixing that drove farmers out.
Dinsmoor wasn't afraid to express his views on all this. In his backyard, he built a series of sculptures depicting the fallen state of man from Eden to the Golden Age. The sculptures still dwarf the two-story house at Second Street and Kansas Avenue, where Dinsmoor moved after retiring from farming.
In addition to a serpent, Dinsmoor's Eden features an octopus, a common Populist symbol of the monopolies that controlled turn-of-the-century industry. Its huge stone tentacles are wrapped around the waist of a woman and grabbing a soldier's food. Above them is a 48-star stone flag. "Aren't we a fool set of voters?" Dinsmoor wrote. "[The monopolies] are protected by the Star Spangled banner. That flag protects capital today better than it does humanity."
Frankly, though, I didn't travel to a tiny on the central Kansas plains expecting a lesson in the evils of unbridled greed. I went to the Garden of Eden to check out the bizarre cement creation some guy spent the last two decades of his life erecting on his half-acre lawn. My first full glimpse as I turned the corner did not disappoint. There were angels with massive wingspans, a horned devil raising a pitchfork, a growling dog, his mouth lined with real coyote's teeth. The "all-seeing-eye-of-God" hung from a branch on the "tree of life," which is guarded by an angel with a knee-length beard and brandishing a sword.
I was the sole visitor the morning I arrived. The tour guide, a young woman named Jessica, dispatched her garden lore in quick, uninflected bursts. She answered my questions in one or two sentences, and recommended I consult Dinsmoor's own booklet about the place, "The Cabin Home," available in the gift shop.
Born in Ohio in 1843, Dinsmoor had read the Bible several times by the time he reached his teens and was able to quote the Good Book at length. A Union army nurse during the Civil War, he claimed to have participated in 18 battles, including Gettysburg and the capture of Robert E. Lee. Like others who witnessed the bloody disaster of the Civil War, in which both North and South believed God was on their side, Dinsmoor came home questioning the religious certainties of his upbringing, and turned to free-thought and deism, which regards God as a remote figure who endows humanity with reason and the responsibility for events on Earth.