2016-06-30
For years, biblical literalists have debated the location of the Garden of Eden. Some say it was north of the Persian Gulf, where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet. Others say it was in the Sinai desert. A California-based researcher claims it was in what's now Turkey, and he says he's got satellite pictures to prove it. Alas, they're all wrong.

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."

Though Dinsmoor thought the public had only itself to blame for allowing the government to serve the interests of big business at great harm to the people, his villains are not in question. A jarring tableau in the Garden of Eden, which Dinsmoor called "Labor Crucified," stands 40-feet-tall: atop a concrete "tree" the common man hangs crucified at the hands of a banker, a lawyer, a doctor, and a preacher-the "leaders of all who eat cake by the sweat of the other fellow's face."

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.

In 1870, he married Frances Barlow Journey, a widow with two children. The couple settled outside Lucas, a small but vibrant farm community. They produced five more children. In 1905, at age 62, Dinsmoor moved to town and set about building his "Cabin Home," an 11-room, two-story house made of narrow limestone slabs, which dovetail at the corners to resemble a log cabin. Dinsmoor also built his own furniture, including a desk with a secret compartment in which he stashed his money-so strong was his distrust of banks. A row of cement beer bottles on the back porch is Dinsmoor's comment on Prohibition: "You can't drink booze any more," he explained in his book. "If you can't drink it, look at it; it will help some."

Dinsmoor was a showman. The first in Lucas to have electricity, he wired his sculptures so they could be lit up at night. He ran a hose to a hole in the "all-seeing-eye," so he could shout at passersby from his basement, pretending God was speaking to them. His continual additions to the Garden were probably a scheme to keep people coming back.

Dinsmoor tested the locals' patience plenty. The fountain he added to his property tapped the town's water main. Shocked town leaders forced Dinsmoor to cover Adam and Eve's privates with cement loincloths. When his first wife died, the town insisted she be interred in the cemetery, not his mausoleum. Dinsmoor complied, then dug her up, put her in the mausoleum and covered her coffin with steel and cement so they couldn't move her. She rests there today.

Scandal erupted again with his marriage at 81 to his attractive, 20-year-old Czechoslovakian housekeeper, who gave him two more children. His son John, born in 1929, was listed by Ripley's Believe It or Not as the youngest living son of a Civil War veteran.

For Dinsmoor, however, the true scandal was unchecked capitalism. The Garden of Eden is, for all its looniness, a coherent critique of modern civilization that draws on easily recognizable themes to explain how we got this way.

In a weird way, economics is at the heart of Dinsmoor's theology . One scene depicts a soldier shooting at an Indian who is in turn firing at a dog that is chasing a fox that hunts a bird eyeing a worm. The worm is eating a leaf. Here, Dinsmoor is playing off Herbert Spencer's theory of social Darwinism: that the strong are not only entitled to prey on the weak, but are obligated to, for the benefit all. Wall Street still espouses that philosophy in a mantra: "Greed is good." In Dinsmoor's telling, the devil attempted to destroy humanity by appealing to Adam and Eve's greed.

Dinsmoor doesn't just dwell on our doom-he offers solutions. In another tableau, the Goddess of Liberty has thrust a spear through the head of yet another octopus, its monopolistic tentacles flailing, unable to grasp anything, while below a man and woman use a crosscut saw marked "Ballot" to cut off the government's support of the trust.

Dinsmoor's populist notions combine self-sufficiency and civic-mindedness, a philosophy the residents of Lucas have come to embrace. "Wild," I said when a local store owner asked what I thought of the Garden. "Yeah," he responded, "but that Dinsmoor had a lot of good ideas." The opinion is shared by everyone I spoke with there.

At noon in Lucas, an air-raid siren sounds: the fire department, locals are proud to inform you, telling everyone it's time to close shop and head home for lunch. Main Street's two blocks include Linda's Café, a Chevrolet dealership, a grocery store, and a liquor store. The small cinema, "the only one for at least 50 miles," a resident told me, was built by the community and is run by volunteers as a non-profit. At the Lucas Country Inn, where I was the only guest at a place that sees mostly hunters, a sign on the communal refrigerator reads: "Do Not Put Pheasants in Icemaker!"

There's no ATM in Lucas. Most transactions are nonetheless cashless, made by check or noted in accounts, even at the gas station on the way out of town. "Lucas is a remarkable town," said John Hachmeister, professor of sculpture at the University of Kansas and part owner of the Garden of Eden. "Most small towns out there are shrinking, dying fast," he said. "Lucas is the only one that keeps plugging, and they've got the same struggling agricultural economy everybody else has. The difference in Lucas is the people. In other towns, people think, `What's here for me, what can I take?' In Lucas, people think, `What can I give?' They take care of each other. Their basic operating principle is, despite our differences, we have to work together to keep this place going. And they do."

Lucas's spirit gives us a vision of what America might have been if folks like Dinsmoor had their way. Enron promised its employees the satisfaction of building a new kind of company-just as the railroads promised a new way of life on the prairie. Dinsmoor presumed there was nothing truly new, that the capitalist bosses would always look out for themselves, and expect the government to look out for them too. By mythologizing the march of greed, he hoped to open people's eyes to the system's unchanging nature.

At the very least, it seems he got through to the citizens of Lucas. A Dinsmoorian spirit is alive in the town's Grassroots Arts Center. Opened in 1995, the Arts Center occupies three buildings on Main Street that were gutted and restored by volunteers. The museum showcases works by Kansas artists who, like Dinsmoor, the "granddaddy of grassroots artists," were completely self-taught and driven by a personal vision to create. Locals, like the Center's director, Rosslyn Schultz, applied and received grants from, among others, the Kansas Humanities Council, the Kansas Arts Commission, and even the National Endowment of the Arts, which enabled them to hire an architect. "But indispensable to the Center from day one," Schulz said, "have been the contributions of Lucas High School alumni."

This fall, the Center will host Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future, a traveling exhibition sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute. "Lucas is the smallest community ever to host a Smithsonian exhibit," Schultz said. "It took a lot of work by more than 40 people to bring the exhibit here," she said, "but it just shows what a few people can do if they're willing to commit to something they believe in."

Lucas today would make Dinsmoor proud. "Sure, the town has its share of problems," said Hachmeister. "But it truly has come to embody Dinsmoor's Populist vision of what's the best in the American people. And more than that," he added, "Lucas represents what all of us want but so few can find-a good, decent community to live in."



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