TOM GASKINS' CYPRESS KNEE MUSEUM

The remains of a quirky roadside attraction that epitomizes old Florida charm.

Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

In 1930, Tom Gaskins moved his family from Arcadia to the small inland town of Palmdale, Florida near Fisheating Creek. He acquired the land - through a handshake, according to him - from the Lykes Bros. citrus, sugar, and ranching company. On this newly acquired swampland that was now his home, Tom Gaskins developed a fascination with the "knees" of the cypress trees that grew in abundance in the area.

Rather than referring to the tree itself, the "knee" of a cypress tree is the knotty roots that rose from the swampy waters. Tom would dig these knees from the muck and steam, peel, and core them before polishing them to a golden, satin-y finish. He held the only US patent (#2,069,580) on all products manufactured from cypress knees and even displayed his knees in the Florida Pavilion at the 1930-40 New York World's Fair. In the decades that followed, laws were put into place that prohibited the cutting of cypress trees, so the collection amassed by Tom Gaskins could never be duplicated.

Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

In the spirit of the mid-20th century, Tom Gaskins opened the Cypress Knee Museum along US-27 in 1951 as a way to exhibit his favorite creations. At the time, US-27 was a major tourist route to motorists traveling throughout the state of Florida. Near Palmdale, the open-air arcade style building contained glass display cases in which Tom proudly displayed hundreds of his cypress knees, gathered from 23 states. The display cases were situated around the world's largest transplanted cypress tree that grew up and out from the center of the building and visitors were instructed to be watchful, as snakes sometimes slithered into the exhibits.

As a native Floridian, this sounds like a mundane suggestion to me, but I'd imagine visitors from out of state were probably shocked by how blasé everyone else was about the possibility of a snake just hanging out in your vicinity.

Many of the polished knees on display were named for what they resembled to Tom, such as "Camel," "Josef Stalin," and "Lady Hippo Wearing A Carmen Miranda Hat." Tom also took pleasure in performing experiments on the cypress knees he gathered, making them grow around objects like coke bottles or a telephone receiver, as well as trying to control their shapes with wire and weights.

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Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum - a cypress knee with a cigar and a pair of glasses (1987)

Photo from Florida Memory

Tom even built his own signs to advertise the museum from the wood of dead cypress trees with large black letters. He placed these catchy signs featuring messages like "Come see Tom's knees" along the highway leading up to the museum so that passerby would be so intrigued that they stopped in to see the place for themselves. His favorite of these hand-carved signs was one that read “Lady If He Won’t Stop Hit Him On Head With Shoe.”

The Cypress Knee Museum stretched across land on both sides of US-27, with the museum itself on one side and the gift shop and catwalk on the other. The gift shop featured cypress knees for sale as well as furniture and other goods made from the knees. A five-minute video in the gift shop shows the process of Tom boiling, peeling, and removing wood fiber from the knobby knees in order to give them "that satin look." Tom removes the wood fiber from the knees with his tongue. "If it wasn't for wood fiber, you and me wouldn't be alive on this earth," he explains between licks. "In case times ever get real hard and there are famines across the earth, you know what to do."

Tom Gaskins sounds like a fun kind of old Florida guy, like someone my dad would definitely hang out with. He was a quirky type who was almost one with the swamp around him, the kind of person who seems more like an earth spirit or a character in a movie or book than an actual person. Tom didn't buy his first pair of glasses until he was 82 and jogged five miles through the swamp every day into his mid-'80s. He could usually be found barefoot in the knee deep swampy waters or guiding a group of tourists around his hand-built catwalks and showing off his experiments in what he called "controlled knee growth," a project he had been dabbling in since 1938.

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Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum - June 1954
Photo from Florida Memory

Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

The 3/4 mile catwalk that stretched out through the cypress canopies of the swamp were actually a series of 2x4's that were supported in the air by cypress poles sunk into the muck. The catwalk winded through the cypress trees through the swamp and made for a rickety, if not aggressively Floridian, tour. Tom would even guide the tours, walking barefoot through the swamp alongside visitors on the catwalk and explaining his experiments with the mad glee of a man who is able to do what he loves for a living.

The museum was even featured on television shows nationwide, including Carson, Leno, and Sally Jessie Rafael, though they turned down an offer to appear on Letterman because they thought he was too mean.

The 90's brought new struggles to their old Florida style shop with Lady Bird Johnson Law / Highway Beautification Act forcing the removal of all of their homemade cypress signs along US-27, which had become a much less traveled route to begin with since the construction of more convenient interstates. In 1993, Tom Gaskins' son, Tom Gaskins Jr. took over operation of the museum, stating "This place is real Florida. It's not a plastic mouse show. I'm a Florida Cracker, a piney woods rooter. I know how to survive on acorns. It'll be a long time before anyone ever shuts us down."

Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

"I guess I've learned just about everything I can from the knees," said Tom Gaskins Sr., just before he headed south to Miami, retiring from his day-to-day operation of the museum. "But, you know, this business...it's a helluva thing."

Tom Gaskins Sr. died in 1998 but his legacy as the king of the knees will remain intact, thanks to the wetlands law preventing the harvesting or cutting of cypress trees, his collection of cypress knees can never be reproduced. Tom Gaskins Jr. struggled to keep the museum open after the passing of his father. The land on which the museum and family home sat was reacquired by the Lykes Bros. and in 2000 thieves broke into the museum and made off with many of the best pieces, leading the Cypress Knee Museum to close its doors for good. Tom Gaskins Jr. and his family relocated to the nearby town of Venus and the Lykes Bros. sold the land to the state as part of the Preservation 2000 program.

Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum now sits empty, only findable by GPS coordinates or a very keen eye. The display cases are devoid of the once-famous knees that densely packed them once upon a time - though on my most recent trip there I did find a panther paw print in the sand in one of the cases, something I like to believe Tom Sr. would like. Thankfully though, I have not stumbled across any snakes, though I have no doubt that they still slither their way into the cases from time to time.

Tom Gaskins' Cypress Knee Museum | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

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