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S. P. Dinsmoor

The William Blake of the American West

by B. Amundson

Venturing across the vast amber grain tinted expanse of Kansas, the intrepid traveler may tire of the giant groundhogs, Wyatt Earp Softee Parlors, and Stuckey Pecan excesses of Interstate 70 and opt instead for the stylistic throwbacks of State Highway 18, a thoroughfare of gothic grain elevators, boarded movie houses, crumbling five and dimes, and antiquated supper clubs. If this is the case, the intrepid traveler has made a wise decision indeed, for halfway between Paradise and Shady Bend, just down the road from Waldo and Plainville, he or she will come upon Lucas, Home of S.P. Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden, one of the premiere wonders of the American Great Plains.

The Garden of Eden is a mind-boggling half-acre of concrete sculpture and architecture that towers over this sleepy community of 600 like the proverbial House-on-the-Hill in an overwrought Springsteen song. Rich in biblical and personal symbolism, the Garden is a gateway to another world, a visionary world that celebrates the American spirit of freedom, can-do ambition, homespun ingenuity, and just plain frontier eccentricity at its finest--the world of S.P. Dinsmoor.

Born in 1843, Samuel Perry Dinsmoor served proudly in eighteen battles of the Civil War, including the capture of Robert E. Lee, before resuming his civilian career as an Illinois schoolteacher. In 1871 he married his first wife, Francis, on horseback, prefiguring the onslaught of nuptial rite/media events by a good ninety years. Dinsmoor settled permanently in Lucas in 1891, and, within a scant sixteen years, completed his first major contribution to the community, the Cabin Home.

The Cabin Home is really a facsimile, a trompe l'oeil version of a log cabin, because all the "logs" are actually made of limestone from the surrounding "postrock country." Many of the limestone logs reach a length of 27 feet, and after painstaking dovetailing and fitting, they form a structure of overwhelming durability. Dinsmoor furnished the eleven rooms of the faux cabin with furniture of his own design, including massive fireplaces, stuffed bald eagles, and over 3,000 feet of moulding, before embarking on a project that required some ambition.

For S.P. Dinsmoor was no mere home builder, but rather a visionary in every sense of the word. Over the course of the next twenty years, he surrounded the Cabin Home with an elaborate concrete maze that had consumed 113 tons of cement by 1927. This included fifteen forty foot trees, ball bearing mounted cement flags up to seven feet in length, a mausoleum, a dining hall, and, of course, the entire history of the world according to Dinsmoor, starting with the Garden of Eden.

Hundreds of figure from the lowly insect to the omnipotent Eye of God are splendidly represented in this revisionist assessment of the last ten millennia or so, all bedecked in the first electric lights to be seen in Lucas County. Dinsmoor himself called it, "The most unique home for living or dead on Earth," and I suspect that even the most caustic of viewers would agree that it beats time-share condominiums by a substantial distance.

Naturally, much of this activity did not endear Dinsmoor to his neighbors, and stories of his unusual behavior abound throughout Lucas to this day, over half a century since his death in 1932. Elderly tour guides elaborate on S.P.'s behavior in the city council, his wild drinking bouts and libertarian cavortings with girls half his age, and the scandal caused when he dug up his first wife from Lucas cemetery in 1917. He wanted to intern her properly in the recently completed mausoleum. Voices are discreetly lowered at the mention of his second marriage at the age of 81 to a 20-year-old Czechoslovakian housekeeper or of the two children she bore him.

Curious behavior for a man who lived in the Garden of Eden? Well, yes and no. For S.P. quite clearly embodied the contradictory ideologies that obsessed the early plains people. This included a 19th century literal-moralistic view of the Bible, coupled with 20th century progressive socio-political liberalism, which itself was an outgrowth of the westward expansionist theory embraced by so many pioneer spirits. A look at the sculptural elements in the Garden may not make this entirely clear, but it might provide some insight into Dinsmoor's essential modus operandi.

The west side of the Garden depicts the story of the Creation and Expulsion. There is a grape arbor made of entwined snakes directly over the figures of Adam and Eve at the Garden's entrance. Dinsmoor used himself as a model for Adam, eventually covering the genitalia with an apron to placate the townspeople. Above the first couple is the Tree of Life, replete with guardian angels, an armed devil, storks, and the all-seeing Eye of God, which bears a striking resemblance to the aliens in War of the Worlds. The storks are equipped with light bulbs in their mouths. As Dinsmoor explains, "There was darkness on the face of the earth, and the storks had to have lights in their mouths to see which way to go, so they carried the babies under their wings." Sure enough, a close examination reveals concrete baby faces embedded in the wings, as well as a few recently hatched children running for their lives against the onslaught of encroaching demons.

Most of the narrative on the west side involves the travails of Cain and Abel and their wives, including a graphic hoe murder and Cain's subsequent exodus from the land of Nod to the modern era, represented by the north side of the Garden. The cast of characters representing modern civilization includes Indians, Union soldiers, lots of girls, and a scientific representation of the food chain, but Dinsmoor really comes into his own when exposing the hypocrisy of big business and government, or, as he likes to call them, the "Trusts."

The Trusts are represented as amorphous multi-limbed alien creatures, wrapping their greedy tentacles around everything in sight. In some cases the "little people" fight back, as in the inspiring Liberty Tree, which features a Goddess of Liberty spearing a Trust in the head while voters attack its flanks with ballots. But the high point of the Garden is the devastatingly satirical Crucifixion of Labor, which features four human "Grafters" (a doctor, lawyer, banker, and preacher) nailing the Christlike figure of Labor to a crosslike tree. This is truly turn of the century populism at its finest.

If this brief scenario sounds a little farfetched or fuzzy, perhaps a personal visit to Lucas is in order. The Garden of Eden is open daily from March 1 through November 31 (913-525-6395) and tours are available on an hourly basis. The gift shop sells the obligatory t-shirts and hats, as well as videos from Ripley's Believe It or Not TV show and copies of the People Magazine article on Dinsmoor. And make sure you pay the nominal fee to view the corpse of the great man himself, happily sequestered in a concrete coffin in the walk-in mausoleum, a showman even in death. "I promise everyone that comes in to see me (they can look through the glass lid of the coffin and see my face) that if I see them dropping a dollar in the hands of a flunky, and I see the dollar, I will give them a smile."

The coffin is not airtight, so the smile will not endure forever. See it while there's still a grin on Dinsmoor's crumbling face. Kansas is a state of great history, diversity, and natural beauty, but all wonders fade next to the creation of the visionary S.P. Dinsmoor, the William Blake of the American Wild West.

Go to the B. Amundson page.

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