One of the more unusual attractions in the state – made famous by its eccentric owner Tom Gaskins – the inventor of a wild turkey call and patent holder of cypress knee creations.
Thomas Gaskins Sr. (about 1909-1998) was a man who projected a no-nonsense attitude as can be seen in is writings on his museum’s brochures. Born in Tampa and growing up in Arcadia, he graduated from DeSoto County High School in 1927. In 1934 he married Virginia Bible (1912-1995). Gaskins has stated in interviews that it was his new mother-in-law, Ida Mae Rankin Bible, who got him started working with cypress knees – one day she wanted one to use as a flower pot. Thus began a lifelong profession and passion.
“What are cypress knees?” is a common question in the wetlands of Florida and throughout the Deep South. The simple answer, as of 2020, is that botanists still don’t know. They grow out of the roots of the bald Cypress (taxodium distichum), the largest tree in the American South. Emerging at a ninety degree angle, they look somewhat like a human leg when folded at the knee. Cypress grow in swamps, often directly in the water, and the knees can grow up through either the soil or the water.
It’s commonly thought that they provide oxygen to roots in what is often water with little free oxygen, but studies have shown that a tree with it’s knees removed does just fine. Possible functions include reducing erosion and/or assisting in anchoring the tree in saturated, sandy soil. Regardless of their function, Gaskins’ name became synonymous with cypress knees in Florida.
At first, Gaskins would harvest them along the Peace River in Arcadia. He left the bark on for use mostly in taxidermy displays, but he realized that by skinning off the bark he could create a smooth, polished look. This was achieved by boiling or steaming the knee, peeling off the bark and polishing them. Looking to expand the nascent business, in 1937 he moved his family to Palmdale. Located on US Route 27, the tiny town was barely a wide spot in the road. As of 2020, little there has changed.
The Gaskins family bought land near Fisheating Creek just south of Palmdale. He used that area to harvest cypress knees. Gaskins displayed his cypress knees in the Florida pavilion at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.
Not long afterwards, World War Two intervened and Gaskins joined the US Marines. After the war, he came back and resumed his business. This was the start of Florida’s Golden Era of tourism and US 27 was one of it’s golden roads. It was part of the Orange Blossom Trail, created by businesses along the Trail in 1934.
Gaskins built a factory of sorts to process the knees and in 1951 transplanted what was said to be a 6 ton (5400 kg) adult cypress tree to his land. It was reportedly the largest cypress ever transplanted. As of 2020, the tree still stands.
He created the Thomas Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum with its main building around the transplanted tree. It opened for business in 1951. There wasn’t much to see at first. He sold the polished cypress knees and other items including swamp cabbage (sabal palm hearts) and visitors could see the knee manufacturing process in the factory. Eventually, he added a rather rough and ready 2000 foot (610 meter) boardwalk that led into the wetlands around Fisheating Creek and created a small museum that featured knees that looked like notable people or animals. The operation was never large, though enough visitors stopped and bought things on their way to Miami and the Keys.
Tom and Ida Mae had a son named Thomas Jr. who joined his dad in the business. One of their better sellers, especially through mail-order, was the turkey box call invented by Gaskins Sr. in 1946. The two Toms would make both the calls and knees by hand for decades. In 1956 US 27 was widened to four lanes, changing the layout of the Gaskins property, dividing the boardwalk from the rest of the property, but visitors still stopped to take a look.
As the time passed into the 1960s and then the 1970s, little at the Cypress Knee Museum changed. Cypress knees were bought in large enough numbers that today they’re regularly listed on Ebay, each with a stamp or wood-burning mark on the base showing they were purchased from the museum.
In 1988, Tom Gaskins Sr. was presented with the Florida Folk Heritage Award. The awards recognizes outstanding stewardship of Florida’s living traditions. On its website, Gaskins is described thusly: “Tom Gaskins was an “inland Cracker” who lived his entire life in Florida cypress swamps. His knowledge of cypress knees and swamp life was legendary. Due in large part to his influence, the cypress products industry is a phenomenon that thrives on Florida roadsides.”
In later years, the attraction wasn’t kept up as well as it could have been. Interstates 75 and 95 on the coasts robbed most of the tourist traffic from US 27 and each attraction along the road suffered through low attendance, all while the number of visitors to the state grew and grew. In the 1990s, the property began to be disputed. The main landowners in the area, the Lykes, sold their land along Fisheating Creek to the state. The state planned to create a wildlife management area and it believed that part of the Gaskins property was part of the purchase. A long fight ensued and at the end Tom Gaskins Jr. moved the family’s two homes to new property near Lake Placid. During this conflict, Tom Gaskins Sr. died in 1998.
The Thomas Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum continued until 2000 when the family closed its doors for good. It was certainly the end of an era.