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Tom Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum | Photo © 2013 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com

Tom Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum

Location Class:
Built: 1951 | Abandoned: 1998
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: David Bulit

Tom Gaskins

In the late 1930s, Tom Gaskins moved his family from Arcadia to Palmdale, homesteading along Fish eating Creek on land acquired from the Lykes Brothers company which dealt with citrus, sugar, and ranching. While living there, he quickly grew enraptured by the “knees” of cypress trees which are knobby root growths that rise, often in fantastic shapes, above the swamps. Gaskin would dig out the knees, steam, peel, and core them, then polish them to a satiny golden finish.

Gaskins displayed his knees in the Florida pavilion at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair and held the only US patent (#2069580) on anything manufactured from cypress knees. He held over a dozen other patents, including the Tom Gaskins Turkey Call that is still manufactured and sold today.

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A press release photo of the museum. ca.1960s

Cypress Knee Museum

As a way to exhibit his favorite knees, Gaskins opened The Thomas Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum in 1951 near Palmdale along U.S. 27, which was then a major tourist route. He built signs from dead cypress trees and installed them for miles announcing the approach to the museum. His favorite sign read, “Lady If He Won’t Stop Hit Him On Head With Shoe.” Another read, “Come See Tom’s Knees.”

The museum took up both sides of U.S. 27, with a museum on the south side and a gift shop, which Gaskins called the “World’s First Cypress Knee Factory,” located to the north. Set up as an open-air arcade, the museum contained glass display cases filled with hundreds of cypress knees. Most were named for the shape they resembled, or at least what Gaskins thought they looked like. Josef Stalin, John Wayne, and “Lady Hippo Wearing a Carmen Miranda Hat” were some of the many on display there.

Behind the gift shop stretched a 3/4 mile catwalk that twisted through the swamp. Hand-built by Gaskins himself, the catwalk was nothing more than a series of 2x4s cobbled together and held up high in the air by cypress poles sunk into the muck. It ran past his experiments in “controlled knee growth,” which began in 1938. He attempted to alter the shape of selected knees by carving designs into them, shoving bottles into them, and flattening them with heavy weights.

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Tom Gaskins standing on the catwalk he hand built which twisted through the cypress swamp.

Gaskins and his cypress knees were featured on Carson, Leno, and Sally Jessie Rafael, though the Gaskins turned down an offer to appear on Letterman because according to Tom, they thought he was too mean. Clyde Butcher, a renowned Florida photographer, credits the moment he really understood Florida to an unplanned stop at Gaskins’s museum. He took a walk on the rickety catwalk out back and was enamored with the towering cypress trees that reminded him of the California Redwoods from his past.

Life became difficult in the 1990s for Gaskins and his son Tom Gaskins Jr. when the Highway Beautification Act forced the removal of all of the homemade cypress billboards from Florida’s highways. Newly established wetland laws also set restrictions on the cutting and harvesting of cypress trees and knees. Gaskins said that the wetland law was one good thing the government had done, so at least his collection of knees could never be duplicated.

In 1993, Gaskins Jr. took over the day-to-day operations of the museum and business as the senior Gaskins had developed Alzheimer’s disease. After five decades of preserving and showcasing the world’s only collection of cypress knees, Tom Gaskins Sr. died in 1998.

Tom Gaskins at his Cypress Knee Museum in Palmdale, Flo. 1987. State Library and Archives of Florida
Closure and Abandonment

His son took ownership of the museum and stated at the time that “this place is real Florida. It’s not a plastic mouse show. I’m a Florida cracker, a piney wood rooter. I know how to survive on acorns.” Two years later in 2000, the museum was broken into and many of the best knees were stolen. That same year, the Cypress Knee Museum and property were bought by the state of Florida as part of the Preserve 2000 land and acquisition program managed by Florida Fish and Wildlife. Gaskins Jr. moved down to Miami and stated plans to start a new museum in that area, but it never happened.

Around 2017, the state considered tearing down the building, but Muse resident and Fisheating Creek Settlement Advisory Board member Harris Friedman began efforts to save it. Friedman and his nonprofit Floraglades Foundation propose a lease agreement and management plan for the building that might include creating a museum on the culture and ecology of the Fisheating Creek area. While that idea never got off the ground, the building remains standing although in a sad state.

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Cypress knees drying and suntanning on the Cypress Knee Railroad, a track that extended into Gaskins’ “knee factory.”

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David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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