Cypress Knee Museum
by Mary Kleiss
(Port Charlotte, Florida)
CYPRESS KNEE MUSEUM: GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Back in the early 80’s while heading home from the east coast of Florida on one of our family outings to show the kids the real Florida, we decided to take U.S. 27 through Moore Haven and Clewiston.
Heading into Palmdale, we started seeing miles of signs announcing the Cypress Knee Museum. (We found out later that the signs were hammered together from dead cypress trees.) Very funny signs, with one saying “Lady if he won’t stop hit him on head with shoe,” and another reading ”Come see Tom’s knees.” We were so intrigued by the signs that we decided to stop and see what the museum was all about.
Cypress Knee museum took up both sides of U.S. 27, with a museum on one side and a swamp catwalk and gift shop on the other, both glorifying owner Tom Gaskin’s obsession to twisted knees which grew out of the roots of cypress trees. As we walked the rickety catwalk, built by Tom, and held up by cypress poles sunk into the muck, we were told to be careful of snakes as they would sometimes slither into the exhibits.
Tom Gaskins was usually barefoot and would tell people taking the tours that “the ditches had drained the water out of Florida, enriching land speculators and screwing up the weather.”
After buying property along Fisheating Creek in the late ‘30’s, Tom Gaskins started his Cypress Knee museum in 1951. He would dig out the cypress knees, steam, peel and core them, then polish them to a gold finish attempting to alter the shape of the knees by carving designs into them. He sold the cypress knees for furniture and decorations.
I’m sure most of you can remember buying or seeing displays of cypress
coffee tables. We bought one from a department store and enjoyed it for many years never knowing where it came from.
But life became a battle for Tom and his son Tom, Jr. in the ‘90’s when the Lady Bird Johnson law forced the removal of all of their homemade cypress billboards from Florida’s highways, thus causing them to lose a major source of their income.
Tom Gaskins said after the wetlands law was passed that the one good thing the government did was to prohibit the cutting of cypress knees, so at least the museum’s collection could never be duplicated.
After five decades of showing the world’s largest and only collection and preservation of knobby knees, Tom Gaskins died in 1998. His son, Tom Jr., took over the museum. He stated at the time that: “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.”
Unfortunately in 2000 the museum was broken into and many of the best knees were stolen. Tom Jr. moved to Miami and had planned on opening another museum somewhere in that area. It never happened.
The state of Florida bought the Cypress Knee Museum buildings and property as part of the Preservation 2000 land and acquisition program managed by Florida Fish and Wildlife. The last I’ve heard is that the place still remains empty and weed-snarled. Another gone but not forgotten old time Florida sight-seeing attraction.
At least my children got a glimpse of part of old Florida’s swamp, muck and rickety old catwalks along with a bit of kitschiness before it’s bulldozed and sold to a developer who’ll more than likely put up condos to folks who will never know, or care to know, of the land’s history.