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I was a revolutionary, p.18

I Was a Revolutionary, page 18


I Was a Revolutionary

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  Then, the log cabin. Of stone. What was it about the hardness of things that attracted him so? The “logs” were narrow slabs of post-rock limestone, quarried and cut to lengths of Dinsmoor’s specification, some as long as twenty-seven feet. After all the heavy lifting, the horse-drawn carting, the shooting pains and shoving into place, there stood an eleven-room cabin. Dinsmoor would follow his wife, Frances, from empty room to empty room, the limestone sending a cold shock through his uncovered feet, listening as she planned discrete decorative schemes that he’d undermine by placing a stuffed bald eagle in every room.

  Twenty years before, they had moved to Kansas from Illinois, where Dinsmoor had been a schoolteacher, in order to farm and raise their family. Now, with their children grown, long since gone off to start their own families in other towns, Dinsmoor and Frances harbored an unspoken desire that they all might return to live under one roof again. But except for occasional visits, most nights it was just the two of them in the large stone cabin, quietly rocking in their chairs, him reading and her sewing. He alternated between the Bible and political newspapers like the Appeal to Reason. Periodically he’d shatter the silence with an outburst, rising suddenly from his seat as he wagged the Good Book over his head: “See! See! Jesus was the first socialist!” Frances would look at her husband pacing around the room, lecturing to an imaginary classroom of students, the way he once had to living and breathing pupils, and then still the swing of his rocking chair and return to her sewing.


  All those years before, when the war had stolen him from youth, he’d followed the 116th Ohio Infantry from Tuppers Plain to the hospital tents of Martinsburg, Virginia (later West Virginia), where he put down his gun and became a regimental nurse, stretchering in familiar faces of the dead on damp canvas sheets and holding down strangers whose whiskeyed screams before the surgeon’s saw burned his eyes. And then one day came word it was over, and he helped to take down the field tent and center pole, which they set fire to right there on the spot because, they were told, there would be no more fighting. But it wasn’t enough to convince, so he saddled his horse and made his way to Appomattox to witness the formal closure. The relief on Lee’s face, he remarked. He thought of those severed limbs, which he’d had to pick up and place in a bloody stack in the corner of the field tent, as he sat on a stool outside in the early summer mornings, so many years later, muddling the Portland cement and limestone gravel with water, stirring that thick paste, readying to pour and shape the mixture into the concrete that would form Adam’s arms and Eve’s legs.


  It began with the grape arbor, a covered walkway made of concrete, stretching from the back porch to the road, an invitation for passersby to visit. Carved into the stony, hardened arches was a snake, barely noticeable until one saw its head protruding out the end of the arbor, dangling above the sculpture of Eve, dropping an apple into her bloated hand. Exactitude was difficult—he’d get better, but his initial figures were balloon-like avatars of some strange biblical comic book. Dinsmoor modeled Adam on himself, from the thick beard and jut chin down to the slight right-curve of his penis, which when enlarged to scale from his five-foot-five frame to Adam’s eight-foot took on magnificent proportions. Later, when people would come to see what he was up to, he was cowed into covering that wonderful cock, not with a fig leaf but with a Masonic apron, which confused them nearly as much.


  There’d been that decade of committed political struggle, the 1890s, before Dinsmoor became the genius of concrete. When the Republican Party he’d fought for during the war proved to be the party of plutocracy, of trusts and monopolies, of corporations and big business, he became known as one of the worst Populist howlers in Russell County. He stumped and organized, swam upstream against the Republican current in Lucas, electioneering, running for township clerk in 1892 (which he lost), founding the United Order of Anti-Monopolies in 1893 (which was called “anarchistic” by the Lucas papers despite its call for the expansion of government), serving as a delegate to several People’s Party state conventions, even attending the 1896 national convention in St. Louis (having to look on as his party, deciding to back William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats, committed suicide), hosting rallies on his farm (for as many as three hundred people), including one for the “colored people of Lucas” (all eight attended), and finally—finally—he experienced his lone political victory when he was elected justice of the peace of Fairview Township, a successful tenure for which he was credited, by friends and opponents alike, for keeping the number of loose horses on the streets to a minimum.

  All the while he farmed and collected his military pension, staying afloat in the depression, but by the end of the decade, which was the end of the century, nearing sixty, he was exhausted and discouraged. In 1898 he lost a bid for state representative and, though urged by his Populist and Populist-turned-Socialist friends, he decided he would not run for office again. That work was best left to younger bodies and abler minds. He still howled in private, writing letters to J. A. Wayland, editor of the Appeal to Reason. For example:

  The handwriting is on the wall . . . when they learn they cannot stop the onward march of education. They might as well lay their mortal frames across the mouth of the Mississippi—and try to flood the US signal station on the top of Pike’s Peak as to stop the onward march of socialism. The more they oppose, the more opposition they will meet.

  But he was already scouting lots for his move into town and plotting retirement. He was already having visions of his garden of concrete.


  Next he went to work on the “trees,” forty-foot slabs shooting high into the air, developing the tableau, adding impish personal touches like the small figure positioned in the arbor, smiling and waving, so that Frances would see it from the kitchen. There was the Tree of Life, a cloven devil figure, storks, angels, Cain slaying Abel with a hoe, Cain fleeing to the Land of Nod, and perched above everything was the all-seeing Eye of God, which he’d managed to electrify—quite the novelty then—so that it would blink throughout the day and night.

  By 1914, Dinsmoor began offering tours—a quarter apiece—some visitors having heard of, some just stumbling upon, his strange Garden of Eden. While Frances led the tours, he sat inside the cabin, speaking into a pipe he’d rigged from the master bedroom to the Tree of Life, which amplified his voice, allowing him to animate the static sculptures.

  God: “Cain, you son-of-a-gun, where’s Abel?”

  Cain: “Darned if I know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

  Only afterward would he appear, greeting the confused faces as he collected their quarters.



  Because he’d read the Bible front to back at least two dozen times.

  Because it scratched a creative itch.

  Because he relished getting a rise out of others.

  Because he was a Freemason and loved their love of symbolism.

  Because Jesus was a radical.

  Because it made money.

  Because he craved attention.

  Because he could.

  Because what is to be done when your dreams have died?


  The vision changed the year the rest of the world went to war. News from Colorado about the massacre of striking miners in Ludlow sparked something of the old fire inside Dinsmoor. He went to work on new sculptures, planning a Modern Civilization tableau on the north side of the lot as a counterpoint to the Garden in the west. He sequestered himself in his workshop with his trowel and mixing bins and periodically a new piece would appear on the tour. There was the Chain of Life, showing a soldier aiming his rifle at an Indian, who shot his bow and arrow at a fox that was chasing a cat that spied a bird that was swooping down upon a worm eating a leaf. Nearby a large octopus named “Trust” loomed over a massive cement globe, with tentacles wrapped around the Panama Canal as well as a young woman and her baby. The trust monster appeared
again elsewhere, later in the form of a spider being speared by the Goddess of Liberty. Draped in the American flag, she protected a man and woman who held a saw labeled “Ballot” to the spider’s “Chartered Rights” platform.

  Now his sculptures had a new purpose. When the people were educated, they would vote away the monopolies, they would put people before business, need before profit. He’d become a teacher again, his Garden his classroom.


  And still they came, more baffled than ever, almost one hundred a week by 1916, awakening in him a hucksterism that had lain dormant since his campaigning days. Dinsmoor would wait at the train station—an old man in a three-piece suit, foot thumping the platform—and round up as many people as he could convince, herding them the short distance, talking the whole way about righting God’s expulsion, promising that a return to their “original home” was imminent. He sold photo-postcards of the sculptures at five cents per. The new-to-town manager of the motion picture house showed interest, made inquiries, and together he and Dinsmoor created a slideshow-cum-speaking-tour of the Garden—“pictorial views and a snappy lecture by Samuel P. Dinsmoor, the Cement Wizard of the World”—screening it in theaters as far off as Illinois. At most stops on the brief tour, people listened politely as Dinsmoor spoke of the dangers of monopoly and preached the Social Gospel. He asserted violent revolution was unnecessary; an educated citizenry would naturally vote socialism into office. And when Dinsmoor finished speaking, most often their inclination was not to applaud but to continue staring at him as he moved away from the lectern and smiled into the dark before the house lights came on and the silence became awkward enough to prompt a few claps that sometimes spurred a majority and sometimes remained isolated reports in an echoey theater. Mostly people just looked. Word spread. Newspapers sent reporters. The New York Sun ran a two-part article, “Garden of Eden in His Front Yard” and “Garden of Eden in Cement: The Work of a Kansas Heretic.”


  Salina Journal: “Dinsmoor’s Quaint Garden of Eden at Lucas Is Mecca for Thousands of Tourists and Visitors.”

  Kansas City Post: “Garden of Eden in Cement Makes Kansas Home Weird.”

  Cement World: “Old Man’s Fancies Worked Out in Concrete.”

  Dinsmoor knew the mainstream papers would see it as nothing more than novelty, the innocuous avocation of a self-serving would-be sculptor. They had to; it was too dangerous to report the truth. But the Appeal to Reason would see the glory of the Garden’s mission. Though the longtime editor J. A. Wayland had died a few years before, Dinsmoor had continued writing letters and editorials to Wayland’s successor. When he wrote to encourage them to send a reporter to Lucas to do a story on the Garden, however, he was rebuffed. The Appeal was an atheist rag and took a hard line on religion. He wrote back, explaining his radical reinterpretation of the Bible, the revolutionary potential of his Garden, but this time there would be no response. Dinsmoor would walk through the desert alone.


  When Frances died in 1917, she was interred in the Lucas cemetery, but only for as long as it took for Dinsmoor to construct a limestone mausoleum. It was a pyramid-shaped crypt, at the top of which he fashioned a cement angel, and was incorporated into the tour. Inside he sculpted a concrete tomb, in which he secreted Frances’s body, having dug her up in the middle of the night and sealed her in with cement. Atop hers he made a second tomb and left it uncovered. Sometimes, without warning, Dinsmoor, seventy-five now, would climb in and lie down before a group of visitors—a morbid stab at humor, which usually sparked at least one face-covered dash for the exit. “Heartsick needn’t cloak itself in the macabre, Samuel,” said a minister, aghast after one such incident. Two months later a new postcard appeared on the merchandise table in the living room of the stone cabin: a double-exposed photograph that showed Dinsmoor lying in the coffin as a second—spectral—Dinsmoor stood nearby, looking at the body.


  To scandalize into your eighties is itself an art form. When Dinsmoor remarried in 1924, he wed his twenty-year-old Czech immigrant housekeeper, Emilie, who was four months pregnant. Their sixty-year gap bridged by weeks of feral lovemaking, he returned to work just as his eyes were beginning to fail, causing him to wonder whether the old saw was true: Could one, in fact, screw oneself blind? But what was taken in vision was returned in inspiration; he had plans for one final piece, his grandest yet.

  He hired a local black man named Henry and his wife to help out at the house, and they moved into the stone cabin, just down the hall. The couple exchanged worried glances the first few times they heard that ecstatic howling coming from the master bedroom—Henry even calling out, “You okay in there, Mrs. Dinsmoor?”—but soon they grew accustomed and their concern gave way to head-shaking grins. Emilie would give birth to a second child a few years later. While his young bride gave tours of the Garden, Dinsmoor and Henry set to work on the untouched eastern side of the property. It was to be the meeting point of the two tableaux, the point at which the ancient and modern collided.

  By far the largest sculpture, Labor Crucified (the idea taken from a column called “The Crucifixion of Labor” that he had followed regularly in the Appeal to Reason), was incomplete at the time of his death. In the scene, Labor, in Christlike human form, is being crucified by the surrounding sculptural figures of a doctor, lawyer, banker, and preacher. The construction required scaffolding and heavy support beams to steady the cross. For a few years, when he still had some sight left, Dinsmoor worked on the sculptures from his stool and directed Henry as his assistant moved up and down the ladder, gingerly sidling across the makeshift scaffolding to secure the figures in place, but by 1929 he was fully blind and could only listen to Henry carry out the plans they’d discussed.

  “Where are you now, Henry? Make sure Doctor is parallel with Preacher?”

  He followed it all in his mind’s eye.

  “And Lawyer, he’s smiling at us, ain’t he, Henry? He’s proud of what he’s done.”

  It had been his last joke to model the Lawyer’s face on his own. Dinsmoor had extended the end points of the three vertical concrete poles so that they curved back down into overhead streetlights, illuminating the scene. Sometimes at night, unable to sleep, he would remember his way outside and stand before it, feeling the electric light on his face.


  He spent his last year, 1932, bedridden, complaining about feckless Hoover, holding out hopes that Roosevelt, primed to become the Democratic nominee, might have the sense to do something if elected. Often Henry read to him. Dinsmoor’s favorite book that year was a newly released biography of the radical newspaperman J. A. Wayland, with whom Dinsmoor had carried on a correspondence many years before when the former was the editor of the Appeal to Reason. They’d debated politics and current affairs through the post, and occasionally one of Dinsmoor’s letters appeared in the back pages of the paper. He had developed a certain fondness and respect for Wayland, a friendliness that never quite grew to friendship, but Dinsmoor realized now how little of the man he’d known.

  Though Wayland was twenty years dead and the Appeal was no longer printing, Dinsmoor found himself moved by Wayland’s life and political commitment to the end. Inspired, he amended his will so that the Garden would be maintained purely for educational purposes in the future. Like a cathedral builder in the Middle Ages, he knew he wouldn’t live to see the Garden completed or the socialist society it would lead to, but he could die peacefully, knowing that eventually it would be, and that with it would come change. His thoughts often turned toward the end, and he did not fear death. He wondered if Wayland had. Dinsmoor reckoned that heaven was a place where he would not only be reunited with Frances, but where he’d meet both Jesus and atheists like Wayland, whose principled disbelief would be forgiven, for God knew their hearts were pure, their morals sound, their causes just. Men like Wayland were simply Christians who went by another name.

  One afternoon in late July, during the week h
e would die, he shuddered awake, his empty eyes opening wide, from a nap. “My tools,” he said. Emilie told him to rest, but he insisted: “Bring me my tools. Bring me gravel and cement.” Such moments had become frequent. He’d wake from the dreamy fog demanding to see the president, telling Henry to bring his gun, asking Emilie to send in Frances.

  He listened as she stood and walked around, the swishing sound of her feet on the limestone floors. She returned holding a small concrete figurine of an angel he had made for one of the children. She took his hand and wrapped it around the miniature, but he was weak and dropped it onto the bed. Emilie held his hand, guiding it over the rough grit of the figurine.

  “Yes,” he said. “Bring it closer.”

  “Closer, Papa,” she said, holding his hand holding the angel, and moved his arm to his side.

  “Closer,” he said, and she moved their hands to his stomach. “Closer,” he commanded again—and then to his chest. “I want to see it.”

  “Papa, it is on your chest.”

  “Yes, closer.”

  “Closer, Papa,” she said, moving it into the hollow of his neck and up through the tangle of his beard, curving over his chin. The friction from the figure against his skin, like an unlathered shave from his war days, dragging over creases eighty-nine years in the making. “Papa, the angel is on your face.” He told her to keep going, so she inched it toward his lips and he opened his mouth, extending his tongue, ready to accept the figure.

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