Somewhere in rural Kansas is Lucas. The strangely wonderful Lucas. Because I love weird and beautiful stuff equally, I immediately fell for this town. And if you love the idea of visiting a place that will make you say “Whoa” as well as ‘Why?” you’re going to join the Lucas fan club too.
Disclosure: I visited Lucas, Kansas, as a media guest of Kansas Tourism. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.
Where is Lucas, Kansas?
Lucas is a small town of about 400 people in north central Kansas. It’s forgivable if you’ve never heard of it. My mom grew up in Kansas and has never been there.
And it’s forgivable if you think Lucas is just a town with a really really large toilet (I’ll explain in a second) or the World’s Largest Travel Plate. It has both of those things, but there’s more to this quirky place.
Lucas is essentially the capital of outsider art, or rather, art created by self-taught artists. S.P. Dinsmoor started it all in 1905 by building cement art, including sculptures of biblical scenes and political commentary.
Later, came Florence Deeble and her rock postcard scenes in her backyard and the Millers who created buildings out of rocks and seashells in their yard. But I’ve made it my mission to get everyone I know to visit Lucas. I’m pretty sure it will inspire half of my friends and disturb the other half. And if that doesn’t sound like a fun vacation, l don’t know what does.
If there’s one time a year to visit Lucas, it would be April 1. April Fool’s Day is an annual festival of sorts for the town and artists have open studios throughout the day.
What’s the deal with the toilets?
When the town needed a new public restroom facility, Lucas residents opted to make it a work of art. The result is Bowl Plaza, with a building and entrance in the shape of a toilet (complete with a roll of toilet paper nearby).
You’ll want to go inside the building, because the artwork continues inside. The men’s room is a particular marvel of mosaics, but try to peek into both rooms…as long as they’re unoccupied.
Can you really see an old man in a see-through casket?
Yes! It’s in the mausoleum on the grounds of “Garden of Eden.” What’s “Garden of Eden” you ask? It’s the the O.G. grass roots art of Lucas. S.P. Dinsmoor created Garden of Eden in the early 1900s. He used cement for his creations. He built a log cabin-style home where none of the doorways are the same size.
And then he built biblical scenes and then political commentary scenes all around his yard. And yes, there’s a mausoleum in the yard where he and his first wife lay in peace. Oh, I’ll save the story about how his first wife was brought to its final burial site for the tour guide. It’s a doozy.
Dinsmoor apparently knew his eccentric art brought people from all over and he wanted to keep bringing them to Lucas long after he passed. So, he insisted on having a cement casket with a plastic see-through lid.
You don’t have to peek inside the casket if you don’t want to. But, you kinda want to see the guy, don’t you? Anyway, Dinsmoor’s story is bizarre and fascinating and the most Lucas part of Lucas.
What’s the weirdest thing in Lucas?
You’d think it’s the see-through casket surrounded by biblical yard art was the weirdest thing, right? To some, it probably is.
I thought the Deeble House was just a little more unusual. Florence Deeble was the original resident, who started creating scenes in her rock garden in 1935. She once said: “I wanted to bring the mountains home with me. They are beautiful to me, I love rocks.” Her scenes (she called them postcard scenes), aren’t too unusual. There’s Mount Rushmore, for instance, and the likeness is, well, passable.
It’s what’s inside the house. And at the entrance of the house. Basically, it’s everything that was changed to the house after Florence passed away. It’s called Garden of Isis.
Mri Pilar created this interior garden of sorts throughout the first floor of the house. Mri works a lot with Barbies and other dolls as well as household items, and the result is a mix of entertaining, disturbing and confusing.
I love it. The walls are covered with tin foil and displays of her work. It’s weird and makes me uncomfortable and it’s exactly what art should do. Don’t miss the bathroom with the tub full of creepy dolls.
Is there an art tour for Lucas?
The good thing is that everything in Lucas (except for the giant plate) is within walking distance from each other. So, you could just go see everything on your own.
However, I strongly recommend stopping at the Grass Roots Arts Center and taking a guided tour with one of their staff members. It will give you a deeper appreciation for self-taught artists and especially the ones who put Lucas on the map. Plus, the cost of the tour gets you into Garden of Isis.
But, if you are a do-it-yourselfer, here are some of the recommended places to explore in Lucas.
Sample Lucas itinerary
Grass Roots Arts Center, 213 S. Main St.
Our tour started in the galleries and backyard of the arts center. This space explores the Lucas scene and the grass roots artists from all over the U.S. It’s truly fascinating. Our tour guide told us the backstory of some of the artwork and the background of some of the artists (farmers, funeral home employees, vindictive neighbors).
You’ll see woodwork and metal work; sculptures made out of pull tabs; sculptures made out of gum; chalk limestone art; all the stuff. And most of it’s for sale! Artists with work on display include Mri Pilar, who works with recycled materials; Millard Harrell, a wood carver; Herman Divers, who created large sculptures out of pull tabs; and Ed Root, a farmer who started making sculptures with glass shards after an injury.
Be sure you take a look in back. There’s more art and sculptures to be seen out there.
World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things, 214 S. Main St.
Your next stop is just across the street from the arts center: The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things. It’s exactly what it sounds like.
Try not to skip it. Hours are unpredictable, so you may want to plan ahead and schedule an appointment to visit.
You’ll walk down Main Street on the way to the next stop. Pop into the artist co-op or butcher’s shop or check out the pocket garden with the mural dedicated post rock limestone and Czech immigrants. Is any of that weird? No, but it’s good to have a break from the weird. You’ll also notice all the lamp posts have an artist’s spin to them.
Bowl Plaza, 121 S. Main St.
The next stop is the giant toilet bowl – you can’t miss it. Bowl Plaza is actually the town’s public restrooms, and the exterior looks like a toilet bowl. Inside it gets even more bizarre with mosaics of found arts materials filling the walls of the men’s and women’s bathrooms.
Deeble House and Rock Garden, 126 S. Fairview Ave.
The front yard of the Deeble House is fairly unassuming, with a few random sculptures here and there. The front porch has some interesting artwork to peer at, yes. And the backyard isn’t that dramatic, though her rock scenes are still on display.
It’s the interior you don’t want to skip. Mri Pilar has decorated the first floor of the home with her unique recycled artwork, as well as papering the walls with silvery tin foil. Every room is intriguing.
Miller’s Park, 304 Second St.
The final two stops are next to each other. If you can drag your eyes away from “Garden of Eden” for a few minutes, take a moment to appreciate the nearby Miller’s Park. Roy and Clara Miller started building little buildings and sculptures out of rocks and seashells in their yard in the early 1900s. By 1920, it was a gathering place in Lucas.
What I like about their story is that the couple didn’t care who liked what they did. They just wanted to do it. Decades later, their property was sold and the sculptures were moved to Frontier Village in Hays, Kan., where they began to languish. Fortunately, through the efforts of art connoisseurs, volunteers and the Kohler Foundation, 45 sculptures were eventually moved back to Lucas and restored.
And now you can see them.
Garden of Eden, 305 E. Second St.
Finally, the creme de la creme of Lucas, S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden. Dinsmoor was a nurse in the Civil War and such a diva for the spotlight, his first marriage was done on horseback. In 1905, he decided to build his cement log cabin-style house…at the age of 62. It took him two years and then he went on to build all the sculptures in his yard.
There’s Adam and Eve, of course, but also depictions of Cain and Abel and the like. And then during his more political years, he started making more pointed statutes expressing his Populist opinion on things.
You’ll have to pay for a tour to see everything, but it’s totally worth it to get the juicy details of this artist and his vision. I mean, his second marriage was to Emily, his 21-year-old Czech housekeeper…when he was 81. And they had kids! This man was fascinating!
Our tour was led by Emily’s great-niece, which added a nice personal touch to the history of the place. She’ll point out which room he died in. You know you’re curious about it.
One of the last stops on the tour is the mausoleum. Yes, THE mausoleum. You don’t have to go in if you don’t want to and even if you went in, you don’t have to look into his casket. But, you just took a tour and heard all those interesting stories about Dinsmoor and you know you’re going to look.
You know you do. And that’s why I took this chance to talk to you about Lucas. Photos don’t do the town justice. Please go see it for yourself.