Tom Gaskins: Ol’ Barefoot

Tom Gaskins (1909 – 1998) spent most of his life trudging through the swamps of Fisheating Creek near Palmdale, Florida. He was a man of ideas and regarded as a salt-of-the-earth character. Gaskins owned the Cypress Knee Museum in Palmdale where he collected and sold cypress knees as decorations, furniture, and other useful items. His knowledge of cypress knees and swamp life was legendary. His friends referred to him as “Ol’ Barefoot,” as he never wore shoes except when paying his respects at a funeral.

Tom Gaskins at his Cypress Knee Museum, Palmdale, 1987

Tom Gaskins at his Cypress Knee Museum, Palmdale, 1987

The Cypress Knee Museum opened in the 1930s when Gaskins fashioned an extra-large cypress knee into a roadside sign to lure tourists to his collection. The museum remained open until 2000 (2 years after Gaskins’ death) when the property was burglarized and most of the collection stolen.

Cypress knee decorated by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

Cypress knee decorated by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

Gaskins was also an inventor. He held over a dozen patents, including the Tom Gaskin’s Turkey Call that is still manufactured and sold today.

Turkey call invented by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

Turkey call invented by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

The State Archives of Florida is not the only organization that has taken an interest in Mr. Gaskins. Over the years he was featured in stories by the LA Times, Sun Sentinel, Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Science, Chicago Tribune, and was even a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Gaskins received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1988. His fascinating work and personality piqued the interest of those lucky enough to cross his path; just like travelers going down US 27 in South Florida who stopped by to see “Ol’ Barefoot.”

In 1987, Tom Gaskins was interviewed by the Florida Folklife Program. Below are two excerpts:

Excerpt 1: Tom Gaskins explains the origins of hollow cypress knees

Download: MP3

Excerpt 2: Tom Gaskins talks about the turkey call he invented

Download: MP3

More Information: Catalog Record

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3 thoughts on “Tom Gaskins: Ol’ Barefoot

  1. Visited here in August 1990. It was very interesting. I remember meeting Mr Gaskins. He wasn’t busy and explained a lot to my 2 kids. Glad we got to stop and visit the place!

  2. My father and Thomas worked at the CCC during Great Depression 1929-33. My family visited his museum on several occasions and as a child. Tom took me to rob alligator nests, incubate the eggs and sell them at filling stations. The largest/oldest gator in existence at time ended up in Memphis TN zoo (Old Moss Back). Tom drank a spoonful of creosote every day, walked on his hands a lot, played harmonica and sang on radio stations with my father. They were hobos until they finally settled down, and married. We attended clam bakes at Thomas’ Palmdale home.

  3. I called him Uncle Tom. He was married to my grandmother’s sister. When we visited my grandparent’s home on Lake Childs, FL in the summers or intown at Arcadia in the fall, Uncle Tom and Aunt Virginia would drive up for dinner. I got to spend the evenings listening to Uncle Tom’s tall tales, his declaring the miracle cures to be had by putting a pinch of road tar between your cheek and gum and occasionaly ingesting a little creosote. Twice in the early 60’s I returned with them to Palmdale for a few summer days to experience life at Tom Gaskins’ Cypress Kneeland and on Fisheating Creek. There was always work to be done and they threw me into it with pleasure (I think they enjoyed watching a city boy working with his hands in the heat 8+ hours each day). Many vivid memories come to mind. One memory was when the swamp catwalk tour behind the cypress knee factory and store was in need of improvement. It had been decided that there needed to be an extension of the brick walk for the tourists to follow back to the store after finishing their catwalk tour. I think too many were missing opportunities to buy beautiful cured cypress knee sculptures, lamps and turkey calls. Tom Jr. and I excavated, prepped and layed some 30 yards of 4 ft wide, brick walkway over a two day period. Sore knees, lots of mosquitos and heat is what I remember most. The second memory was canoeing back into Fisheating Creek with Uncle Tom and Tom Jr. to tow out fallen cypress logs. We floated in to where the log had been found, jumped out of the canoes into the redish black dark water and manually freed up the log and pushed it back to the where we could rope it and pull it back with the canoes to a creekside location where it would be dragged out and cut up for a variety of purposes. Imagine my surprise the first time I came out of the water and noticed that 10-20 leeches had attached them selves to my chest, back and legs. No worries, touching them with a burning cigarette got them to back out and drop off. On those days it was also great fun frog gigging at dusk, eating frog legs with swamp cabbage, sitting on the Gaskins’ home back porch with Tom Jr. throat calling up jakes for sport (I used a patented Gaskins’ stroak box caller and never could fool a turkey) and exploring the behind the scenes wonders of Tom Gaskins’ Cypree Kneeland. Lifetime, wonderful memories and experiences.

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