Howard Finster, master of Paradise Gardens

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 7, 2015

Howard Finster (ca. 1915-2001) described himself as a Stranger from Another World, a Messenger from God, a Man of Visions, a second Noah, and God’s Last Red Light on Planet Earth.

This unlikely candidate for celebrity status on the post-modern art scene became known to millions of people by the end of his life. His paintings, sculptures, constructions, and other works have been shown in prestigious museums and galleries from SoHo to Australia and from Los Angeles to the Venice Biennale.

His grinning visage and eccentric art have appeared in dozens of national magazines and newspapers, on network television, and on the covers of rock albums. Finster was as well known for his winningly folksy, loquacious manner as for his obsessive artistic vision.

Reverend Howard Finster in the 1940s.

The Rev. Howard Finster (in dark suit fourth from left) baptizes the faithful at Mentone, AL, in the early 1940s.

He became something of a guru to thousands of academically trained young artists, ambitious collectors of outsider art, musicians, and others who made the pilgrimage to Pennville to meet him and to visit the two-acre Paradise Garden that he spent fifteen years building in his backyard.

Born in DeKalb County, AL in 1915, Howard was one of thirteen children growing up (and sometimes dying off before they grew up) on a remote forty-acre farm in the shadow of Lookout Mountain. He and his family were humble, self-sufficient country folk — proud people who took care of their own and didn’t pay much attention to what went on outside the territory where they lived and worked.

At the age of three, like a toddling Ezekiel, Howard saw his first vision. Although his parents weren’t regular churchgoers, he was later encouraged by a schoolteacher to attend Christian revival services, and at age thirteen he got saved. Two years later Howard “got called by God to become a preacher.” Armed with only his faith, good intentions, down-home demeanor, and a sixth-grade education, Howard set out to preach the Gospel and “bring the people of Earths Planet back to God before its too late.” In those days he thought of himself simply as a dedicated tenderfoot evangelist from the Alabama hills. It wasn’t until much later that the Lord revealed to him his special mission as a “Stranger from Another World,” sent to earth to save souls through sacred art.

Finster began his preaching career in the 1930s, exhorting sinners to repent and testifying for Jesus from rustic church altars, at tent revivals and river baptisms, and even from atop his automobile on small-town streets. By the time he was in his mid-twenties he had established enough of a reputation on the revival circuit that he “got called” to a regular job at the first of a dozen small rural churches he would pastor over a period of forty years.

For most of his pastoring career, Finster supplemented the meager income his churches provided by traveling the countryside as a roving evangelist, working as a handyman, repairing small engines and bicycles, and holding down jobs in the textile mills. It’s surprising enough that he could find any time away from his demanding schedule and responsibilities of keeping his wife and five children fed, clothed, and sheltered. Even more surprising is what he chose to do with that spare time.

Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens

Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens.


From childhood Finster had been fascinated with making things. As a youngster he delighted in creating miniature architectural environments of sticks, stones, and anything else he could find. Long before leaving the family farm he set up a makeshift woodworking shop to produce ornamental wooden bottles and jugs. Then, in the late 1940s, when he was raising children and preaching regularly, he returned to building small-scale architectural environments.

Around this time, Finster began work on his first “garden” in the small yard behind the house and grocery store he had recently built in the little community of Trion, GA. This environmental work–which its creator called a “museum park” in those days–consisted of several miniature and full-scale buildings, an eight-foot-tall Christian cross made of bricks and cement, various hand-lettered signs, a wading pool and duck pond, and an “exhibit house,” which served as home for sixty pet pigeons as well as for a constantly expanding display of castoff items intended to “represent the inventions of mankind.” The latter apparently encompassed virtually every tool and product known to humankind.

After putting more than a decade of work into the garden, Finster began looking for a new and larger location for his “museum park.” Frustrated by his inability to acquire adjoining land for his ambitious roadside attraction and by the fact that the new highway through Trion had unexpectedly bypassed his place, he bought and renovated an old house in the unincorporated community of Pennville, just south of Trion.

Oil on wood paneling, after 1970. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr.

Oil on wood paneling, after 1970. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr.


He moved his family there and started filling in the swamp that composed most of his new backyard. It was here, in the early 1960s, that Finster began work on the second, expanded version of his visionary outdoor museum–an idiosyncratic realm that came to consist of makeshift monuments, found-object constructions and displays, bottle houses, and hand-painted religious signs, interspersed with narrow streams and pools of channeled swamp-water and a wide assortment of flowering and fruit-bearing plants. Originally bestowed by its creator with the name “Plant Farm Museum,” this outrageous environmental work came to be popularly known as “Paradise Garden,” and as it grew more elaborate in the 1970s, it began to attract attention from the world outside northwestern Georgia and northeastern Alabama.


excerpt from Howard Finster, Stranger from Another World, by Howard Finster & Tom Patterson, Abbeville Press, New York, 1989

One Response

  • Denise Olson says:

    I enjoyed your article on the amazing Howard Finster. My mother’s family has lived in that part of Georgia for generations and summer vacations almost always included a visit to his Paradise Garden – although that was not what we used to refer to it.

    I haven’t been there in ages, but I hear from others that the garden has suffered since his death. I’d rather remember the place as it was so I doubt I’ll ever visit again. Thanks for reminding me of fun times past.

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Time to put a berry basket to good use

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 6, 2015

Wild berry picking was once a common summer activity throughout Appalachia, and before the advent of Styrofoam or plastic containers the homemade bark berry basket was just the thing to haul your treasures out of the woods with. No point in going home to fetch a bucket when you can just peel some bark off a tree with a penknife and whip up your own container on the spot.

This party of huckleberry pickers, Rev. Jesse Laws, Mona and Harmon Roberts, and Tom Faulkner, are standing on the Appalachian Trail between their home county of Greene County, TN and North Carolina. Photo dated 1941.

This party of huckleberry pickers, Rev. Jesse Laws, Mona and Harmon Roberts, and Tom Faulkner, are standing on the Appalachian Trail between their home county of Greene County, TN and North Carolina. Photo dated 1941.


Next week will be the ideal time for making a traditional berry basket, for two reasons. First, the woods throughout Appalachia are full of raspberries, huckleberries, and blackberries. Second, the best time to strip bark from a tree to make said basket is during the main sap flow that peaks under the new moon in July—July 16 this year.

So you’ve been out fishing all morning, following the creek up into the mountains. You’re catching a few of them native speckled trout, but after a while the stream gets too small. So you call it quits and head up to the ridge for the long walk home. There you run into the biggest patch of ripe huckleberries that you’ve ever seen! You’d love to haul some of them berries home, but you ain’t got nothing to carry ‘em in….Well, if you knew how to make a berry basket, you’d just find you a young tulip poplar tree, make a poplar bark basket and tote them berries home, buddy!

—Paul Geouge, as quoted by Doug Elliott, in Primitive Ancestral Skills, edited by David Wescott

Typically, the berry basket is scored on the bottom in a cats-eye shape, and then folded upwards. The bark of tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) is ideal to form baskets, and the inner bark of hickories (genus Carya) is best for lacing. You can also use basswood (Tilia americana) for both container and lacing. Sew up the sides with strips of bark, and add a handle made out of bark, vines, or a split piece of wood.

Bill Alexander, a member of the Tennessee Basketry Association and an authority on this type of basket, writes of another use of the bark basket in that group’s January 2008 newsletter: “Harold Hurst said that on English Mountain in Sevier County, Tennessee that his Uncle Ruphart Williams would take him out hunting for wild honey bees. He said; ‘We’d go out and hunt bees’ to rob the wild honey. They would look for bees watering in a stream and follow them to the wild bee tree. He said they would ‘Pull the bark off of a poplar and lay it out while it was green and cut it and shape it’ [to make a basket], and ‘We’d put the honey and cones in ‘em.”

People considered these baskets disposable, so very few examples of them survive in museums or private homes.


sources: ‘Key Ingredients: Tennessee by Food,’by the Folklife Program of the Tennessee Arts Commission; online at:

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The South Carolina man who put the electric in "The Electric City"

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 3, 2015

Anderson, SC was the first city in the United States to have a continuous supply of electric power and the first in the world to create a cotton gin operated by electricity.

Portman Shoals Power Plant, Anderson, SC. Photo by Lewis D. Moorhead c/o Green's Studio, WPA Photograph Collection, The South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Portman Shoals Power Plant, Anderson, SC. Undated, but clearly 1930s. Photo by Lewis D. Moorhead c/o Green’s Studio, WPA Photograph Collection, The South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.


William C. Whitner, a native of Anderson, was largely the man responsible for the place becoming known as “The Electric City.” Born on September 22, 1864, he attended and graduated from the University of South Carolina with a plan to become a lawyer. After his father talked him out of that career, Whitner went back to USC and worked as an assistant to a mathematics professor while studying civil engineering. He graduated from USC for the second time in 1885.

Whitner’s early work was in railroad engineering, but a severe case of typhoid fever forced him into a long convalescence in his father’s home. While there the town of Anderson hired the 26 year old to build a water works systems and an electric plant. In 1890 he completed a steam-driven electric plant. It turned out to be too expensive.

Whitner conceived the idea of generating alternating current electricity using turbulent river water. For advice he went to New York to see Nicholas Tesla, the great Serbian scientist who had perfected the alternating current motor. A turf war was in progress between Thomas Edison, an advocate of direct current, and Tesla, an alternating current advocate.

George Westinghouse, another associate of Whitner’s, supported AC from the sidelines – and later became the big winner in the deal.

Whitner returned to Anderson in 1894 and leased a plant, in McFall’s grist and flour mill at High Shoals on the Rocky River 6 miles east of town, for his newly formed Anderson Water, Light & Power Company. There he installed an experimental 5,000 volt alternating current generator to attempt to generate and transmit electric power to the water system pumps at Anderson’s Tribble Street power and water yard.

It worked, and ended up supplying enough power to light the city and also to operate several small industries in Anderson. The Charleston News and Courier promptly dubbed Anderson “The Electric City.”

In 1897 Whitner’s initial success drew the attention of financial backers, which allowed him to replace the experimental plant with a 10,000 volt generating station at Portman Shoals, 11 miles west of town on the Seneca River. When it was placed in service on November 1, the Portman Shoals Power Plant was the first hydroelectric facility to generate high voltage power without step-up transformers in the nation and perhaps in the world.

These Stanley Electric Company built generators served not only the Anderson water system, the city street lights, other commercial interests and private homes, but more importantly, Anderson Cotton Mill, the first cotton mill in the South to be operated by electricity transmitted over long distance lines.

William Church Whitner statue, Anderson SCThis bronze sculpture of Whitner by Greenville, SC artist Zan Wells was unveiled in downtown Anderson on October 12, 2004.

The Portman Shoals power plant was the start of what became Duke Power (now Duke Energy), one of the largest energy companies in the country.

Thomas Edison and General Electric had refused to wind a motor for high voltage alternating current, but Whitner proved Tesla to be correct. Building upon his early success in Anderson, William Church Whitner developed hydroelectric power generating stations for a number of communities throughout the South, including Columbus, Griffin, and Elberton, GA.

Today, Whitner is remembered in several places of distinction in downtown Anderson, including a statue in front of the Anderson County Courthouse and a street named in his honor. Also, at the corner of McDuffie and Whitner Streets sits Generator Park. On the grounds of this 10,000 square-foot park stands the century-old generator that was operated by Whitner at the Portman Power Plant.



One Response

  • Furman Beck says:

    I have written a book, “Portman Shoals, The Forgotten Settlement,” in which I give a detailed report about Mr. Whitner’s achievements. He was a brilliant young man. Anderson missed out on a broad range of things by not promoting his efforts. In fact the Post and Currier was the first to nickname Anderson “The Electric City”. If you care to look my book is on Amazon. I enjoyed your article very much. Thank you, Furman Beck

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Gold is really good, only when wisely spent

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 2, 2015

A Kentucky folktale

Back in the olden days, an old man lived alone in a big house on his farm. He never married or raised a family. To him, a wife would have been too expensive. Raising a family would have cost at least half of his farm profit. And money, he believed, was too precious to waste on children. Besides, he believed he would need to spend all his spare time keeping his lazy share croppers busy, or else he’d find himself a pauper.

Over the years, the man who, no doubt, was a miser of the worst kind, accumulated more gold coins than he could carry. He kept the money hidden in small bags, scattered about the house. Then he became afraid that he might forget where he had hidden one or two of these many, small bags, or somebody might break into the house and find some of those many small bags. So he dug a hole inside his cellar, put the money into the hole, then he used a long pry-pole to move a large, flat rock over the hole.

Every time he collected money, he exchanged the silver for gold, pried the rock off the hole in the cellar, and deposited his money. After that, for an hour or more, he passed the gold coins through his hands and gloated.

But as more money piled up in the cellar hole, the miser became afraid someone might watch him go to his hidden money and steal it. Instead of going to his money, two or three times a month, he went only once every six months. Then he handled the money and gloated over it for two hours instead of one.
Then after going for one of his six months, he noticed the heavy, flat rock didn’t seem to be in the exact position he’d left it in six months before. As fear gripped him, he snatched his pry-pole and heaved, until the heavy rock slid off the hole. The hole was empty!

The old man fainted for a few seconds, as his arteries almost cut off the supply of blood to his brain. When he recovered, his screams were heard nearly a mile away. The nearby neighbors heard the old man screaming and crying and shouting, “My money is gone!” Several came running to the old miser’s house to find out what had happened. Through his sobs and cries, he finally explained how he had his money hidden in the hole he had dug in the cellar. He ended with the sob, “I’ll never again go in the cellar and look at the rock my precious gold was buried under. Oh, poor me!”

The oldest and wisest man there said, “Cheer up! You really have lost nothing. The gold did no one any good under that rock. Put the rock back over the hole, then come here everyday. Look at the rock and imagine the gold is under it. It will do you as much good as it always did; as gold is really good, only when wisely spent!”


source: ‘Old Farmer Was A Miser Of The Worst Kind! His Love Of Gold Led To Great Misery,’ as told by McCreary Roberts in ‘Kentucky Explorer,’ April 2000 online at

One Response

  • Rondell says:

    Hold up! Who done took he gold? I bet it be that no good thiefing leprekahn!

    Mr. Blogger, where you think that leprekahn hid that treasure? Rondell finna go out and find it for sheself!

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A certain girl in the Senior Commercial room wrote the following

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 1, 2015

Barney was very industriously studying her history lesson when suddenly she looked up and asked: “Mr. Humbertson, what is beheaded?” “Why, beheaded is having the head cut off, of course.” After a moment of thought, Barney suddenly exclaimed: “Well, then I guess defeat is having the feet cut off.”

Oakland MD High School yearbook 1930
Miss Kraft who was given the children written exercises wrote this advertisement:

Wanted—a milliner. Apply by letter to Miss Smith, 10 Bank Street.

The children had to make application for the position.

Louise Moon wrote—I saw you wanted a milliner. I hate to trim hats.

Can’t you get someone else? Please let me know at once.


Miss Kochenderfer on a diet.
Miss Kraft losing her temper in French class.
Miss Broadwater controlling Freshman boys.
Mr. Jenkins saying “Forty minutes.”
Mr. Humbertson liking Nancy.
Mr. Speicher telling jokes.
Miss Engle with a girls’ basketball team.
Mr. Graser having a date.
Miss Conley in the office alone.
Miss Rice being in a good humor.
Miss Fernald keeping her hair up.
Mr. Smith without his derby hat.
Miss Falkenstein cooking a meal.

John Stevenson, Lewis Lawton and Betty Hardesty were recently awarded gold medals in the recent Marathon Loafing Races, which were held in Vienna last week. These three popular young folks withstood the test and were voted the best and most efficient loafers of all the contestants.


“What is wrong with this sentence, children?” asked Miss Engle. “The horse and the cow is in the lot.” Crystal spoke up: “The cow and the horse is in the lot.” “What makes you correct it in that way, Crystal?” “The lady should be mentioned first,” answered Crystal.

Saint Peter—”Who’s there?” Helen Sollars—”It’s me.” Saint Peter—”Come in.”


Saint Peter—”Who’s there?” Wilmot Bowen—”It’s me.” Saint Peter—”Come in.”


Saint Peter—”Who’s there?” Voice—”It is I.” Saint Peter—”It must be one of those pert teachers again.—Come in.” And in walked Miss Kraft.

A certain girl in the Senior Commercial room wrote the following letter to a Corn Syrup Manufacturing Company: Dear Sirs:—I have eaten three cans of your corn syrup and it has not helped my corns one bit.
Yours very truly, G. W. N.


Oakland High School Yearbook, 1930
Garrett County, MD


source: Western Maryland Regional Library

Oakland+High+School +Garrett+County+MD +high+school+yearbook appalachia appalachia+history appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

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