Enoch Tanner Wickham:
A Biographical Sketch of the Artist

Janelle Strandberg Aieta
Curator, Customs House Museum & Cultural Center
Adjunct faculty, Department of Art,
Austin Peay State University


It is difficult to get a complete sense of someone who has been dead for thirty-one years. Even though he left us with an artistic legacy in his concrete sculpture park, E. T. Wickham is no different. Only certain hard facts can be established through documentation, such as dates of birth and death, marriage, children, and land ownership. Yet this information leaves us with not much more than a timeline and no understanding of what drove E.T. Wickham to create his works. People whose lives touched his are the only living record.

In speaking with those who knew Wickham, a variety of images appear, offering us distinct perspectives of the man from different people with different relationships to him. Sometimes, the details are contradictory, and many of the stories have developed mythic or legend-like proportions. Some historians are critical of oral histories because of problems such as unreliability of memory, personal bias, deliberate falsification, and gossip, but even taking these critiques into consideration, there are definite advantages to this form of research. Oral history fleshes out the documentary record with atmosphere, personal feelings, cultural beliefs, and attitudes. The advantages in this case go beyond merely supplementing or complementing the written record. There are so few facts to be found documenting those in the rural population during E. T. Wickham’s lifetime that the information provided by our interviewees is invaluable. Not only did we glean facts, but also a greater understanding of Mr. Wickham’s personality.

The Wickham family story begins with Harvey and Elizabeth Wickham crossing the ocean from England. It is said that while en route their first child, Nathaniel Wickham, was born. This child was the grandfather of E. T. Wickham. In 1834, Nathaniel Wickham purchased land in Montgomery County, across the Cumberland River from the city of Clarksville, on which stood a log house dating from the late eighteenth century. This house became the homeplace of the Wickham family. Nathaniel’s youngest son Robert, after marrying Elizabeth (Betty) Marsh in 1859, raised his own family in this house, near Palmyra, Tennessee, in what has come to be called Wickham Hollow.

During the Civil War, Robert Wickham and his father-in-law Bill Marsh opposed secession from the Union and voted against it, apparently despite threats that those who did so would be hung. Bill Marsh, Robert Wickham and their families moved to Kentucky during the war. They returned to their Tennessee property after the war, finding house and buildings intact.

Enoch Tanner Wickham, the youngest of Robert and Betty’s thirteen children, was born at the homeplace on June 11, 1883. According to his own children, Mr. Wickham did not reminisce about his formative years. Other family accounts describe a typical large country household where life revolved around work and family. Robert, the patriarch, was sober and straight-laced and active in the Presbyterian Church. He was a successful farmer and the family was comfortable. Some recalled that while the family purchased salt and flour, they managed to raise or produce all of their other provisions. The Fourth of July was a major event at the Wickham place. Robert Wickham and the boys would butcher and barbecue a steer, while people from all over the community brought potluck offerings and picnicked under the trees.

The family genealogy, compiled by E.T. Wickham’s niece Frankie Daniel Sellas, characterizes him in childhood: “Uncle Tanner’s mother’s letters describe him as an impish little boy who surprised and delighted her with his antics. He was my mother’s baby brother; the family called him ‘Tank.’ He was an introspective child with a strong independence. In a proud family, he spurned the superficial, would rather wear overalls and ponder the world outside his realm.” Wickham, who went by the name Tanner, most likely attended school but dropped out at an early grade. Some say that this occurred shortly after the death of his father, when Tanner was nine years of age. He stayed at home with his mother, his brother Wayne, and two sisters. According to family lore, the oldest brother, John, a Vanderbilt-trained physician already in practice as a country doctor, was intended to act as Tanner’s father figure after their father’s death, but young Tanner, an independent spirit, rejected his brother’s authority. He felt a man needed to take care of himself.

In 1906, E.T. married Lena Annie Yarbrough. They moved to a farm in Robertson County where they raised nine children. It was here that Wickham created his first work in concrete, a mailbox with his own likeness on it, now presumably destroyed. A family anecdote relates a disagreement between Wickham and the rural mail carrier, who had declared, “If I never have to see your face again, it’ll be too soon.” The mailbox with his face on it was Wickham’s way of having the last word in the argument.

In the 1930s, due to economic pressures Wickham chose to move his family back to the Montgomery County homeplace. After returning, E. T. formed a stone grave marker for his son Ernest, who had died during World War II, and placed it in the family cemetery just across the road. Sometime around 1950, Wickham made his first large scale sculpture, an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A convert to Catholicism, Wickham was considered a religious man by many who knew him. Even though they were not regular church attendees, Wickham and his wife Annie had all of their children baptized in the Catholic Church. His sculpture of the Blessed Virgin Mary, no longer extant, was thought to be one of his finest works. One acquaintance remembers that it seemed more naturalistic than some of his later pieces, as though he took great care in getting the details and features right.

E.T. Wickham was known to have been quite inventive. It is purported that he invented a wheat thresher and an automatic fish feeder for his pond. He dammed lakes and worked as a surveyor. He planted many trees on his own land. His love of nature led him to spend much time out of doors, and he was a hunter, reportedly an excellent shot, who spent many nights in the woods while his dogs tracked wild creatures.

In 1952, after his children were grown and living their own lives, he built a small, cabin-like house on Buck Smith Road, to the south and west of the homeplace. He and his wife moved to the cabin, which was, at some point, painted with blue and red stripes. It is on this site that he began constructing his sculpture park. Why he built the small house and moved away from the homeplace is unclear. Some speculate that he had plans to create something there and wanted to be nearby for convenience and protection. They theorize that Wickham was always an artist, but had never before had the time or money to devote himself to his work. By the 1950s, times were prosperous; he was making more money from his crops, had no children to support, and often had help around the place from his grandchildren. He was also receiving a social security check every month. Another possible rationale came from a friend who remembered that he decided to live the way the early pioneers lived. This also seems likely, as he was very interested in history and soon began to create concrete images of frontiersmen, Native Americans, and the prominent citizens of Tennessee.

There is a story surrounding the building of the cabin on Buck Smith Road. Shortly before Robert Wickham’s death, he and his sons were said to have felled trees and cut a number of logs for use in an outbuilding. These are thought to be the same logs from which E. T. Wickham built his own cabin many years later.

After moving to the new place, Wickham created a concrete archway entrance for the cabin and built a pond nearby. He placed sculptures of two sleeping hound dogs on the archway’s bases and brought the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the homeplace to the cabin. Across the road he built a clubhouse for the United Sportsman’s Club of Palmyra, Tennessee, a group established by Wickham and other local men interested in conservation, hunting, politics, and social matters. Wickham’s interest in politics is a common thread among the remembrances. His friend Carroll Ellis describes him as a “closet Republican in a Democratic state.” Wickham often initiated conversations about issues that concerned him and was adept at “engineering” a question in order to expose both sides of an issue, while managing to avoid confrontation. It has been said that when he was talking with someone, it was not for the sake of imparting knowledge, but for the sake of gaining knowledge.

As Wickham’s work progressed, people from the community began to show interest. If local boys came by wanting to swim in the lake, he might put them to work hauling water from the spring or handing tools or stones up to him as he worked on the statues. If a friend or an unknown visitor came by, he would stop and talk about what he was working on, which might lead to a discussion about history or politics. He might show visitors the collection of caged animals that he kept behind the house, which included a bobcat, a large turtle, raccoons and a very long rattlesnake. Some say he was more talkative to friends than family.

By all accounts E. T. Wickham was an honest man who was respected by the community, even though many thought he was eccentric. For many years his mode of transportation into the small town of Palmyra was his team of oxen. Wickham was quiet and serious, even though his sense of humor is evident in certain of his sculptures, like a bull with an electric socket under its tail into which Wickham placed a red lightbulb! As a father he was not especially affectionate and was strict, instilling Christian morals and values in his children, as well as a reverence for work--especially work with their hands.

Wickham’s first statue on the north side of the road (opposite from the cabin) was a World War II monument that memorialized his son Ernest, who had died in France in 1944. When work on the piece was nearing completion, Wickham asked the officers of the Sportsman’s Club to contact United States Senator Estes Kefauver about speaking at the dedication of the statue. Kefauver accepted, and contacted General William Westmoreland, Commanding General at Fort Campbell army post, and requested him to come and speak as well. It is said that Westmoreland sent soldiers to build risers and guard the statue while Wickham applied the finishing touches. Family and friends recount that the soldiers stayed there night and day for approximately two weeks. People still remember the dedication event, saying there never has been a larger affair in the area. The number of people in attendance has been estimated at between 700 and 1000. An Army band entertained the crowd, speeches were made, and the statue unveiled. This type of unveiling, or ‘speaking’ as Wickham called it, occurred for several of the later pieces as well, usually with more than one statue being dedicated at once. Even so, none compared to the first event. Wickham stayed in contact with officials at Fort Campbell and was later commissioned to make a sculpture of a kneeling soldier for the army post.

Almost all of the statues on the north side of the road are monuments or memorials to individuals or events. Many sit on bases that contain messages appropriate to the work. Certain friends and family were often called to check on the spelling of words for the inscriptions. Despite this practice, Wickham sometimes failed to spell things correctly. The family recalls that Wickham often worked from photos or artistic renderings. It is known that he visited the Andrew Jackson monument on the grounds of the State Capitol in Nashville, and his sculpture of Jackson on a rearing horse bears a striking resemblance.

On the south side of the road, near his cabin, Wickham created sculptures of a religious nature. He made a giant working sundial in this space (he checked the Guinness Book of World Records in order to make sure it would be the biggest sundial on record), and soon began using the sundial as a backdrop for a multi-figure scene depicting the miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, which included a depiction of the Virgin Mary raised up on a pole strung with electric lights. Many of the religious works were made toward the end of his life.

One piece that does not fall into either the historical or religious categories of Wickham’s work sits apart from the others, almost hidden in the woods off to the right of the line of figures on the north side of the road. Early accounts of the Wickham site and some family members have called this “Babe, the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan,” but it seems certain that it is a self-portrait of the artist riding a bull. The inscription on the base reads, “E T Wickham headed for the wild and woley (sic) west, remember me boys while I am gone.”

Few of the facts of E. T. Wickham’s life point to why he might have created these works. Most people feel that he was interested in leaving behind something specific for future generations, possibly something of himself. A friend of Mr. Wickham’s described it this way, “He just had a mental picture of different things that were good... and he tried to give [them] a vivid life.”

Enoch Tanner Wickham died August 27, 1970, aged 87, after eighteen documented years of creating art. He is buried next to his wife Annie and son Ernest at the family cemetery, in graves marked with Wickham’ s homemade tombstones. A concrete angel stands over his grave with wings outstretched and hands folded.