A Biographical Sketch of the Artist
Curator, Customs House Museum
& Cultural Center
Adjunct faculty, Department of
Austin Peay State
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. Wickhams
lifetime that the information provided by our interviewees is invaluable.
Not only did we glean facts, but also a greater understanding of Mr. Wickhams
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. Nathaniels 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 Bettys 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. Wickhams niece Frankie Daniel
Sellas, characterizes him in childhood: Uncle Tanners mothers
letters describe him as an impish little boy who surprised and delighted
her with his antics. He was my mothers 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 Tanners father figure
after their fathers death, but young Tanner, an independent spirit,
rejected his brothers authority. He felt a man needed to take care
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, itll be too soon. The mailbox
with his face on it was Wickhams way of having the last word in
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 Wickhams 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 archways 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 Sportsmans Club of Palmyra, Tennessee,
a group established by Wickham and other local men interested in conservation,
hunting, politics, and social matters. Wickhams 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 Wickhams 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.
Wickhams 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 Sportsmans 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
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 Wickhams 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. Wickhams 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. Wickhams 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.