By Patrick Olsen
Meet Ron Lessman. He is the Rubble Rouser of Topeka, Kan., and he is the brains behind Truckhenge.
Truckhenge is a collection of trucks raised in salute that dot his 120-acre home east of Topeka and just a couple miles north of Interstate 70, near Kansas Highway 4. Why did he build it, and how?
The why is relatively easy: It's Lessman's gesture to The Man, which in his case means county officials who have been in a running skirmish with him for more than a decade over much of the rubble that can be found across his land and surrounds the 30-acre fishing pond that generates much of his livelihood. It's not piles of leftover concrete, rebar and other hard-core municipal detritus, though; almost all of it has been transformed into some kind of art, art that Lessman has spent years making. Local officials have called Truckhenge "a cynical attempt to get around the law," Lessman said, chuckling.
"They told me to pick my trucks up," he said, "and I picked them up." That last line is delivered with a gesture giving those officials the "bird."
Lessman is a combination farmer, funnyman, raconteur and showman, with a rapid-fire delivery and a wit that would not be out of place in the Catskills. The 60-year-old has lived on this property for 35 years, he said, and he started out as a farmer, raising (among other things) pigs. "I quit raising hogs. Why? I quit raising things that were smarter than me," he said.
There's far more on his property than just Truckhenge, including that pond, a collection of boats that visitors often spray paint, a la Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas ("I put those there so I can call them my whaling wall."), wood and concrete carvings, a stage for concerts and much more. His puns and jokes would put Henny Youngman to shame. Pointing out branches filled with dangling pairs of shoes, he said, "We call that our tree of lost soles." The only thing he's missing is a drummer performing rimshots.
According to Lessman, county officials were concerned that these broken-down vehicles might, in the event of an epic flood, make their way down the river, endangering residents. Lessman said their logic went something like this: Boats float, boats are made out of metal, therefore metal floats, and therefore these trucks could float away. That seems unlikely, given how he has constructed his display:
- He started with four 3,000-pound concrete blocks
- He added two scoops of gravel, weighing 8,000 pounds each
- He reinforced them with a ton of iron
- And with four yards of concrete, at 4,000 pounds per yard
We were not able to scale these to ensure accuracy.
Lessman began work on the piece in 2000, and by 2003-2004 had opened up his home for tours (still by appointment only; call ahead). While these trucks (and a bus) bear only a passing similarity to Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, Lessman says that he's drawn visitors from around the world, including visitors from Germany, Russia, China, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Quebec City. "One guy wrote Truckhenge is really not a henge because it's really not a circle, and one guy wrote back, it's really not a circle, it's more of a truck U." It's not as organized and monetized as Carhenge is in Nebraska, but it feels like more of an attraction than Cadillac Ranch.
Here's what Lessman has to say about each truck in Truckhenge. Each was used by him or his family at some point, he said. "I loved driving these things," he added.
The entrance to a train car.
"We had a wreck back in Lawrence. A conductor took a 20-mph corner going 40 mph, flipped the whole train, and I was able to get one of the train cars. … I cut it up in little bitty pieces; made about 35 grand on it taking it apart. And they paid me to take it away."
Pointing to the sky.
A 1948 Chevrolet pickup, and the first truck to be installed in Truckhenge.
"That was in my pigpen. It's Jimi Hendrix-themed, 'Excuse me while I touch the sky and rise up.' They told me to pick up my trucks, and I picked up my trucks. That's what that's about."
A 1951 Chevrolet bus.
The bus was originally used as both shade and shelter for Lessman's pigs. In the cold or rain, they'd huddle inside; when it got hot, they'd sit in its shade. What does the writing on it say? "This is the place. There is no place like this place, so this must be the place." What's that from? "A friend of mine saw it in some biker magazine. There's supposed to be three or four other sentences with it, but I goofed a little bit how I wrote it."
1947 Ford dump truck with engine in back.
"You can see I'm a farmer; I've got a bumper crop." Ba-dum-bum.
A 1957 Chevy pickup.
"Now that's the one that pissed off the county the most. Now it's faded out now, but the top of the hood said, 'If these can't stand, why did we fight the Taliban?' Now it reads 'A Memorial for Liberty/Rome didn't kill Jesus/Bureaucrats did.' Petty little thugs. ... That's why I copped the attitude I have. They can say anything, and I have to prove them wrong? They should have some form of ethics on their own and they don't."
If you're going to Topeka, stop by Truckhenge. You can get information from Lessman's website. If you're planning a visit, please call them first at 785-234-3486, and ask for Ron or Linda. It's their home, so please don't surprise them. And plan to take some time; there's plenty to see here.