Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: Can you tell me anything about a massive folk-art structure that was built in the 1950s somewhere south of Memphis? I think it was called "Curiosity" but I never knew much else about it
— R.W., Memphis.
Dear R.W.: My half-dozen readers may remember that back in the 1940s and 1950s, before the interstate highway system spread its concrete tentacles across America, Memphians journeyed to the Gulf Coast along the regular state highways and byways of Mississippi and Alabama. Over the years, quite a few of those travelers returned to Memphis with tales of an extraordinary structure they had seen alongside the road. Descriptions varied. Some said it was apparently a form of art — a huge sculpture, assembled from telephone poles and chunks of wood and scraps of iron. Others insisted it was actually a residence of some kind, adorned with old signs and slabs of plywood. But whatever it was, everyone agreed that it seemed to grow larger and larger every year.
And it went, so they said, by the entirely appropriate name of "Curiosity."
I have been asked about this oddity many times over the years, but was unable to learn just what the place was, where it was located, and who built it.
Until now. A Memphis family, whose name shall not be mentioned here, was scrolling through their old home movies recently, and discovered they had filmed "Curiosity" on their way to Florida in the late 1950s. Some of those tiny, grainy scenes, taken from the original 8mm footage, are shown here, and I think they give you a good idea why people had so much trouble describing the place.
It is indeed a residence, but few homes in America have ever looked like this.
By carefully scrutinizing some of the movie images, I was able to make out the name of the owner — "Stephen Sykes" — hand-painted on a slab of wood over the entrance. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, that clue led me to an April 1963 copy of Ebony magazine, with a feature story called "Do It Yourself Skyscraper," which told the whole remarkable saga of this African-American gentleman and his amazing creation.
For one thing, the actual name of the structure was "In-Curiosity" and yes, it served as Sykes' residence for many years. The Ebony article called Sykes "a 69-year-old bachelor with a driving ambition to rise above his fellow man," and he did that literally, by erecting a six-level, 65-foot-high dwelling from junk, poles, signs, hubcaps — whatever he could find. Ebony called it "an architectural maze of grotesquely joined wooden poles interspersed with a conglomeration of odds and ends." The whole thing was erected right alongside Highway 45, just a mile or so north of the little town of Aberdeen, Mississippi.
"When viewed from the ground, In-Curiosity inspires immediate concern about its ability to survive the next gentle breeze," said Ebony. "But once inside, the visitor's apprehensions are dispelled by its sound construction." The article explained that the home actually contained "numerous functional items, including a four-burner wood stove, sink, antiquated ice box, rainwater shower bath, and an intercom telephone made from a rubber hose." That last feature allowed visitors to contact Sykes, who lived on the very top level of the structure, his bedroom ventilated by an old smokestack converted to catch the breeze.
"I'm not a fresh-air fiend," Sykes told the magazine, "but I believe it's healthful to sleep and live in fresh air, and I haven't had a cold since I began staying in this room year-round."
In the days before "folk art" became trendy, Sykes adorned his home with wonderful handmade signs and posters. One advised visitors, "Don't talk so much. Keep your mouth closed and your bowels open and believe in Jesus."
So who was Stephen Sykes? That's hard to say. Biographical information is rather skimpy, and I was unable to locate a decent photo of him. The Ebony article described him as a World War I veteran who had "followed the sun and moved west. Inspired by the oil rigs he saw, he dreamed of going back to Mississippi to build something great out of common materials." In the early 1950s, he settled down on 20 acres of land owned by his sisters outside Aberdeen and began work on In-Curiosity. "The longer he worked, the more friends he made, and soon all types of objects were hauled or mailed to him from every part of the U.S., donated by motorists for inclusion in his project."
Sykes gave tours of his home to anyone who stopped by, and was obviously proud of his creation. "It takes a lot of nerve and good thinking to keep a project like this going," he told reporters.
So what happened to Sykes and his In-Curiosity house? I can't say for sure. I had heard stories that he died in the 1960s, and the house remained a picturesque ruin for some years afterwards. It blew down one day in a storm, somebody said. Others told me it burned. Since Highway 45 is now a wide double-lane highway linking Aberdeen to points north and south, it's almost certain that In-Curiosity would have been demolished to make way for the new road. But Sykes and his amazing creation live on in the memories of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of travelers in this area, and in grainy home movies and snapshots tucked away in boxes and scrapbooks.
Dear Vance: A while back, you wrote about Wilson Field, an old airport off Winchester Road. But wasn't there another airport also on Winchester, but a few miles farther west?
— t.j., memphis.
Dear T.J.: Someday when time permits, I guess I should do a story about all the little airfields and landing strips that dotted the countryside around Memphis. There were a surprising number of them, and the one you remember, T.J., was Memphis Flying Service. As shown on this old Esso map (below), it was located on the north side of Winchester, between Perkins and Mendenhall.
Memphis Flying Service was like the other airfields around the county — a grass landing strip, a couple of hangars, and some basic maintenance facilities. It had no tower, and probably not any navigation lights. A wind sock told flyers which way the wind was blowing, and that was it.
But what made this particular base unusual was the person who ran it. According to an old Memphis Press-Scimitar article, "For the first time in the history of Memphis aviation, a woman has been named general manager of one of the city's largest privately owned aviation enterprises." In fact, at the time — we're talking late 1940s here — LaVelle Walsh was the only female airport operator in the United States.
Not for long. Walsh stepped down the following year, for reasons not made clear in the newspaper articles. Even so, "she injected new life into the local flying game, and made Mid-South operators sit up and take notice." Among other accomplishments, she made Memphis Flying Service the largest veterans flight-training school in this region.
The little airfield, and most others around the county, closed sometime in the late 1960s. The area is now filled with houses and apartments.