One man’s middle finger to authority became the strangest roadside attraction in the Midwest
Words and photos by Chance Hoener
Ron Lessman steps into his yard and offers a warm greeting with one hand. A cold beer occupies the other. The yard is filled with rocks from the ice age, boxcars full of bones from prehistoric animals, and more than a few peacocks. Painted banners proclaiming “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” or “Fire it up, Kansas” hang from the bridge leading to Lessman’s house — which he built out of eight trailer-home frames and covered in stucco and 13 different colors of paint. The farm, which sits just outside of Topeka, Kansas, is surrounded by salvage yards and sand pits. It looks more like a strange junkyard itself, but it’s too intriguing to turn back.
“Let me show you around,” he says.
Lessman is an avant-garde artist, a philosopher and to those at the offices of Shawnee County, Kansas, a nuisance. He raised hogs and when his old trucks would break down, Lessman would park them in his hog pens. But when he quit raising hogs, Shawnee County told Lessman that his trucks were a hazard. Lessman lives in the floodplain, and the county was concerned that his trucks were going to float down the river, so they ordered him to pick them up.
“They’ve got Carhenge up in Nebraska. There’s Cadillac Ranch down in Texas. Kansas can’t be left out,” Lessman says. “So I picked up my trucks.”
Truckhenge was created in 2000 when Lessman lifted his trucks and lodged each of them in the ground with 42,000 pounds of concrete. The county said this was a cynical attempt to get around the law and charged him with public nuisance. The judge came and looked at the trucks and told the county if they thought it was contempt, file contempt charges or leave Lessman alone. But they didn’t. Shawnee County found another judge and moved forward with the criminal public nuisance charges against Lessman.
“The county told the judge that even with 21 tons of concrete under each truck, they might, they may, could, possibly, maybe float the 300 yards to the river, the 30 miles to Lawrence, take out the whole city of Lawrence and wipe all the bridges out at the same time,”Lessman says.
The judge convicted Lessman and fined him $750. But Lessman’s run-around with Shawnee County wasn’t a one-time occurrence. In 1993, a flood came through and tore up much of Lessman’s farm. Instead of fighting the water, he decided to join it. The state wanted dirt and rock for an expressway that was being built, and Lessman wanted a pond.
“I remember that book Tom Sawyer; he got paid to paint that fence,” Lessman says. “The best way to get a pond dug was to have the State people dig it.”
Once the dirt and sand was dug out, Lessman let the hole fill with water and stocked it with 20,000 catfish. Soon after, he underbid his then-neighbor, Meier’s Ready Mix, to haul off rubble from the demolition site of the nearby Topeka State Hospital. He wanted the rocks and concrete to put around his pond, but much of the rubble had pieces of rebar in it. Lessman cut the rebar off and threw it into a large pile in his field. That’s when Shawnee County brought a search warrant for his property, and subsequently took him to court again.
“That’s when the county told me I couldn’t have any loose metal,” Lessman says. “The county attorney told the judge that boats float, boats are made out of metal, therefore metal floats.”
So Lessman decided to take what started with Truckhenge and run as far as he could with it. When the county cited the many old boats he had lying around as a hazard, Lessman cemented them in the ground too, and Boathenge was born. He took all of the rebar he had and began making sculptures of buffalo, campfires, and tornados — all cemented into the ground of course. The empty containers from a party couldn’t be left loose, so they became Beer Bottle City.
“It’s not a matter of me breaking the law,” Lessman says. “I just piss these [folks] off.”
Through all this, Lessman did find a love for art. He does chainsaw carvings and paints large canvas banners, all with his unique touch. Everyone carves eagles and bears, so Lessman carves faces, some of famous actors like George Burns and characters like Pennywise from Stephen King’s “It.” Strewn around the property, most of it looks like junk — and it is — but every piece has a story, and Lessman’s tongue-in-cheek narration brings it all to life.
And people have noticed. “Roadside America,” a television show from Sweden, and even the reality show “Sister Wives” have come to see Truckhenge. Visits from an art class from Washburn University aren’t uncommon, either. Lessman won an award from the Topeka Arts Council in 2011 and is often visited by Rosslyn Schultz, director of the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas, Kansas.
“It’s more about environments, and these artists are creating environments around themselves,” Schultz says. She works to document artists and educate people about artists in the state, including many “outsider” artists like Lessman. Kansas ranks third in the nation for documented sites of people creating on-site art. “It’s unique, and many people are looking for something quirky or unusual to do in a state.”
Lessman’s last dispute with the county came when officials told him his property couldn’t be designated as agricultural land for tax purposes. Since he allowed fishing in his pond, they claimed he was commercial and charged him $1,000 in taxes. When Lessman fought it, they said they didn’t know what he did there.
“All you’ve got to do is look down my driveway and you can tell I’m a farmer,” Lessman says, gesturing to a line of bumpers sticking straight up along one edge of his driveway. “That’s my bumper crop.” The “bumper crop” is nestled in with Truckhenge along signs that read “Warning – Man with Idea” and “Zone to Speak Your Mind.” But Lessman says the county doesn’t bother him anymore, and since then, he has diversified his crop past bumpers, trucks and rebar.
“My grandpa used to raise watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet corn and sweet potatoes,” Lessman says. “If you diversify, you aren’t dependent on one crop.” Aside from the art, Lessman offers fishing, camping and several large outdoor concerts each year. One of the biggest is the 420 Festival, a two-day party packed with live music in two fields and plenty of beer — among other things.
“Even if nobody came, he would still keep creating,” Schultz says. “There’s some inner drive within these artists that says, ‘I have to do this.’”
If people don’t like the art or his attitude, Lessman says screw ’em. He didn’t do all this because he cares what people think, and he won’t start now. What started as a way to mess with Shawnee County has given him an expressive outlet. “There’s enough crap that goes on on the other side of my fence,” Lessman says. “If I can bring people in here for a few minutes and put a smile on their face, I’ve done my job.”
At the end of the tour, rounding back toward Lessman’s house and the car, he turns and says, “So you can see, we just try to have a little fun around here.” He’s the reason nearly 3,000 people visit Truckhenge and the farm each year. The trucks, the fishing and the concerts are secondary. He’s wacky, he’s rebellious and he’s captivating. And he has no plans of changing.