E. T. Wickham (1883-1970)

Enoch Tanner Wickham left an artistic legacy in the form of a permanent concrete sculpture park by the side of the road near Palmyra, Tennessee, across the Cumberland River from Clarksville. Wickham, a descendant of early settlers of Montgomery County, was a farmer, a woodsman, and a self-taught artist with a penchant for engineering. Around 1950, he began creating larger-than-life-size statuary using a combination of bought materials and whatever was at hand. Sometimes he smoothed concrete directly onto iron bed frames, electrical cord, or bailing wire; at other times, he used metal stovepipe to cast it into sections. Most of Wickham’s sculptures were placed on pedestals, usually with dedicatory inscriptions. Clearly, he meant these to be public monuments. During what for most people would be retirement years, E.T. Wickham was just hitting his stride. He produced as many as forty sculptures over the twenty-year period before his death at age eighty-seven.

Wickham’s earliest sculptural forms seem to have been religious in nature. He arranged them in the yard around the small two-room cabin where he and his wife moved in 1952. His first creation was an image of the Virgin Mary in white concrete, standing on a blue dome cast from a washtub, with a brown snake encircling her feet. Nearby, he built other religious sculptures. He rigged up a tree trunk-like pole with metal branches and a halo of light bulbs in order to recreate the 1917 apparition of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal. Nearby stood an overall-clad statue of Joseph holding Jesus as a young child. Wickham, a convert to Catholicism, even honored Father Ryan, who had lived in Clarksville during the Civil War.

On the opposite side of the road, Wickham crafted a group of life-size historical monuments and positioned them facing the public roadway. The first was a World War II soldier on a raised platform that included an actual helmet, a rifle, and a munitions shell. It was intended to honor his son, Ernest, who died in France in 1944. U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver, who arrived in a Fort Campbell helicopter, spoke at a 1959 public dedication ceremony for the monument, beginning a tradition that extended to elected local officials, professors at Austin Peay State University, and military dignitaries from Fort Campbell. By this time, Wickham had turned almost exclusively to historical and political figures for inspiration. In short order, he produced a statue of Tecumseh, an equestrian Andrew Jackson, and portraits of Alvin York and Governor Austin Peay. In 1963, he began a monument to John F. Kennedy, placing him on an elevated pedestal with Estes Kefauver and inserting a concrete model of the Liberty Bell below. After Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Wickham added a statue of Robert F. Kennedy to the group.

After Wickham’s death, the statues fell into disrepair. Many were vandalized. With the family’s permission, the statues of Sergeant York, Joseph and the Christ Child, and two gateposts depicting Wickham’s favorite hunting dogs were moved to the campus of Austin Peay State University so that they could be restored by sculptor Ned Crouch and displayed at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. In 2001, Clarksville’s Customs House Museum organized a retrospective exhibition and published a comprehensive catalogue of the work of E. T. Wickham, much of it represented only in photographs because of the continuing destruction of the site. In October 2006, Wickham’s daughter Mary Evans, with the help of her children and grandchildren, moved the fourteen remaining sculptures away from the public road onto nearby family property where they will continue to be displayed to the public and protected for future generations.

Suggested Reading

Ned Crouch, Michael Hall, Daniel C. Prince, Clark Thomas, Carol Turrentine, Susan W. Knowles, Janelle S. Aieta, Dixie Webb, and Robert Cogswell, E. T. Wickham: A Dream Unguarded (2001).

Published » January 05, 2010