Behind the Scenes:
Abita Spring’s Mystery House
By Carolyn Thornton
Upon approach, the Abita Mystery House at the UCM Museum resembles a service station from the 1950s, which it once was. Look closer. The red door has two signs that read, “Bring your camera!” Lining the doorframe, other hand-painted signs read, “Keep America Free Strong and Pretty,” “See the AMAZING BASSIGATOR,” “Unusual Collections and Mini Towns,” “House of Shards,” “Fortune Teller,” “Abita Bicycle Rental.” One tiny sign notes, “This is Art.”
Above: The entrance to the Abita Mystery House still resembles the service station, which it was in a previous time. (Lynn Craddick photo)
Below: The gift shop at Abita Mystery House appeals to visitors with a sense of humor. (Lynn Craddick photo)
Welcome to the wacky, whimsical and sometimes serious world of John Preble, funky folk artist, compulsive collector, inventor, music writer and promoter, and self-professed curator of the Abita Mystery House at the UCM Museum (that’s you-see-’em museum). Step inside to see the ceiling tiled with worn out modem, sound and computer cards. Door facings are decorated with bottle caps and springs. License plates shingle the walls.
Interesting as this might be, it’s only the gift shop, one that Preble admits appeals to the whoopee-cushion crowd; and yes, you can buy one here.
Abita Mystery House is full of surprises, such as Buford the Bassigator–half bass, half alligator–which began life as a Mardi Gras float. Then there’s the collection of bicycles, an appropriate display considering Abita Springs is on the Tammany Trace rails-to-trail.
There also are collections of barbed wire, garden hoses and paint-by-number paintings. Some pieces are simply out-of-this-world, such as the Airstream trailer that met up with a flying saucer, and the Moon Buggy that resembles something that flew off a Ferris wheel.
These oddities and trash-to-treasure exhibits came from other people’s castoffs. Preble never turns anything away. The pop-top of a soft drink might become a headlight, or plastic fork the tines of a tractor grill.
Always a collector, Preble said his grandmother had an antique store.
“I like little things that don’t cost anything,” he says.
If it’s oddball, strange or different, even better.
The seed of an idea is planted
In the mid 1990s during a New Mexico vacation, Preble discovered a funky roadside attraction called Tinkertown. A miniature Western town was inside, and all kinds of junk filled the gift shop’s walls. Preble had an idea, and opened his curious roadside attraction in 2000.
The River Road exhibit is an automated display of plantation homes with veranda railings fashioned from cut up plastic Christmas tree light holders. The town library door opens to reveal an outhouse. Lil Dub’s BBQ and gas station claims “Eat Here. Get Gas.”
Separate displays depict a house trailer getting swept up in a tornado, a diorama of a New Orleans jazz funeral, or a Mardi Gras parade with Martians in the crowd.
“It’s a hands-on museum for kids. If something breaks, it can be fixed,” says Preble, a New Orleans native.
Most visitors may not know that Preble is a fine art painter. His “Green Eyed Girls” hang in Bryant Gallery, the oldest contemporary art gallery in New Orleans. One of his paintings hung in the White House. He taught art at Loyola University and continues to paint atmospheric Louisiana scenes, which he converts into posters sold in the gift shop.
“It pays the bills,” he says.
A display case in the gift shop holds some of the masterful jewelry designed by his wife, Ann O’Brien. Since her death in 2006, Preble has turned his art studio into a music studio and works to develop young talent.
To see everything in at Abita Mystery House requires looking up, down and around, and returning to see what has been added to the permanent exhibits that include the Marble Machine, House of Shards and Gold Mine.
“It’s not things of value,” he says. “It’s pop culture and memorabilia.”
Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.
|Sept/Oct 2009 Issue
|BEFORE YOU GO
The Abita Mystery House is at 22275 State Highway 36 in Abita Springs. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but major holidays, and admission is $3. A $1 discount coupon is on the Web site ucmmuseum.com. For more information, call (985) 892-2624.