Monday, October 19, 1998, Jerome, Missouri - Larry Baggett is living the life every American male wishes he could live; he has his very own world, a few miles west of Rolla, and he lives in it in his very own way. He also has the secret to life and, lucky for us, he is willing to share it.
Baggett will be happy to answer any question you ask, and he can answer most of them. The challenge for you is to apply his answers to your world, or at least the world other than Baggett's.
The man you see above is only 28 years old and that's the truth. "28 years ago, I had 18 months to live, and arthritis," he says. "I had the worst case of diabetes on record." This, I guess, is when he considers his birth - or rebirth. His life changed and, after learning from this man in the Ozark foothills, so will yours.
After his doomsday diagnosis, Baggett began building a campground on the side of a hill on old Route 66. He hoped it would be a source of revenue for his wife after he died. "I was bulldozing out there," he says. "When a state trooper came by and said; 'Hey, you're tearing up the Trail of Tears!' So I went and looked it up and, sure enough, this was where they took them, right through here."
Baggett is referring to the blemish on America's history known as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which was signed by President Andrew Jackson. Though it was contested by the U.S. Supreme Court, we forced tens of thousands of American Indians off their lands in the southeastern United States and either led them or forced them to trek from Tennessee and Alabama to land that is now known as Oklahoma. Several thousand American Indians were killed in the ten years that followed.
So, Baggett, who was born in Tennessee, started making a small memorial to the Indians, as a way to draw attention to his campground, and it worked. When his wife fell ill and died, and he gave up on the campground, Baggett decided to enlarge the memorial. It continues to attract attention, making him into a local legend, perhaps because people think he created it just for the heck of it.
But this isn't how he found the answers to life, just how he doles them out. And, surprisingly enough, working as a Sears installer for 32 years didn't provide him these answers either. "I started reading the Bible," Baggett says. "It didn't make me religious, but it answered a lot of questions."
Apparently, he had more luck with the Bible than I have with him.
"Have any children, Larry?"
"Oh, I was blamed on a whole lot of them.
"But, do you have any..."
"Raised 6 kids. I have two grandkids. I make calendars. See this? It works by the moon. These days here are good ones for your head, these for your neck, these days are good for your arms... I have a monument up the hill, there, it's a hundred miles from kahookee, Montana."
"What's kahookee, Larry?"
"That's the capital of the Cherokee nation. An old indian visited me - He looked like 150 years old. He told me 'I stayed up there three days, watching you before I came down.' He told me about the Trail of Tears. Told me how they dragged Indians through here, made them walk hundreds of miles - Indians camped right around the corner there for thirty days."
"I had a man come here from the agriculture department, told me about arsenic. Arsenic will make three foot tall chickens."
"I'm sorry, Larry. Chickens with three feet?"
No, no. Three feet tall. They feed them arsenic. He did a study on it and told me. They had chickens three feet tall. They don't tell everybody that."
"No, I bet they..."
"Let me show you this. See this?"
"It's an almanac, Larry."
"All - man - action," that's right. Almanac."
People here have been so good to me," he says. "They've done TV shows on me." We enter his living room, a small and crowded space, replete with a padded ceiling ("leatherette") and a hornets' nest on the outside of the window. "That was on TV," he says. I sit on his couch and he shows me a few video tapes of news bits covering this local character. I don't realize that I am actually sitting on his dog until it moves and I jump.
"And you can spell anything you want with the moon, see? Look, tomorrow is the new moon, and it will be for 7 1/4 days." Larry draws a circle. Then he draws a half moon, something like a "C." "That's "G," he says. Then a full moon, I guess, and another half moon, to the right, like a "D".
"Oh God," I say.
That's right!" Larry beams.
"I found out there are 91 ways to spell GOD."
"Yes, V - E spells God in another language. Do you know how to spell vegetable?"
"Uh, V - E -"
"VE is God, get and "able". God is able!"
"Been a vegetarian for 28 years, changed my life. Outlived three of them doctors - I fast for one day a month."
"A whole day."
"You can control your weight, you know. It's all in your mind. A man told me when I was young - I was trying to add weight, building my body up, and he told me how. See, food ain't got no sense, your brain tells it where to go! So I tell some food to go to my legs, some to go to my shoulders - it works! I built myself up from 170 to 210 lbs."
"So, why did you tell your food to make you look so much older than a 28 year old?" OK, so I'm joking with Baggett now, trying to get his real age out of him. I have given up on finding out about his family, like how many children he has had - not "raised" - and also how many wives. The one answer he won't give me, but I gather sooner or later, is that this part of Larry's World is none of my business. But I am welcome to tour the rest of it.
We go outside near a short set of stairs that Baggett made for the ghosts. "Someone kept knocking on my door in the middle of the night and waking me up, and I went outside, but there was nobody there. That Indian told me to put these stairs here, because the spirits of those Indians were trying to cross and they couldn't get over this wall I put here. So I put these stairs here and the knocking stopped!"
Anyway, we go outside near the stairs to his exercise area. It is an ingenious display of stretching braces, and pulleys for weight lifting. The larger of the two rigs has poles and pulleys and ropes and concrete blocks that rise and fall and, if you're not watching, could easily smash a small dog.
We enter Baggett's hot tub room - a pretty neat place, actually. It is a round building, about twenty feet across, with a center-pitched roof and plenty of windows and skylights (covered with pink and purple colored plastic). The room is made of raw timbers and concrete and has a very natural feel. "I use the hot tub to de-hypnotize people," he says. "Watching TV hypnotizes you..." We step down into the empty tub. "When is your birthday? You're a Pisces? You should sit over there..."
"My brother is 95 years old. He still works 14 hours a day."
"That's amazing! What does he do for work?"
"Oh, he whittles... I was baptized when I was 18. It was a beautiful thing."
Baggett shows me a dried tobacco leaf. "Taste it." he says. I try some. "Indians used this in their peace pipes. They would give it to the white man and he would smoke it, but the Indians wouldn't inhale, see, so they would get the better end of the deal." I wonder about which of the sorry deals the Indians got the better end of - oh yes, gambling casinos - and I make a note to check our President's ancestry for Cherokee blood.
Larry Baggett is certainly an interesting character. He is fascinating, creative, inventive and productive. He and his creations are a source for annual media articles on "local curiousities" and a trove for tourists seeking cultural oddities (sign the guest book!) Throughout his estate you will find clever and useful creations; the excersize equipment, tables and chairs, kitchen cabinets made from old fencing, and birdhouses and other woodcraft items which he makes and sells.
The memorial to the Trail of Tears has a wishing well, statues, a water wheel, an arch and more rock and mortar than a medieval castle. His home and grounds are not only a memorial to American Indians, they are a monument to independence and resourcefulness. This is all Larry Baggett's World and he really likes it here, and you may not agree with, or even understand, much of what he has to say, but you are certainly welcome to visit.
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