By Kim Lyle
“Oh, that’s a two headed fossilized fetus,” John rambled off, as he walked around his studio tucked neatly into his museum of oddities. When asked about the three taxidermy squirrels lying on a nearby table, he revealed his plans to combine them into one giant three-headed rodent.
The artist/inventor/dreamer responsible for what many claim to be Louisiana’s most eccentric attraction is John Preble. With an obvious appreciation for the absurd, it’s no wonder the Abita Mystery House is his brainchild.
Located just 70 miles east of Baton Rouge in Abita Springs, the museum has a history equally as interesting as the odd collections it houses. The idea for the museum came about entirely by chance on a family road trip out West. While driving through New Mexico, a sign for the roadside attraction Tinkertown piqued his interests and he pulled over. The building turned out to be a museum featuring a miniature Western town complete with carved characters and narratives, all crafted delicately by the hand of Ross Wand. Preble would later call him his “Western twin brother from another mother.” He drove away from Albuquerque both humbled and obsessed.
Upon returning home, he became determined to create a Southern version of Tinkertown. With the help of his wife and two kids he converted an old gas station into the Louisiana flavored house of absurdities he had envisioned in his dreams. Its inaugural name was the UCM Museum.(Say it slowly: you-see-em. Get it?) Preble’s subtle touch of wit is evident throughout the museum. Over the years it eventually evolved into the Abita Mystery House, which is the name it goes by today.
Inside the museum you can view Preble’s masterfully sculpted scenes. In his work it’s obvious his passion is to encourage others to notice and love vernacular Louisiana culture the way he does. Preble’s creations are loosely based on the surrounding landscape and actual events that occur in and around where he lives. Of course, all of those ideas are filtered through the twisted, imaginative pathways of his mind, which brand them with his unique touch of strange.
Possibly the most recognizable scenario is his first animated piece, ‘Tragedy on Dog Pound Road’. There are grey, luminous skies painted above and a cast of quirky characters below. Push a red button and watch a twirling tornado sweep up furniture with its cyclic vibrations. Trailer doors swing open and close.
When John needs inspiration for new figures, he just takes a trip to Wal-Mart.
“I go to Wal-Mart and there they are – from tank tops to heels.” He has a self-proclaimed affection for redneck culture. “How can you not love it?”
The unique, funky folk museum hasn’t gone unnoticed by the media. It was featured on the History Channel’s “American Pickers” just a few years ago. But, ask Preble about his time in the limelight and he shies away. It’s not the reason he built the place. But, simply a side effect of following his dream, which he claims was a cosmic inevitability.
“Nothing in the universe is without value” has become the beloved mantra of the Abita Mystery House. Preble receives and files away daily donations from generous visitors. These oddities later become rewards for the curious traveler that ends up here. Acting somewhat as a cultural archivist, Preble mentions how there couldn’t be a more perfect job for someone like himself with Attention Deficit Disorder.
When I told John that I would be writing an article about him and his museum, he told me to “make it all up.” But, I don’t think I could make his story anymore interesting if I tried.