Many readers have asked after the well-being and whereabouts of Charles "Shroomer" Bledsoe, unofficial caretaker and resident of Fort Dickerson Quarry Park, evicted from his hand-built stone cabin in the woods by the city in November. The quarry has long been a popular—if illegal—swimming hole and hangout, and it was there that Bledsoe (accompanied by his dog "Booger") became well known for his stacked-stone sculptures, grounds maintenance, life-guarding, and general gregariousness with visitors both before and after it became a city park.
People who know him from the quarry may not be aware that his residence there was only part of the pattern of DIY stewardship projects characterizing the eras of Bledsoe's transient life. Until now, all have ended in his unceremonious eviction.
"One door closes, another opens," Bledsoe says.
In 2005 Bledsoe moved into his first home in Knoxville, an unusual abandoned building he calls a "steam engine pump house" on the bank of East Third Creek. Bledsoe did what he always does when he moves into a place, something that occasionally endears him to authority figures—he began to pick up trash.
Bledsoe, who lives most of his life outside, measures time in winters. He says he spent "three winters" at the pump house, from 2005-2008, minus the seven months he spent in jail in California for parole violation. (Before moving to Knoxville he served two and a half years of a five-year sentence for grand theft auto.)
A few yards from the pump house, Shamrock Organic Products' mountains of mulch loom against the sky. Bledsoe says he befriended Nolan Works, a manager at Shamrock, and scored a semi-legit job as unofficial night watchman. Bledsoe reported small mulch fires to Works, and Works paid him $20 a call.
Readers will be familiar with Shamrock for the massive April 2012 mulch fire that triggered a Code Red air-quality alert. But by 2012, Bledsoe was living at the quarry.
"That's why they had that fire," Bledsoe says, "I wasn't there!"
(Works, no longer employed at Shamrock, could not be reached for comment.)
The pump house stands on federal land, and Bledsoe was evicted by KPD during a general clearing-out of homeless camps along the train tracks.
The concrete-block building, now lost in a thicket of honeysuckle and privet, houses two large Ingersoll-Rand pistons, a huge rusty boiler tank fastened together with diamond-head rivets, and iron support structures that may once have held a large wheel. Bledsoe says much of the copper and other metal has been stripped since he left. But plenty remains intact. It's just too heavy to carry away. It's archaic, mysterious equipment, from a sepia-toned men-in-bowler-hats era.
"This is a historical site," Bledsoe says.
It also holds pieces of his own history. Bledsoe pulls an old birdhouse of his from a pile of debris, and kicks aside leaves to expose the herringbone-pattern brick patio he built seven years ago.
"It was a little paradise for a minute," he says.
Today, Bledsoe lives in a run-down apartment complex in South Knoxville about a mile from the Fort Dickerson Quarry. For the first time in Knoxville, he is living with permission from the landlord, and paying rent.
"It's kind of a dump," he says, but he is fixing up, and the landlord knocked $100 off his rent.
Bledsoe began by hauling out the trash and scrubbing off the thick, black grime that covered every surface. But he left a few "before/after" examples to show me.
"I'd rather live in the woods," says Bledsoe, "But I've put my back into [the new apartment], and no one can take it from me."
Bledsoe found the apartment the day before the city closed the Fort Dickerson Quarry Park for "maintenance," and workers filled contractor Dumpsters with Bledsoe's cabin. The cabin site, now just a hole in the cliff, looks like a primitive archaeological ruin.
"I wish I'd had one more winter of solitude in the woods than stuck inside here with all the ‘amenities,'" he says.
It's been a disappointing transition to the apartment—an ordinary little box of moldy Sheetrock and grimy vinyl, without the sense of history of the pump house or the splendor of the quarry. On the upside, he has the legal right to live there.
"My grandfather raised me to be a survivor," Bledsoe says.
After Bledsoe's adventures, surviving the mundane may be hardest of all.