Junkyard God

Professional pack rat Gus Brethauer turns trash into treasure at the state's strangest museum

A lifelong pack rat, the scrappy scavenger has been dragging stuff back to the property for the better part of 60 years. During his early years of collecting, Brethauer was more interested in accumulating than displaying; most of his finds sat around in piles for years until he finally began arranging them in thematic environments after his retirement. Today, those artifacts (everything from clusters of oversize acrylic grapes to a valet parking keyboard from a local resort) adorn several dozen themed sites that dot a manmade nature trail that snakes through the grounds.

Local color collides with natural history at every bend in the path. At one juncture in the tour, a chunk of orange plastic awning that once graced West Plaza shopping center is oddly juxtaposed with an ossified tree trunk; elsewhere, the exterior wall of an A.J. Bayless grocery store vies for attention with a majestic organ pipe cactus. Whenever there's a visual lull in the action (admittedly, not often), Brethauer can be counted on to liven things up by pointing out a rubber snake lurking in the undergrowth, just waiting to strike.

"Bowser, our rabid Mexican wolf, has chewed through his rope," he warns at one point. "If you see him, yell for help!"

Jurassic ark: A triceratops and a bear are just two of the beasties in Gus Brethauer's wild kingdom.
Dan Huff
Jurassic ark: A triceratops and a bear are just two of the beasties in Gus Brethauer's wild kingdom.
Santa cruise: Brethauer in his forest of fake Christmas trees. At left, ornamental detail salvaged from downtown’s Fox Theatre in 1975.
Dan Huff
Santa cruise: Brethauer in his forest of fake Christmas trees. At left, ornamental detail salvaged from downtown’s Fox Theatre in 1975.
Scrawl of the wild: Rock graffiti, folk art style.
Dan Huff
Scrawl of the wild: Rock graffiti, folk art style.
Avid gardener: "It's amazing what you can do in 50 years," says Brethauer of his lifelong 
work-in-progress.
Dan Huff
Avid gardener: "It's amazing what you can do in 50 years," says Brethauer of his lifelong work-in-progress.

After viewing Brethauer's wild wonderland of waste, some visitors will realize that his "building materials museum" tour really isn't about tons of trash that somehow cheated the wrecking ball, at all. Instead, it's a walking tour through one man's life, as played out against a backdrop of society's scrap heap.

Wandering through the garden, he reminisces about how Prohibition-parched Phoenicians would drive out to the spread to sample the moonshine his father served in a roadhouse that once stood on the grounds. He'll show you the gap on his right hand where he lost two fingers during a gun battle in Italy during WWII (one of the few times he returned home with fewer things than he had when he left). And he'll tell you about the time one of the boulders in the garden tipped over, crushing his knee.

In between the almost mind-numbing litany of historical and geological factoids (at the conclusion of a recent tour, one visitor announced, "I feel like I've just circumnavigated the globe!"), Brethauer can be counted on to dole out gardening tips or the secret to attracting birds to your property. ("Be sure to have lots of water," he says, filling one of the many small ponds scattered around the lot. "The baby quail love it.")

Then, shifting gears, he's apt to tell you about the night he winged a vandal with a rifle.

"I combed my hair, and I got my toothbrush," he remembers. "I thought the cops were coming for sure, but they never did. I was kind of disappointed. It never even made the newspapers."

Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a one-man show in more ways than one. While Brethauer's wife, Lena, actively supported her husband's magnificent obsession (a collector herself, she's responsible for the garden's porcelain lion's den), poor health has forced her to move in with one of the couple's three children.

None of those offspring share their father's zeal for eclectic landscaping. So what will happen to the garden when Brethauer is no longer able to maintain the property? "I have no idea," says son Robert Brethauer, a golf course superintendent in Rio Verde. But no matter what happens, it will "probably not" involve the younger Brethauer, who explains "I kind of do my own thing."

Brethauer doesn't see his other children getting involved in the marketing of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, either. "My daughter, she's real shy. And my other son, well, he's something of an eight ball. If I'm going to do these tours, I'm going to have to find someone who thinks like I do."

Now that may be the one thing that even intrepid scavenger Gus Brethauer can't scare up.

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