Welcome to #QuirkyOhio, our 2017 blog series highlighting Ohio’s odd, unusual and downright wacky experiences, places and events. Follow along as we profile some of the quirkiest parts of the state.
Just over an hour from Columbus, in an unassuming little neighborhood in Springfield, Ohio, is one of the quirkiest and most endearing displays of historical American folk art. To say that it’s worth the drive is an understatement: the Hartman Rock Garden is a true treasure and a place I can’t wait to visit again.
In the simplest terms, the rock garden is just that – an otherwise ordinary, suburban backyard filled with handmade sculptures and buildings adorned with rocks. It is spectacular, odd, beautiful and bizarre. However, once you learn the story of Ben and Mary Hartman, the garden’s creator and caretakers, it becomes so much more than that.
In the words of the Hartman Rock Garden guide book, the site is “one of the nation’s most intriguing and revered works of in situ folk art, an outsider art phenomenon where self-taught artists construct fascinating worlds out of concrete, metal, stone and whatever else they can find.”
Ben Hartman built the rock garden with his wife Mary’s help after he was laid off from his foundry job in 1932 during the Great Depression. At 48, he was not content with his newly sedentary lifestyle and began constructing a cement fishing pond in his backyard. He fell in love with the project and spent the next 12 years filling his yard with over 50 structures, countless handmade figurines and hundreds of thousands of stones.
Ben died in 1944 from silicosis, an occupational lung disease. For the next 53 years, Mary took on the monumental task of maintaining the garden, caring for the flowers, preserving Ben’s intriguing structures, giving tours and adding small details where she saw fit. Visitors called it a rock garden, but Mary called it “a garden of love.”
The garden is filled with details memorializing Ben and Mary’s love, as well as their kids and other immediate family members. It contains themes of family, religion and patriotism as well as historical places and events. I am quite confident you could visit Ben and Mary’s garden a dozen times and find something new to marvel over each visit.
Though the rock garden did fall into disrepair after Mary’s passing in 1997, the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation, known for investing in the preservation of significant folk art sites around the country, purchased the property in 2008 to restore the Hartmans’ legacy. The site is now owned and maintained by the nonprofit, Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden.
Visitors can come any day of the year from dusk to dawn. Donations are encouraged to assist with preserving, maintaining and interpreting this national treasure. Quirky doesn’t even begin to cover it – and photos don’t do it justice! You have to come see the Hartman Rock Garden in person. According to the website and my own personal experience, summer is the best time to visit when the garden is in full bloom.
What are your favorite quirky destinations in our state? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below as we continue our tour of Quirky Ohio.