Hartman's Rock Garden
It was the Depression year of 1932, and an unemployed Springfield man, H. G."Ben" Hartman, decided to create a do-it-yourself WPA project. The results of his labor still stand -- for the most part -- in a quiet neighborhood, open to the public to visit and photograph.
Hartman's Rock Garden began small, as do many instances of Dementia Concretia -- Ben just wanted to build a little stone and concrete fish pond in his yard. He liked the finished product, and decided that he wasn't finished after all. He scavenged stone from a nearby construction site, broke it with his hammer, added bits of mirror and pottery -- and began building little stone houses, cathedrals, and parapets with religious statuary in the side and back yards of his wood-frame home. He kept building for seven years. He had the corner lot, so his work was easy to see.
Ben built a replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, a White House, a Mount Vernon (Ohioans can't get enough of mini-Mt. Vernons -- we saw another in Lima). A large castle with a drawbridge and moat is composed of 14,000 stones; a "Tree of Life" has over 20,000.
Ben stopped building in 1939, reportedly because he finally got his old job back. We suspect that he ran out of space, materials, maybe energy -- but certainly not ideas. He used something like a quarter of a million stones to create Hartman's Rock Garden.
Although Ben died in 1944, the Hartman family has maintained the property ever since. For many years his widow, Mary Hartman, planted flowers throughout the Rock Garden. We've seen photos of it transformed with colorful blooms, and during our visit we noticed a posted garden medallion for some years back (1968 Community Beautification Award). The Garden was pretty weedy and crumbly during our later summer stop, and it made us appreciate what a nightmare an energetic construction like Ben's must be to groom and maintain for over sixty years. Time and temperature changes have weathered the buildings. Foliage relentlessly forces apart stones from mortar. Some buildings and sculptures are in better shape than others, and some in the far back yard are nearly gone....
Between the buildings (aside from the overgrowth) are little scenes -- a mix of history, religion, and Depression-era pop culture. Lawn statues of the Holy Family share space with garden gnomes. Small hand-written signs help visitors to distinguish one tableau from the next: Custer's Last Stand, Daniel in the Lion's Den, Noah's Ark, and "Foot path to Pece" (Peace).
"The sad part of war" is rendered with little army men, fallen or missing limbs, and accompanied by angels. Meanwhile, a healthier army prepares to storm the castle...
Ben built a depiction of the Oregon Trail, a Nativity scene, a cup and saucer. Scenes of boxer Joe Louis and the Dionne Quintuplets -- a media sensation of Canadian multiple births -- suggest what occupied the popular imagination in the 1930s.
Our favorite hand-lettered sign:
"Behold thy mother and don't forget your Dad."
Ben, the youngest son of H. G. "Ben" Hartman, owned the house until he died in 2007. The property was then cataloged by the Kohler Foundation, and a local preservation group has provided a caretaker to keep up the grounds.