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The Lone Ranger, Tonto, and various Native Americans, posed in front of the Garden's cathedral and castle.
The Lone Ranger, Tonto, and various Native Americans, posed in front of the Garden's cathedral and castle.

Hartman Rock Garden

Field review by the editors.

Springfield, Ohio

If you're going to build a rock garden -- and Hartman Rock Garden contains over 100,000 rocks -- then you need to get the rocks from somewhere. Fortunately for Harry George "Ben" Hartman (1883-1944) his home was only a few hundred yards from an apparently inexhaustible supply, in a shallow creek bed with everything from wall-worthy slabs to water rounded pebbles. "I saw that creek for the first time," said Kevin Rose, curator of the Garden, "and there were billions of rocks." He remembered it as a moment of revelation. "It's like when you first see the matrix in The Matrix."

Ben Hartman squeezed patriotism, education, and religion into the
Ben Hartman squeezed patriotism, education, and religion into the "Tree of Life."

Much like in that film, Ben Hartman lived in a simulated reality: the one he was building in his yard. He'd worked with his hands his entire life, and in the early 1930s -- the Great Depression -- found himself with little or no employment, and a lot of free time. So he made a tiny church out of cement covered in pebbles, with stained glass windows and a miniature bride and groom. Then he made a tiny one-room schoolhouse, filled with tiny desks. Ben had already built concrete flower beds in his yard, but once he began making miniature structures he kept going in that direction. Soon they began to take over the garden.

Tiny soldiers march out of Chicago's Fort Dearborn.
Tiny soldiers march out of Chicago's Fort Dearborn.

Hoover Dam is wedged into a tiny Ben-built canyon.
Hoover Dam is wedged into a tiny Ben-built canyon.

The space constraints of the yard wedged Ben's handiwork into what became a happy architectural jumble of patriotism, education, history, religion, and popular culture. A few of his creations, such as Noah's Ark, are easily recognizable, but others require some interpretive leeway, given the limitations of creek rocks as a sculptural medium. Tiny signs, and a free booklet for the Garden's self-guided tour, help with identification.

According to Kevin, the Garden has between 100 and 500 Ben-built buildings, depending on which expert does the counting. There's a little Liberty Bell and a truncated Independence Hall; Abe Lincoln's log cabin and tomb; the homes of flag-loving patriots Barbara Fritchie and Betsy Ross. Tiny icicles hang from cabin roofs at Valley Forge, tiny soldiers march out of Chicago's Fort Dearborn, tiny crosses mark a military cemetery where an angel stands guard. There's a 14-foot-high cathedral and a 12-foot-high castle -- modeled on one in West Virginia -- with more than 100 windows. Ben's miniature projects ranged from the grandeur of Hoover Dam to the humble local store where he bought his fishing gear. If he'd kept building for a few more years, Mount Rushmore certainly would have been crammed in somewhere.

Color-coded animals board Noah's Ark.
Color-coded animals board Noah's Ark.

Betsy Ross House, made of red granite whose origins remain a mystery.
Betsy Ross House, made of red granite rocks whose origins remain a mystery.

Concrete pathways in the Garden are inset with pithy adages: "No Place Like Home and Mother." "Baby Your Mother Becus She Babied You." "Honor Thy Mother and Don't Forget Your Dad." Kevin said that some of these were variations on the titles of popular songs of the day (Ben listened to the radio while he worked). Pop culture also inspired Ben to create a miniature version of the 20 Mule Team from the Borax laundry soap commercials, and statuette tributes to 1930s celebrities such as Mae West, Little Orphan Annie, Felix the Cat, and boxer Joe Louis.

Barbara Fritchie and Mary Quantrell defy Confederate troops from inside their Maryland home.
Barbara Fritchie and Mary Quantrell defy Confederate troops from inside their Maryland home.

He even paid respect to another early roadside attraction, with a mini-size replica of the Madonna of the Trail statue on Springfield's old National Road.

Ben made forays into conceptual art as well. "Mary's Mailbox" is topped by a statuette of Jesus's mom with baby doll arms holding a carpentry square. "It's actually Lady Justice," explained Kevin. "You were supposed to judge if you got a 'square deal' on your tour, then make a donation." Another of Ben's creations is the "Tree of Life," which resembles a Saguaro cactus or possibly a cosmic terror-entity from an H.P. Lovecraft story. Seven feet tall, the personified Tree has a U.S. shield for a face, a tiny church and schoolhouse for hands, and an eagle and ovoid globe for a hat. Two doves of peace perch on one of the Tree's arms.

Hartman Rock Garden, 2004.
Roadside America's 2004 visit: miniature Mount Vernon pre-restoration.

Why did Ben Hartman do all of this? Kevin said that perhaps he was trying to please his wife and inspire his school-age daughter by creating a mini-version of the America that they couldn't afford to visit. Maybe he needed to express an inner creativity, repressed by years of factory work. Or maybe Ben just wanted to get out of the house. All of these reasons could be true, and none of them lessens the appreciation of Ben's obsessive energy and persistence, poured into building his knobby yard-size Eden.

According to Kevin, Ben had completed the bulk of the Garden by 1935. He eventually went back to full-time work in a foundry, which unfortunately killed him with silicosis. His family maintained the Garden for over 60 years, until it was purchased by the Kohler Foundation -- no stranger to preserving art environments -- which restored the Garden in 2009. The Foundation then donated it to a local group, Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden. They keep it open for visitors, diligently document its history, and maintain its uncountable rocks.

Kohler never revealed how much it cost to restore the Hartman Rock Garden. The final figure likely would have flabbergasted the frugal Ben Hartman.

Hartman Rock Garden

1905 Russell Ave., Springfield, OH
I-70 exit 54. Turn north onto OH-72. At the first stoplight turn left onto Leffel Lane. Drive one mile. At the stoplight turn right onto Yellow Springs St. Drive a half-mile. Turn left at the blue building onto McCain Ave. Drive three blocks. You'll see the Garden on the left.
Daily dawn-dusk. Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Donations appreciated.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Yawning HippoYawning Hippo, Springfield, OH - 1 mi.
Giant Aluminum RoseGiant Aluminum Rose, Springfield, OH - 2 mi.
Madonna of the TrailMadonna of the Trail, Springfield, OH - 2 mi.
In the region:
Frankenstein's Monster, Wilmington, OH - 36 mi.

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