Springfield back yard radiates with Depression-era folk art
A monarch flutters through a window in a castle made of stones. It hovers over a village of miniature stone cabins and past three seated Indian chiefs made of clay while on its way to a patch of coneflowers.
The more I follow the butterfly, the more I see at the Hartman Rock Garden, a restored folk-art sensation that’s located in an otherwise typical back yard in Springfield, Ohio.
The stone sculptures, about 50 in all, are worth driving an hour west of Columbus to see. We did just that one summer afternoon, pairing our adventure with a couple of beers at Mother Stewart’s Brewing in Springfield, and a couple of ice cream cones at Young’s Jersey Dairy on the drive back to Columbus.
The story of the Hartman Rock Garden begins in 1932, when a 48-year-old man named Ben Hartman got laid off from his job as a mold-maker during the Great Depression. Bored, the self-taught artist started shaping cement and hundreds of thousands of rocks into recognizable structures, like houses, churches and castles.
Some structures resemble famous landmarks, like the White House and Mount Vernon. Others are just pleasantly odd, such as a patriotic cactus with an eagle on top.
Ben worked on his rock garden for a dozen years before he passed away in 1944. His wife, Mary, looked after the garden for 53 years after his death, and even gave tours.
But when she died in 1997, the garden went into despair. Weeds grew. Wind, rain and snow eroded delicate features.
In 2008, the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation restored the garden and gifted it to a nonprofit organization called Friends of Hartman Rock Garden. The gesture was part of the plumbing product manufacturer’s longstanding commitment to folk architecture and art environments.
One walk along the garden’s path tells you the restoration was well worth it.
The Hartman Rock Garden is located at 1905 Russell Ave., Springfield, Ohio. It’s open daily, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.