August 25, 2015
Ben Hartman had been a skilled mold maker at the Springfield Machine Tool Company foundry for almost 20 years when the Great Depression hit the company hard, and Ben was laid off. Just 48 years old, he could not sit idle, and he put his skills to work in his own backyard. First he built a fish pond, then he set to work building structures and molding figures to inhabit them, with a patriotic and a religious fervor.
For twelve years, he built intricate structures and tableaus--historic sites like the log cabin where Lincoln was born, Mount Vernon, the White House, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, Washington at Valley Forge, and the Oregon Trail--featuring many varieties of cacti and Native American figurines Ben designed and molded.
The largest structure in the garden is a fourteen foot tall cathedral with many arched windows and little grottos holding many molded madonnas and other religious figurines. A section named “God’s Gift to the World” depicts the life of Jesus from birth to crucifixion and resurrection. Ben’s rock garden is a lasting testimony to his deep and abiding Christian faith.
Ben finally returned to his job at the foundry in 1939, but, sadly, he died just five years later of silicosis, an occupational lung disease. His wife Mary did her best to maintain the garden for the next 53 years, calling it a “garden of love.” When she died in 1997, the garden began to pass slowly away too.
We can thank the Kohler Foundation of Wisconsin--which has a particular interest in the preservation of significant American Folk Art sites--for purchasing and restoring this remarkable rock garden ten years after Mary died, as it was falling into disrepair. And we can thank a newly formed group called Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden for maintaining it the way that Ben and his wife Mary did--neatly mowed and full of colorful flowers.
Last, but not least, thanks to the Roadside America app for helping us find our way to out-of-the-way treasures along the way like this one.