Hidden in a quiet neighborhood in Springfield, Ohio, lies a folk-art gem called the Hartman Rock Garden, named after its creator and local resident, Ben Hartman.
Hartman was a rock hound and he would use the rocks that he collected from the area to make concrete and stone replicas of historic buildings. He made so many structures that eventually he transformed his entire backyard into a fantastic landscape of miniature buildings and figurines.
Community Voices Producer Renee Wilde brings us the story of how Ben Hartman turned his obsession into a National Folk-Art site.
About thirty people have gathered in the main room of this modest house, waiting for a tour of the Hartman Rock Garden, being led by Mark Chepp, a local Folk-Art collector.
“This is where it all began, this is the Hobby gone wild,” Chepp says, “Ben was a pacifist, and as you go through the garden and get involved and start looking at it, you see social commentary that comes through in a number of the objects.”
It was the great depression. Ben Hartman, like many others, had lost his job. He began looking for a project to occupy his time, and that’s when he started collecting rocks. After eight years and a lot of coffee, his backyard had become a shrine that expressed his personal views on family, religion and patriotism. The centerpiece of the rock garden is the Tree Of Life.
“It’s a cactus, basically,” Chepp says, “The center stalk of the cactus is patriotism, we have the American Eagle. An then the two arms, again repeating the themes we saw over there of school and church on each of the arms, the lynch pins of American society as Ben saw them, and then two doves of peace coming out of the one arm by the Church.”
Ben harvested the materials for his creations from the stream that ran behind his property, rubbish piles and donations from friends and visitors. He was also known to send his kids out with buckets after the streets had been freshly graveled, to collect the rocks off the road.
“We don’t know how many stones or rocks were used to build this. Ben always said it took about 20,000 to build the Tree of Life. So when you start adding it up, there are a lot of rocks,” Chepp says.
When Ben passed away in 1944, his wife Mary took over caring for the rock garden. Their son Ben, Jr. eventually inherited the home, but not his father’s passion and the buildings fell into decay. After Ben Junior died, the house and gardens went up for auction for $56,000. Let that sink in for a minute. For the price of a low-end luxury car you could have bought a National Folk Art site.
In an attempt to save her grandfather’s legacy, Denise Hartman Canady, Ben Jr’s daughter, contacted the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation. It’s an organization that is dedicated to preserving folk-art sites. Yep, the faucet people are art conservationists, and they are pretty good at it, too.
To the Kohler Foundation, Hartman’s creations are more than just a roadside attraction, as Terry Yoho, Executive Director of the Kohler Foundation explains, “In the art world [folk art sites] are becoming more and more greatly appreciated and being recognized as not outsider art but art environments that have been built through the passion of these men and women.”
Restoring the Hartman Rock Garden was a lot of work. Every single piece needed repair; some pieces were missing entirely. The Kohler Foundation provided both the professional expertise, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to restore the site. But, the most important element in the restoration process is finding someone to maintain the restored work.
“We generally will not take on a site unless we have identified a recipient,” Yoho says, “We’re really, really good about finding the art, it’s putting it together the ultimate recipient, the caretaker for into the future. That really is difficult for us to do.”
The relationship between the Kohler Foundation and the local community had some tension in the beginning. Ben’s garden is a local landmark and source of community pride.
Yoho says, “At first people are very weary of us because they feel such a strong ownership in what’s there. Second and third generation people living in that same neighborhood. So they grew up with the Hartman Rock Garden.”
The Kohler Foundation sent two Art Conservator’s to Springfield to begin the restoration process. Benjamin Cugiwa and Shane Winters spent every day at the Rock Garden, cataloging the individual pieces and painstakingly restoring each of Ben’s creations rock-by-rock. Winter’s says it’s not usual for Midwesterners to be fiercely loyal to these folk art sites.
“At first they didn’t like us very much because they thought we were going to cut it apart and take it off somewhere,” Winters says, “People were angry when they first came out, and we had to reassure people, no, no, no it’s staying in the community, we’re not stealing this treasure. They were very possessive of it.”
But, Cugiwa says, “They were very supportive when they found out we were restoring it, not harvesting it.”
“People would drop by and bring us food or pictures, and we had videotapes of people going through the garden,” according to Winters.
The Hartman Rock Garden relies on volunteers to landscape the garden and maintain the site. The organization gets by on as little as $10,000 a year to manage the house and gardens. So far they have been able to keep up with the maintenance of the artwork and the occasional vandalism.
At the Springfield Art Museum tour I met husband and wife Barbara and Tony Pellers. I asked them how they knew about the Rock Garden.
“It was early nineties that he brought me over,” Barbara says, “I moved here when I was eight. He asked me if I had ever seen it and I was like, no, never even heard of it. And he brought me over.”
Tony says, “Everybody that finds it, you know, they just love the place.”
“And for us,” Barbara adds, “This is our piece of hometown that we wanted everybody to experience, so they’re getting to, so that makes us happy.”
You can visit the Hartman Rock Garden on Facebook.
You can see more examples of the Kohler Foundation’s conservation work at their web site at Kohler Foundation.org.