The fairytale Hartman Rock Garden

By Kevin Tucker

Photo: Ben Hartman erected the ‘Tree of Life’ at the center of the Hartman Rock Garden in Springfield; photo: Rod Hatfield

The Hartman Rock Garden (HRG) can be easily overlooked as it stands stoically behind one of the many nondescript dwellings comprising the southwest Springfield neighborhood it calls home.

But upon closer inspection, it appears as if a miscellany of stone structures and monuments have been magically lifted from another place and time and dispatched to decorate the otherwise ordinary posterior landscape at 1905 Russell Ave.

Comparatively, the American folk art site is as seemingly out of place at its location as would be Donald Trump at a Black Lives Matter rally.

Kevin Rose, historian with the Turner Foundation and Friends of Hartman Rock Garden board member, says that although many locals are unaware of the garden, it’s a special site.

“There are people who live four or five blocks away and don’t even know it’s here,” he admits. “But we also get visitors from around the globe. What we have here in the Miami Valley – no one else has. It’s a visionary environment unlike anything else you’re going to find.”

As such, the HRG hosts many visitors from well beyond Springfield’s borders. Rod Hatfield, who lives at the Russell Avenue home and serves as the artist-in-residence at the garden, says he’s met people from Tokyo, Sydney, London, Mexico City, Singapore, Frankfurt, as well as from all over the
United States.

“It’s kind of interesting to have a world-class tourist destination in your neighborhood. So, part of my role is to be the interface between the neighborhood and the world,” Hatfield says. “Tribes of local kids ride their bikes over all summer long to take in the wonder and hang out. A few have helped us garden and then give informal tours. It can be pretty hilarious.”

Rose attributes the international interest in the HRG to its showcase in various publications and travel sites including Rock & Gem Magazine, Ohio Magazine, AAA, and Roadside America.

“The garden never stops getting visitors,” Rose explains. “It’s quintessential Americana, like the world’s largest ball of string or Paul Bunyan and his blue ox.”

While it serves as one of Springfield’s crown jewels, with the number of visitors it delivers, it also acts as an important economic driver for the city, Rose points out.

Gretchen Krafft is a regular patron of the HRG and says it’s a place that everyone should visit.

“The Hartman Rock Garden is a Springfield treasure,” she boasts. “You are instantly transported to a bizarre, fun world with a castle and dozens of historic monuments. It may be Springfield’s original fairy
tale garden.”

She also loves the story of the Hartmans – how he (Ben) devoted his time to art while laid off from work and she (Mary) contributed to the floral garden.

“It was a joint effort of love,” Krafft says. “You learn a lot about them while exploring their garden.”

In 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, Ben Hartman, 48, was laid off from his job at a local foundry. Although he was an untrained artist, he began constructing a myriad of structures in his spare time, first starting with a concrete fishing pond and burgeoning from there. According to Rose, Hartman’s works followed four distinct themes: patriotism, education, religion, and popular culture. Ben Hartman prodigiously filled the garden with more than 50 structures, plants, and figurines, with the centerpiece being his “Tree of Life.” He returned to work at the foundry in 1939, and by 1944, he would die from silicosis, an occupational lung disease.

“Ben had such a creative vision; he started small and then it consumed him,” Rose says. “It’s the one moment of clarity he has in his life – creating and getting his hands dirty. And he accomplished a lot in a short period of time.” He says sites such as the HRG sprang up all over America during the period from 1900-1940s as a part of what was then known politically incorrectly as “concretia dementia.” It’s unknown to Rose if any sites other than the Hartman Garden are still in existence.

For 53 years following her husband’s death, Mary Hartman tasked herself with maintaining the garden, caring for a wide array of flowers including the signature tulips that decorate the grounds, giving tours, and preserving the stone structures. Mary passed away in 1997, and in the intervening 10 years, the garden fell into a state of disrepair. At that point, the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation purchased and restored the garden, according to Rose.

“They conserved and brightened the structures while maintaining their ruin-esque qualities,” Hatfield says. With most of the work complete, in 2009, Kohler turned the garden over to the newly formed Friends of the Hartman Garden who celebrated a grand reopening in December 2010.

“Hartman’s creations are beautiful to anyone that looks at them,” Friends of the Hartman Garden board member Annie Demana says. “The garden in the summer is a beautiful place to come see art and be outdoors. It was a hobby of a man and his family and has been preserved as a site for visitors from all over the world.”

The site is mysteriously brilliant, colorfully gorgeous, and infused with peace, positivity, and love, according to Hatfield.

“Ben Hartman was a visionary artist who created a gorgeous monument to his family in his backyard out of rocks from a nearby creek,” he says. “A miracle occurred when the Kohler Foundation stepped in to save it and then generously gave it to Springfield as a gift.”

Guided tours at Hartman Rock Garden are available, or you can simply show up and take a tour of the self-guided variety. HRG is located at 1905 Russell Ave., in Springfield. For more information, please visit hartmanrockgarden.org or find the Hartman Rock Garden on Facebook. 

 

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