Springfield’s hidden gem

R eferred to as an American Folk Art site, I didn’t know what I expected on my journey to Springfield’s Hartman Rock Garden. Although it may not be correct to call it a hidden gem because people have been coming from all over the world to see this place for years. Its proximity to Dayton […]

Hartman Rock Garden legacy survives the elements

While not a huge space, the Hartman Rock Garden is packed with structures large and small, humans and animals, all hand-made, creating a unique visual feast. Photo by Rod Hatfield.

By Judd Plattenburg

Referred to as an American Folk Art site, I didn’t know what I expected on my journey to Springfield’s Hartman Rock Garden. Although it may not be correct to call it a hidden gem because people have been coming from all over the world to see this place for years. Its proximity to Dayton made it difficult to resist giving it a closer look.

The Hartman Rock Garden is listed as one of the nation’s most intriguing and revered works of in situ folk art, where self-taught artists construct fascinating worlds out of concrete, metal, stone, and whatever else they can find. What I didn’t know was the depth of the history I was about to wade into.

Harry George “Ben” Hartman moved to Springfield, Ohio in 1913, where he worked as a molder at the Springfield Machine Tool Company Foundry. In 1932, at the age of 48 and in the midst of the Great Depression, he was laid off from his job as a molder. He was not content with his newly sedentary lifestyle and began constructing a cement fishing pond in his backyard. By the time Hartman finished that project, he was hooked. He began constructing a variety of structures and figurines, following the themes of history, religion, and patriotism. Over the next 12 years, Hartman eventually filled his yard with over fifty structures, numerous varieties of plants, and countless handmade figures.

Though compelling, photos of the Hartman Rock Garden don’t compare to the real thing. I especially wanted to get an overall feel of how this garden site fits into an older neighborhood. Upon arriving, the first thing I saw was a well-kept yellow house with a concrete white picket fence surrounding the corner lot. I soon learned Hartman’s fence was one of his last projects and is believed to be the world’s longest concrete picket fence, and possibly the world’s only one.

As I approached the entrance, I wondered what the neighbors thought about this place. Did they mind the frequent traffic and occasional busses full of tourists I had heard are so typical here? It turned out this rock garden was here long before any of the surrounding houses were built and the residents genuinely take pride in their little neighborhood treasure.

In the middle of the yard is a short wall full of arches and a walk-through area with two angels on either side. The face of this wall is covered with little rocks giving it an almost medieval feel. Once you enter the back yard, Ben Hartman’s world opens up. Adjacent to a small building at the back of the property is a flowing, beautiful flower garden and what appears to be a museum of rock displays. These small structures and figures take on a personality of their own representing important but random events in the history of our country and the world.

Beyond the fish pond, George Washington’s residence Mount Vernon looms over a scene of Valley Forge. Beyond is an old castle with an American flag waving with smaller buildings around it. As I walked down the poured cement walkway laced with words and phrases set in small stones, it seemed like I was moving in time. Soon, you arrive in an area with colorful blooming prickly pears, featuring The Oregon Trail and a cactus garden. After you pass Hoover Dam, you’ll find Death Valley’s 20-Mule Team.

The tour continues with American history scenes everywhere, such as Independence Hall, Betsy Ross’s house, The Liberty Bell, and Flanders Field. The question still remains—what was Ben Hartman thinking in 1932 when he developed his rock garden? Digging through history provides some pretty strong hints. 1932 was the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, recognized at the time as the United States’ first Bicentennial. Everything in the country that year was about George Washington and the early history of the United States, much like the 1776 bicentennial 42 years ago. Even in cemeteries like Dayton’s own Woodland, anything to do with the American Revolution has 1932 markers on them. Hartman liked to listen to the radio as he worked in his shop, and the airwaves were full of commercials of the day, like the one for Borax and the 20-Mule team from Death Valley. Hartman did not have a lot of money, but he always wanted to travel to the southwest, so he brought the southwest to Springfield with the cactus garden. Above the cactus garden is a most unique sculpture—the word MAN with a heart around the A. This eventually became the rock garden’s logo.

Other figures, such as Mae West, Felix the Cat, and Charlie McCarthy were well-known icons of the 1930s. There is also a depiction of Sitting Bull and the Battle of Bull Run, otherwise known as Custer’s Last Stand, which at the time was a popular topic from American history. Hoover Dam in the 1930s represents prosperity and a huge accomplishment of what our country is capable of. Not far from there, you can see all the animals boarding Noah’s Ark in pairs.

I was especially interested in the little animals, soldiers and so on that appeared to be made from metal. Most of the molding that Hartman did was concrete, like the structures of the buildings covered with rocks and stones, but in many of the scenes were painted figures. Hartman did not have the means to mold metal at home, and there was no record of him making them at work, so they remain a mystery.

What did this area look like when Hartman started his garden in the 1930s? Ben and Mary’s house was in a mostly rural area on the corner of Russell and McCain streets. They raised pigeons, chickens, and rabbits and they loved gardening and growing vegetables. Somehow in the 1930s, Hartman managed to acquire eight lots around his home on the outskirts of Springfield, which is interesting, because as we’ve already discovered, he was a man of meager means. It’s believed now that he had to be buying these properties for pennies on the dollar as the country came out of the Great Depression. That would explain Hartman Rock Garden being here long before anything else.

Ben Hartman passed away in 1944, at which time his much younger wife, Mary, took on the monumental role of maintaining the garden and caring for the intriguing world he had created. Many times throughout the years, she would give tours and refer to it as their “garden of love.” After Mary’s passing in 1997, the garden began to succumb to the elements and was showing serious signs of disrepair and neglect. In 2008, the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation, known for its involvement in the preservation of significant folk art sites across the country, purchased and restored Ben and Mary’s unusual masterpiece. The Kohler Foundation invested a significant amount of money into the project, and in 2009, with most of the restoration complete, they transferred ownership to the newly formed organization Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden, that currently owns and maintains the garden.

It is unique to have an American folk art site tucked away in a sleepy little Springfield neighborhood like this. It feels very assessable to people of all means, it’s open year-round and there is no charge, although there is a donation box. The current caretakers emphasize the importance of the garden being accessible to everyone, as they believe that would be important to Ben. But the truth is that it does cost a good amount of money to maintain the garden as well as print the books they give away and to perform necessary repairs. The freeze and thaw cycles of Ohio winters and summers take a toll on a place like this, and the amount of work that it takes to maintain can add up. Fortunately, Friends of Hartman Rock Garden have established an endowment with the long-term goal of making the garden self-sustaining, whether for basic maintenance or possible ongoing conservation. Donations as well as local foundations help offset daily maintenance costs with the understanding they will raise money through their endowment for the long term. That’s a testament to how much the community of Springfield can work together.

Hartman Rock Garden is located at 1905 Russell Ave., Springfield, Ohio. For more information, visit hartmanrockgarden.org.

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