“Often the very adversity that plagues our lives is, in disguise, an opportunity for greatness.”
So said Lloyd Newell in “The Door of Opportunity,” one of the inspiring messages he crafts for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s weekly “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcasts.
When Ben Hartman was laid off from his job at a Springfield, Ohio foundry in 1932, the 48-year-old responded to adversity with creativity. The avid fisherman built a cement fishing pond in his back yard.
Before he stocked the pond with goldfish and water lilies, he constructed a cement bird bath in the center of the pond, decorating it with figurines of the Three Little Pigs. He also used small rocks from a nearby creek bed to build a small Dutch windmill beside the pond.
He was so delighted with his creation that he kept going. Collecting more stones and mixing more cement, Hartman fashioned miniature models of landmarks inspired by the Bible, American history and popular culture. His wife, an avid gardener named Mary, joined in, planting colorful beds of flowers to surround his work. By the time Hartman returned to work in 1939, his garden included more than 50 structures.
Hartman passed away in 1944; his wife maintained the garden until her death in 1997. For the next decade, it was neglected. Then, in 2008, it was purchased and restored by the Kohler Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization that preserves art environments, folk architecture and collections by self-taught artists. Since 2009, the Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden have been welcoming visitors to this great folk art masterpiece surrounding the Hartmans’ former home at 1905 Russell Avenue in Springfield.
The garden includes miniature recreations of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia home,
Valley Forge, with tiny metal icicles dripping from the cabin roofs,
A miniature, furnished, version of the Church of the Transfiguration in New York City features stained glass windows. Figures of a tiny bride and groom once stood at the church’s entrance.Hartman, a history buff, also constructed representations of the Hoover Dam, Noah’s Ark, The Battle of Little Bighorn, and other memorable scenes.A 14-foot-tall cathedral accented by religious statues and figures depicting The Last Supper towers over the garden. West Virginia’s Berkeley Springs Castle, pictured on a postcard that Mary received in the mail, inspired the 12-foot-tall castle that stands beside it. It took Hartman about two weeks to build the castle with about 100,000 stones.Country, school and church were the three essential ingredients of Hartman’s life. He expressed their importance in a cactus-shaped Tree of Life that he built with 20,000 stones. One arm of the cactus holds a schoolhouse, while the other holds a small church. At the top, an eagle perches on a globe that reads U.S., and below is a shield decorated like an American flag. Two cement doves rest on one arm. Hartman expressed his love of Maxwell House coffee by placing an oversized cup and saucer amid one of Mary’s flower beds.Miniature buildings aren’t the only eye-catching attractions of the Hartman Rock Garden. Cement pathways wind through the garden, decorated with phrases written with inlaid stone, tile and glass. Hartman’s personal emblem, the word “MAN” inside a heart, is used as the garden’s logo today.A 410-picket fence that Hartman fashioned from concrete encloses the garden. Busts of Tecumseh and Christopher Columbus top the posts marking the opening to the fence, which is thought to be the only concrete picket fence in the country. Around 1940, Hartman turned his attention to the southeast corner of his property. A visit to Schoenbrunn Village, an 18th-century Moravian settlement near New Philadelphia, Ohio, inspired models of the buildings there. His final, uncompleted project was “The Other Side of the World,” an area in which he planned to recreate landmarks from around the world in a setting that mimicked the Swiss Alps. Its Cherub Gateway was one of the last things he finished before his death. In addition to his rock-related craftsmanship, Hartman also created hundreds of “tchotchke,” hand-painted figurines representing icons of 1930s popular culture like Felix the Cat, Sitting Bull, the Lone Ranger, Mae West, and Charlie McCarthy. The newly restored objects are displayed only during special events and behind-the-scenes tours.
The Hartman Rock Garden is open daily, dawn to dusk, for free self-guided tours. For more information, visit www.hartmanrockgarden.org