Hartman Rock Garden serves as a unique attraction for both local residents and visitors

Ben Hartman spent 12 years crafting a unique vision of America, Christianity, education, and other themes displayed in structures and figurines made with 250,000 stones, as well as concrete, wood, and glass.

Three-quarters of a century after his death, Hartman’s art has been restored to bring back a renewed Hartman Rock Garden, an oasis of quirky folk art at the corner of Russell and McCain avenues in the southwest corner of Springfield.

Every day, people from Ohio, other states, or even other countries stroll the garden’s walkways to gaze upon sights such as the Tree of Life, a 7-foot-tall concrete topiary studded with mixed stones and gravel, with two branches holding a schoolhouse and a church and topped by an eagle with outstretched wings.

Or they might view the largest structure in the garden, a 14-foot-high replica of a medieval cathedral with figures of Jesus, Mary, and various saints in niches throughout. Indeed, visitors have hundreds of items to contemplate: buildings of all shapes and sizes, replicas of landmarks, figurines from history, religion and pop culture, mottos in glass or ceramic inlaid into the sidewalk, and, in season, an abundance of flowers. The sheer profusion of Ben Hartman’s creations can satisfy a short walk through a unique environment or reward someone who wants to carefully study dozens of well-crafted miniatures.

Kevin Rose, the Hartman Rock Garden curator, says the garden’s appeal cuts across all kinds of boundaries of economic class, age, education, and ethnicity.

“Visitors can thoroughly enjoy the garden at age 3 to age 103,” Rose says. “It appeals to people who never finished high school and people with Ph.D.s in art history.”

The garden had become run down from years of being weathered, but in 2008 the Kohler Foundation - based in Wisconsin and known for its help in preserving folk art sites nationwide - bought the site and restored and unique art location. After most of the restoration was complete, the organization transferred ownership to the locally created Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden in 2009.

The Garden’s revived success indicates the increasing popularity of cultural tourism, a type of sightseeing that focuses on artistic venues, Rose says. A cultural tourist wants to find the special places in a community.

“This kind of tourism sits between the realms of the art museum, the historical museum, and the roadside attraction,” Rose says. “We want to understand the cultural legacies of our community and use that for tourism.”

Cultural tourism also builds a synergy that benefits other local attractions and magnifies the economic benefit, Rose says. A person who visits the Rock Garden often will seek out the Westcott House or the Gammon House, and vice versa.

“Someone visiting the Hartman Rock Garden is much more likely to visit a locally owned restaurant,” he says. “They’re looking for the flair and the spice of a community.”

It’s the job of Chris Schutte, vice president of destination marketing and communications for the Chamber of Greater Springfield, to promote our area as an attraction to tourists. Schutte sees Hartman as a “tangible drawing card” for Springfield with a unique, fascinating appeal. He says Hartman has benefited from the Internet, because people search for quirky, offbeat attractions at sites like Atlas Obscura or Roadside America. In fact, Hartman was the “Sight of the Week” on Roadside America for the week of Sept. 7-13.

“I’ve yet to talk with someone who walked away from a visit to the Rock Garden with any reaction other than ‘that was so cool’,” says Schutte, who is also a board member of the Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden.

Part of the garden’s appeal, Schutte says, is that it has no tour guides, no docents, no ticket booth. A visitor can just walk in, spend as much time as they want, and focus on what appeals to them. That helps when he pitches Hartman at conventions for tourism groups.

“If you’re a tour operator and can work in a couple of things that are free of charge, that’s really helpful,” Schutte says.

Even though Hartman appeals to people from all over, it’s also been a special treat for those who live in the neighborhood.

Shirley Gamble grew up three blocks from the Rock Garden, at the corner of McCain and Springmont, and her father’s parents lived on Russell at the other end of the block from Hartman. Gamble, now 81, was close in age to Martha, the youngest of the Hartman children, and the two girls would play together in the garden.

Gamble, who moved to Oregon, Ohio, in 2018 to be close to her daughter’s family, remembered the Rock Garden as a special place for her and her friend.

“We used to play with our dolls in the garden,” Gamble says. “We would put our doll furniture in the little houses. We had so much fun.”

Gamble also recalls that Mary Hartman grew flowers, tomatoes, and other plants in abundance and would sell some to her mother and other neighbors.

“She had flowers all around the garden and the house,” Gamble says. “It was one of my favorite places.”

Cheryl DeGroat Dover grew up in a house in the 1900 block of Norwood Avenue, one street over from Hartman, and moved back to that home two years ago. As a young child in the 1960s, she would see Mary Hartman, dressed in a scarf, sweater, and apron, watering her plants with a galvanized can. Dover recalls the garden as a beautiful place, full of flowers, with “colors bursting in the sun.”

“Too young to look over the fence, I would peek through the fence posts until my father lifted me up to get a look at the whole garden: the rock buildings, the White House, flags, people, bridges, etc.,” Dover wrote in an email. “My parents would point out different sculptures in the garden and would often remind us that (Ben Hartman) had built the whole garden rock by rock.”

Dover appreciates the restoration job done on the garden.

“The Hartman Rock Garden is again a good place to visit at any time of day. It is quiet, peaceful. I’m forever in awe of Mr. Hartman’s artistry. The Rock Garden is one of those things that gives me peace in this sometimes-crazy world.”

Read more articles by Steve Schlather.

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