Located a short drive from Columbus, the Hartman Rock Garden in Springfield, Ohio is considered one of the best examples of folk art in the county.
It’s not a secret that I love roadside attractions. I estimate that over the years, I’ve easily stopped at over one hundred. But of those, a small percentage have been so remarkable that I would visit them repeatedly. The Hartman Rock Garden is one of those. If you’d like to read more about Springfield check out the best things to do in Springfield Ohio.
The Hartman Rock Garden Roadside Attraction is a True Gem
The Hartman Rock Garden is classified as folk art. You may wonder what the difference is between folk art and fine art. Don’t worry, I did too so I looked it up to be clear. Those who create fine art learn and hone their skill through rigorous formal instruction while folk artists are largely self-taught.
The History of the Hartman Rock Garden
The creator of the garden, Harry George “Ben” Hartman, didn’t set out to make something grand. He was simply a molder at the Springfield Machine Tool Company foundry who found himself with too much time on his hands when he was laid off during the Great Depression. To stay busy, he decided to make a cement fishing pond in his backyard.
By the time that was completed, he was hooked. His rock garden began to take shape as he constructed handmade figures and over 50 structures. As you walk through the garden, you’ll see three main themes; history, religion, and patriotism. All three are symbolized in the large Tree of Life that is made of Red Granite and Mixed-Stone. One of his favorite pieces, the tree symbolizes three areas of his life that he held dear, his love for his country, school, and church. It’s estimated that approximately 20,000 stones were used in the construction of the tree that stands roughly seven feet tall.
As you look around you’ll find miniatures of local homes and stores, the White House, the Betsy Ross House and other properties that were significant in history. Many tell a story.
These miniature soldiers represent Stonewall Jackson and his army as they pass by Barbara Fritchie’s House. She is said to have waved her American flag at his Confederate army saying “Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare our country’s flag.”
This tiny figure looking out of one of the attic windows is Fritchie. You’ll find scenes like this everywhere you look. From Sitting Bull to animals loading onto Noah’s Ark, to a depiction of the Last Supper, each scene was painstakingly created by Ben.
I was amazed by the attention to detail evident in the artsy rock scenes.
Ben returned to work in 1939 after a seven-year layoff having fashioned hundreds of thousands of stones and buckets of concrete into a piece of folk art that is considered one of the most esteemed collections of folk art in the United States. Ben died in 1944 from lung disease due to his job at the foundry but his wife, Mary, stepped up to maintain the garden, caring for the flowers and welcoming visitors until her death in 1997.
The garden began to deteriorate and in 2008, the Kohler Foundation out of Wisconsin stepped in to save the day. The foundation is an art preservationist group and has worked on projects like the art environment of Pasaquan in Georgia to restore and preserve them for future generations to enjoy. The restoration was completed in 2009 and Kohler, who had purchased the property, transferred ownership to the newly-formed Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden.
The garden is a true treasure and delight for all. Young and old will be amazed at the displays and scenery as you view the unique work of art at the rock garden.
It’s hard for me to imagine the patience and dedication that went into creating such a heartfelt piece of work that has been enjoyed for over 80 years. If you’re like me, you’ll visit once and then you’ll make an excuse to visit again to see all that you missed the first time. Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your visit to the Hartman Rock Garden.
Tips for Visiting the Hartman Rock Garden
- Grab a Guidebook.
Guidebooks are available onsite and at the Greater Springfield Visitor Center. The small book will tell you about Ben and his wife Mary as well as describe the various sculptures and buildings on the property and includes a handy map for easy identification.
- Allow plenty of time.
While you could stop and “see” the garden in as little as five or ten minutes, the rock garden is storytelling at it’s finest and deserves to be appreciated. Plan to spend a minimum of 30 minutes on the property but I’ll warn you now that if you truly look at what you see around you, you’ll find so many details that it will be hard to see it all on your first visit.
- Look at everything.
Look high, look low. Stoop down to look inside the buildings. You’ll be amazed at the detail that Ben put into the sculptures.
- Stay on the paths and don’t walk in the flower beds.
- Don’t touch the structures. Remember, this is art which deserves to be appreciated and not touched.
- “Go” before you arrive.
There are no restrooms on the property so make sure you stop for a poddy break if necessary before your arrival.
- The Hartman Rock Garden is FREE, but donations are encouraged.
- Guided and behind-the-scenes tours are available if you schedule them in advance.
I REALLY wish I had researched this attraction a bit more prior to my visit so I would have been aware of the behind-the-scenes tour which allows you to learn more about the collection, the ongoing preservation and to see some of the figures that Ben created that can no longer be kept in the garden.
Hartman Rock Gardens Visitor’s Information
Hartman Rock Garden
Address: 1905 Russell Ave. Springfield, OH
Hours: Open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk.
Cost: Donation only for self-guided tours. There is a fee for guided or behind-the-scenes tours.
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