Editor’s note: This story first published on Nov. 28, 2017.
Harry George “Ben” Hartman spent 12 years arranging hundreds of thousands of individual stones into a folk art treasure, Springfield’s Hartman Rock Garden.
Hartman moved to the Champion City in 1913 and worked for the Springfield Machine Tool Company as a molder in the foundry. A widower, Hartman re-married in 1928.
Hartman, his wife Mary, and their children, gardened and raised chickens, rabbits and pigeons at their home, a future work of art at the corner of Russell and McCain Avenues.
In 1932, during the midst of the Great Depression, Hartman lost his job at the foundry according to research provided by the organization, Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden.
To keep himself busy, he created a small cement fishing pond in his back yard. He trimmed the edges with pink granite stones and filled it with water lilies and goldfish.
He constructed a bird bath in the center of the pond, setting it with stones and fashioning a small door at its base and a window above. He added whimsy to the scene with a handcrafted version of the Three Little Pigs. Hartman then added two Dutch style windmills made of stones at either side. An obsession had begun.
Using dolostone, stream gravel, red granite and broken pieces of red brick, Hartman created over 50 structures using stones in varied shapes and colors. His inspiration came from history, religion and patriotism according to the historical narrative. The stones were gathered from a nearby stream and farm fields. Friends and travelers would occasionally leave piles of rocks for Hartman to use.
Hartman created a scaled down version of Valley Forge, the military camp where Gen. George Washington and his army spent the winter of 1777, out of concrete and dolostone.
Pairs of handcrafted metal animals march two by two into a replica of Noah’s Ark made of stream gravel and concrete. A variety of mixed stones in grays and blues make up the curve of the Liberty Bell, its famous crack set off by 10 stones in a deeper shade.
Hartman said it took him two weeks to build the twelve-foot tall garden castle, complete with drawbridge, a moat and 107 windows. He used close to 100,000 stones on the design believed to be based on a castle in Berkley Springs, W.V. pictured on a postcard his wife Mary received in the mail.
The masterwork of Hartman’s garden is a 14-foot-tall cathedral made of concrete, dolostone, and chert, a sedimentary rock. Numerous figures of Madonna are tucked into rocky niches along the walls and a version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper fills an archway lined with granite.
Wander the paths through the garden and you can read messages left by Hartman in small stones. “Let us smile,” “Honor Thy Father and Mother” and “Seek the good in life,” are embedded in the walkways. His own name, set in concrete next to his wife’s name, are at the foot of a concrete bench.
Hartman returned to work at the foundry in 1939 but died from a lung disease five years later. His widow took care of the garden for the following 53 years calling it “a garden of love.” Mary died in 1997.
The Kohler Foundation, based in Wisconsin and known for preserving folk art sites in the United States, bought the garden in 2008 and began preservation. The following year ownership was transferred to a local organization, Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden, who continue the restoration of the site.