It all started at a football practice for my sons. Bored out of her mind, my daughter started creating art with rocks. I posted a pic of her creation on Facebook and within minutes, I had three comments suggesting that we visit the Hartman Rock Garden.

A Hidden Treasure

“Not many people expect to find an art installation here,” says Kevin Rose, historian for the Turner Foundation and chair of the Hartman Rock Garden board. The Hartman Rock Garden in Springfield is one of the nation’s most revered works of in situ folk art. (In situ refers to works of art that are made specifically for a site.)

What began as a way to keep busy after a layoff became a nationally recognized work of art.

Harry George “Ben” Hartman settled in Springfield with his second wife, Mary, in 1913 to work for the Springfield Machine Tool Company. In 1932, he was laid off and started constructing a cement fishing pond in his garden.

After the pond, he began creating figures and structures—following the themes of history, religion and patriotism—including Mount Vernon, the Battle of Little Big Horn and Noah’s Ark.

According to Rose, Ben spent about seven years of his life creating his garden.

“It was a true labor of love. He wanted to create something that would last for generations of his family and the community.”

After his death in 1944, Mary took over the duty of maintaining the garden, caring for the flowers and preserving Ben’s structures. She called it the “garden of love” rather than the rock garden when she gave tours.

The Next Generation

After Mary passed in 1997, the garden was neglected and in disrepair until the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation purchased it in 2008. Known for preserving significant folk art sites across the country, the Kohler Foundation transferred ownership of the restored site to the Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden organization.

My kids think the highlight of the garden is the 12-foot-tall castle. It’s made with roughly 100,000 stones and includes a drawbridge, moat and 107 windows. Based on a castle in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., it took Ben 14 days to create. It’s impressive and imposing in the garden, and since we got home, my kids keep asking to replicate it as a playhouse.

As we wound our way through the garden, we were impressed with the structures, figures and the intricate pathways. Ben personalized them with his own words of wisdom and wove an inspiring theme throughout the garden with concrete, bricks, glass and various tiles. You can’t help but stop to read phrases such as, “Let us smile” and “Seek the good life” carved in the concrete years ago.

Restoring the garden structures and figures is an ongoing process, but it’s also part of the joy of the installation, says Rose.

“Our volunteers, along with family members and artisans, worked together to learn Ben’s process and restore the pieces as close to original as possible.”

Go and See for Yourself

Visitors are welcome to the site 365 days a year but are encouraged to visit between Memorial Day and Labor Day to ensure the best floral display. Self-guided tours are free but donations are encouraged. You can also schedule a guided or group tour through hartmanrockgarden.org.