Exploring the Hartman Rock Garden

A postcard with an image of Hartman’s Historical Garden from the 1930s. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

As the last days of summer shine down, some gardens may not be as green or lush as they were just last week, but there is one garden that has stood the test of time through the Great Depression, wars, and weather.  The Ben Hartman Rock Garden is a unique garden of sculpture and imagination located at 1905 Russell Ave. Springfield, OH in the yard of a residential home.

Harry George Hartman, also known as Ben Hartman, was born in 1883 in Edenville, Pennsylvania.  He moved to Springfield at the age of 16 and began working as a molder at the Springfield Machine Tool Company.  He was laid off in 1932 due to the Great Depression, and that is when the garden began to take shape.

His first wife, Maggie, sadly passed away in 1928, and he then married Mary who had a daughter, Ruth, from a previous relationship. They had two children together, Martha and Benjamin, and raised pigeons, chickens, and rabbits, while tending to their garden and greenhouses.  When he was laid off, Ben began working on a cement fishing pond in his yard, and after its completion, he never stopped building.  He started creating all kinds of structures and sculptures that usually concerned patriotism, religion, education, and popular culture. He used a local creek as the source of most of his materials, but also used wood, concrete, glass, and metal.

A postcard with an image of Hartman’s Historical Garden from the 1930s. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

Depending on which expert or historian is counting, Ben created between 100 and 500 different works of art that contain over 100,000 rocks.  Some of the most notable structures include a church with a miniature bride and groom, a castle that stands 12 feet high, Noah’s Ark with sets of animals boarding, Betsy Ross’s house, and the Hoover Dam.  Other, more obscure creations, include a seven-foot-tall “tree of life” that looks more like a Saguaro cactus, or what some others think is a character from an H.P. Lovecraft story, and “Mary’s Mailbox”, which according to curator Kevin Rose, is actually Lady Justice, where if you thought you got a fair deal by visiting the garden, then you could leave a donation.

Ben eventually returned to work in 1939 at a foundry, which slowed his work considerably, and died in 1944 from silicosis.  His wife Mary took over the garden after his death, and maintained his creations, while adding some of her own along the way, and giving tours to visitors.  After Mary’s death in 1997, the garden fell into a bit of disrepair.  After a decade, in 2008, the Kohler Foundation bought and restored the garden, for an undisclosed amount, and in 2009 turned ownership over to the Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden.  The Friends now maintain the garden, document its history, and keep it open to the public. For one last summer road trip, or anytime really, visitors are still free to come and view the rock garden year-round, or you can pay a small fee per person for a scheduled guided tour of this one-of-a-kind garden full of history and wonder.

Thank you to Ashely Rodriguez, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!

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