Hartman Rock Garden gaining solid ground as tourist draw

Springfield is full of visual attractions and landmarks that draw tourists. The Hartman Rock Garden could be classified as the hidden gem among them.

The attraction is proving to be resilient without the name association of a Frank Lloyd Wright and not being visible from a highway or major city street, city leaders say.

“I think it’s undervalued as an economic generator through cultural tourism,” said Kevin Rose, a historian for the Turner Foundation and member of the Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden “It’s similar to the Westcott House in that you’re likely to find people from across the U.S. visit.”

Open 365 days a year with no admission fee from dawn to dusk at 1905 Russell Ave., Rose said at any given time a bus could pull up with curious people who’ve heard from one source or another about it. One group in 2015 included 45 ladies from Dubuque, Iowa.

The rock garden features numerous folk art works created by late Springfield resident Ben Hartman. Laid off during the Great Depression, Hartman used his free time to create a cement pond, and found a new hobby. Using concrete, metal, stone or other materials, Hartman’s backyard was transformed into a little world of its own showcasing various scenes, structures and figurines up through his death in 1944.

The figures were complemented by the garden, featuring numerous plants and flowers. Hartman’s wife and family kept the garden going long after his death, with one of his daughters, Ruth Hoover, still an active part of the maintenance with the non-profit Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden, who keep the garden clean and well kept.

“It’s always been looked at as art and floral culture,” Rose said.

Although official attendance figures aren’t kept, Rose estimates 4,000 to 5,000 people visit the rock garden annually, about half of which are from out of town.

The largest object is a cathedral that stands 10 to 12 feet tall. Locals of a certain age can see recognizable landmarks of the past such as the unique structure of Reco’s Sporting Goods. Children enjoy the Tree of Life with a large eagle that many mistake for a giant bunny.

Rose admits he’s not sure how many figurines and structures are there. Some day he can see having a lucky (or unlucky) intern count the number of stones.

One of the attractions is if you visit once, you haven’t necessarily seen everything. Some are under restoration, such as a Betsy Ross house with little details such as furniture. There are complex types of paints used that take time and money to get.

“These are works of art and we want to treat them as they are,” Rose said.

Save for a brochure, the rock garden doesn’t do any advertising and word of mouth spreads about its uniqueness that is responsible for the majority of visitors, according to Rose.

An annual summer open house event is TchotchkePalooza, which trots out figurines which normally aren’t on view including several pop culture figures from Hartman’s day.

One of the appeals of the rock garden is the variety of people drawn to it. Rose said at any given time it’s not uncommon to find one of the city’s leading citizens and a kid from a couple doors down enjoying it. The Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden are doing everything on a volunteer basis and donations and grants are key.

“The thing that makes us unusual is every dollar goes to the long-term care and restoration of the garden all through grant support. This is Ben Hartman’s vision. It has an amazing history and has always been free. It makes us different. There is no singled demographic . It attracts all kinds of people,” Rose said.

For more information on Hartman Rock Garden, go to www.hartmanrockgarden.org/index.html.