Garden Delights

Garden Delights: Concrete Curiosities of the Midwest

The early part of the twentieth century saw the fortunate conjunction of two new technologies: the automobile and quick-setting concrete. From the first all-weather concrete pavement laid in Bellefountain, Ohio, roads and highways spread across the nation. Bicycle and early automobile enthusiasts pushed for roadway improvements and the beginnings of the federal highway system. With increased ease of travel and a little spending money, a decentralized tourist class was born, spreading out from cities and small towns in search of a little diversion or entertainment as well as new scenery.

In the rural Midwest, typical tourists might be a farm family out for a Sunday afternoon drive, stopping by a new picnic ground or a roadside petting zoo for the children. Aware of this new tourist market, enterprising craftsmen and women in small towns all across the Midwest built homemade gardens and museums pitched to these visitors. A farm-bred do-it-yourself confidence and readily available portland cement allowed even solitary individuals to build monumental public spaces and make a name for themselves, while working with materials and concepts already familiar to their visitors.

While many of these fantastic roadside gardens may have seemed exotic or unusual in form, they are all essentially made from familiar Midwestern crafts: woodcarving, decorative wall-building, gardening, quilting, etc, taken to a higher level. What captures our attention in these places is the dichotomy between these seemingly casual hobbies and the seriousness of taking them farther than anyone else. Whether created for private purposes or to entertain or educate outsiders, the creators of these home-made curiosities were driven to pursue their playful crafts with a work-like dedication to make something the world had never seen before.

Unlike other handicrafts, the outdoor rock garden is consciously created for the viewer to enter into, to participate in and experience first-hand. To understand these home-made environments, it is not enough to simply look at them in a museum: we must visit them, explore them, sit awhile and admire the flowers and the interplay of natural and man-made. As outdoor gardens, they are constantly changing and open-ended spaces, different in each season and time of day.

Dozens of examples of playful but obsessive roadside gardens once existed across the Midwest. Here are a few of these sites:

Ak-Sar-Ben Gardens - Aitkin, MN

Black Madonna Shrine and Grottos - Eureka, MO

Christiansen's Rock Garden - Albert Lea, MN

Crucifixion Grotto - Wesley, IA

Doc Hettinger's Garden of Eden - Toledo, OH

Dickeyville Grotto - Dickeyville, WI

Fountain City Rock Garden - Fountain City, WI

Grotto of the Holy Family - St. Joseph, WI

Grotto of the Redemption - West Bend, IA

Immaculate Conception Grotto - Carroll, IA

Jubilee Dairy - Brimfield, IL

Johnson's Rock Garden - Hendricks, MN

LaFleur Grotto - Byron, IL

A Little Bit O' Heaven - Davenport, IA

The Molehill - Sauk Rapids, MN

Mollie Jenson's Zoo and Museum - River Falls, WI

Pathway Through the Bible - Joliet, MT

Prairie Moon Museum and Garden - Cochrane, WI

Rockome Gardens - Arcola, IL

Rudolph Grotto and Wonder Cave - Rudolph, WI

Joe Suilmann's Grotto and Museum - Wabasha, MN

Wegner Grotto - Cataract, WI

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References and Links to the Sites

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Copyright ©2012 Matt Bergstrom