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Granite Folly
A self-taught artist cerated a marvel in Minnesota’s northwoods. Now the challenge is to maintain Ellsworth Rock Gardens intact.
By Lisa Stone

Extensive, elaborate gardens are usually designed by garden designers or landscape architects and then planted and maintained by professional gardeners. Not so with Minnesota’s Ellsworth Rock Gardens, which falls into the genre of folk art, or vernacular, gardens, environments created by self-taught artist/builders within the context of a home landscape. The last place one might expect to find an extensive cultivated sculpture garden is on a remote peninsula in the Minnesota northwoods. Located at the northern edge of Lake Kabetogama, the site is now part of Voyageurs National Park, a 219,000-acre tract of forest, lakes, and waterways along Minnesota’s boundary with Canada.

Kamnetz/Voageurs National Park (circa 1963)

The Ellsworth Rock Gardens, built between 1944 and 1965, was created by one man—retired Chicago building contractor Jack Ellsworth (1899–1974). Ellsworth claimed to have logged in over 14,000 hours of labor on the gardens (quite probably with the help of his wife), and by virtue of this calculation he showed that he was clearly aware of the scope of his labor alone. In a rare interview he gave in 1960 to the International Falls Daily Journal, Ellsworth discussed the purpose of the project with understated humility: “We love this country and wish we could spend more time here, but I just had to have something to keep me busy.

The approach to a garden is often central to the experience of it; likewise, an essential aspect of the Ellsworth Rock Gardens is the requisite journey over the breathtaking expanse of Lake Kabetogama by boat to reach it. Taking his cue from the existing landscape and enhancing it with built features and plantings, Ellsworth created a cohesive composition of formal elements that segued seamlessly into natural ones. He had a strong sense for the pleasing contrast of fixed elements (a large granite outcrop, stone sculptures, rock garden walls, and stone circulation features) against fluid ones—trees, sky, clouds, wind, light, and water. The gardens’ formality within the natural environment adds to their magic, reflecting the metaphor of the garden as a constructed landscape within the primality of nature.

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