Mapping the Mystery of Jack Ellsworth

Kathlene Audette-Luebke/VNPA By Drew LaBounty

The Ellsworth Rock Gardens, on the north shore of Kabetogama Lake, draw many visitors for their craftsmanship and their mysterious patterns. Natural stone has been fitted together at this unique site, and carefully arranged into hundreds of walls, sculptures, benches, flowerbeds, and stairs.

Jack Ellsworth – a contractor from Chicago – built his stone and flower gardens while vacationing with his wife Elsie in the summers from 1944 to 1965.

Kathlene Audette-Luebke/VNPA

The site quickly drew thousands of visitors who were fascinated by Mr. Ellsworth’s “outsider” art. However, the pattern and intent of his vernacular landscape are not entirely known, even today. Seasonal staff and volunteers maintain almost two football fields-worth of sculptures and flowerbeds, but if Mr. Ellsworth had a grand and ongoing design, it is lost to us.

We now interpret his work through historic photos, people who knew him, and what we see on the landscape. From the time Mr. Ellsworth left the gardens until today, the site has transformed from a meticulous visionary’s “colorful showplace” to a site of “mystery and discovery.”

With technology such as geographic information systems (GIS) and airborne laser range finding (LiDAR), there is a renewed hope that some of Mr. Ellsworth’s lost artistry can be recovered. LiDAR stands for “Light Detection and Ranging.” Much like a submarine’s SONAR, which bounces sound off of objects underwater, LiDAR sends beams of infrared light through the air to calculate very accurate distances from an aircraft to the ground.

Kathlene Audette-Luebke/VNPA

A recent LiDAR survey of Kabetogama Lake was contracted by the NPS to find the elevation of shorelines under very shallow water, which is meant to help the park understand changing water levels in the basin. Because of the emphasis on shorelines, the survey also captured the Ellsworth Rock Gardens with detailed aerial photos and elevation modeling.

2D Illustration

Park staff have used this data to reconstruct in 2D and 3D some of the walls and sculptures of the garden (see above illustration). This detailed, birds-eye view now requires fieldwork to distinguish bedrock from intentional structures. Already though, there are suggestions of more features outside the known boundaries of the site that could change our understanding of the garden’s layout.

Kathlene Audette-Luebke/VNPA

As walls, trails, and gates are identified through further GIS and LiDAR surveys, the original artistic intent and touring paths among the sculptures may become clear. Mr. Ellsworth’s legacy can be fulfilled as he intended. We will certainly gain a better sense of the gardens’ shape and patterning by producing more accurate maps, which will add to the sense of scale and effort that went into the decades-long construction of the gardens.

Kathlene Audette-Luebke/VNPA

Until then, the Ellsworth Rock Gardens are an enduring testament to the craftsmanship and creativity of the man who built them – for reasons that will always remain his own.