The first time I saw a picture of Ellsworth Rock Gardens, the phrase "Stonehenge of Minnesota" immediately popped into my head. I realize this isn't completely accurate because these rocks were placed by a real man, not an alien (or whoever was crazy enough to take on the arduous task of moving those giant stones in England) and were created many centuries apart, but it still has an eery yet enchanting quality about it that leaves you inspired to do whatever daunting task is next on your list once you step foot off the dock.
As we rode in a Park Service pontoon to the Ellsworth Rock Gardens for the annual Volunteer Rendezvous last weekend, I had to squint pretty hard to see where exactly we were headed. I was told there was a garden there, and had seen photographs of a large meadow. But from the water, all I saw were trees. I didn't even realize there was a dock until our boat had just about arrived.
The gardens didn't always have this much privacy from Lake Kabetogama. Early photos show a vast clearing along the shore now camouflaged by pine trees, where Jack and his wife had a clear view of the lake from their cabin that was set back quite far on their property. Jack constantly performed maintenance and improvement on the site, but when he became ill, the gardens fell by the wayside. If you don't have access to old images for reference, the gardens look just fine and dandy, but a little digging will tell you that the space has transformed significantly since the couple left.
Our volunteers, along with help from park staff, made an impressive effort to bring the gardens back to their appearance as Jack intended. 27 people, ranging in age from 8 to 80, worked a total of 311 hours over the two days of the Rendezvous, filling 3 barges with excess brush and compost, thinning the dying balsam trees around the guest cabin, sweeping cobwebs and debris from the exterior of buildings, weeding many of Jack's iris beds, arranging the sculpture stones in the guest cabin in numerical order and labelling them for proper storage, and cleaning and organizing Mr. Ellsworth's original work shed. On Saturday night, a volunteer appreciation dinner was help at Arrowhead lodge, where poetry was read, much-needed IPA's were drank, and family stories were told over a delicious meal of pulled pork orchestrated by the one and only Betsey Warrington.
Catherine Crawford, the Collections Manager at Voyageurs, also presented an interpretive program on Friday night in conjunction with VNPA's event, generously hosted by the Kabetogama Lake Association at their town hall, covering the concrete and not so concrete facts of Jack Ellsworth's life and sharing exclusive photos of the gardens. Attended by nearly 40 people, there was great interest from local residents in this program.
Doug Lowthian, a seasonal ranger at Voyageurs who helped coordinate the event, said of the weekend, "It was very uplifting to experience the enthusiasm, energy, and care all the volunteers brought to the park. The park staff appreciates the partnership of the VNPA and the work of these volunteers. We truly benefit in ways both tangible and intangible."
The park began this large-scale restoration process in 2001, involving not only weeding, planting, and brush removal, but also repairing sculptures and integrating interpretive signage among many smaller projects. There is no end-date to this project - watching over the gardens will be a continuous process carried out by numerous park staff and enthusiastic volunteers for years to come.
Great work was done there from 1944 to 1966 by Jack Ellsworth. Great work was done there last weekend by our park staff and volunteers. Great work is done there every week by wonderful long-term gardeners who have volunteered their time for the past eleven years. It truly is a beautiful and enchanting place.
If you haven't been there, go. If you have been there, go back! The scenery is always changing thanks to Mother Nature, dedicated gardeners and volunteers, and the critters that think lilies are snacks!
But for me, it will always be the "Stonehenge of Minnesota."
We would like to thank all of our volunteers for their effort and enthusiasm throughout the event, along with supporting staff members of the park, including Catherine Crawford, Mary Graves, Doug Lowthian, Bill Johnson, Candy Bruers, Steve Schultz, Jason Christenson, Kevin Grossheim, and Gary Whipple for all their hard work through the planning process and day-of work that goes into these weekends.
Ella Rausch, Youth & Outreach Coordinator AmeriCorps VISTA for Voyageurs National Park Association