By Catherine Crawford, National Park Service
Jack Ellsworth started with a rock ridge in the wilderness and created a work of art. Beginning in 1944 and over the course of 20-plus years, Jack built rock-walled garden beds, pathways, sculptures, architecturally interesting structures, and directional features to form the “Showplace of Kabetogama.” Jack’s creation was intriguing to many and people visited Ellsworth Rock Gardens by the thousands.
Due to poor health, Jack Ellsworth never returned to his cabin and rock gardens after 1965. The forest slowly recaptured the rock formations and, by the time the National Park Service purchased the property from Jack’s widow Elsie in 1978, only a few statues were visible among the trees and shrubs. Yet, the allure of Jack’s masterwork endured and people continued to visit the gardens in the summer.
In 1996, after pressure from the local Kabetogama Lake community, park staff began removing trees and shrubs from the gardens. Since the first “Garden Blitz” in 2000, staff, contractors, and volunteers have repaired statues and rock walls and buildings, continued to remove non-historic vegetation, and replanted historic flower varieties. With the help of volunteers, work continues each summer to restore and preserve Ellsworth Rock Gardens. Slowly, Jack Ellsworth’s concept is re -emerging.
Changes will be taking place at Ellsworth Rock Gardens starting June of 2018. In the works is a two-year project that will improve visitor accessibility, provide better information about the history of gardens, and increase dock space. The dock system will be moved to a location that is closer to the Ellsworth’s original dock which will enhance sharing the story of the site. This year, phase 1, will include construction of an accessible comfort station, accessible path to the picnic shelter, and development of interpretive media. The new dock system will be completed by spring 2019 and Jack’s gardens will continue to charm and welcome a wider audience.
All current facilities will remain open throughout construction.
Funding from Voyageurs National Park Association and its generous donor community will be used to support some of the restoration and visitor education elements of this Ellsworth project.