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Rock On: Trying Times Lead Two Men From Different Eras To Create Rock Art

Renee Wilde

Ohio’s stay at home order has led citizens to look for coping mechanisms to stave off boredom and fear over the virus.

County Lines producer Renee Wilde lives in rural Greene County and shares the unique way her husband is dealing with this, and how it parallels what another Miami Valley resident did during the Great Depression.

My husband is dumping another load of rocks onto the front porch. This has become his daily routine during Ohio’s stay at home order. In between working from home, and scraping the paint off our crusty old farmhouse, he’s been taking breaks to climb over the fence and into the farm field adjacent to our house - scouring the field for interesting small rocks which he then loads into two canvas tote bags, and carries back.

Clayton Wolf hauls his rocks in two canvas tote bags that sometimes end up weighing around 80 pounds.
Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO
Clayton Wolf hauls his rocks in two canvas tote bags that can end up weighing around 80 pounds.

“I find these way, way out in the field,” he tells me while sorting through his haul. “My guess is those are 80 pounds a bag. They are super heavy, and it sucks really bad to haul them back.”

When asked why he does it, his response is "because they are beautiful, and they are free. Future projects.”

The rocks are really beautiful. Each one is a different size and shape is colors ranging from red to green to blue, with some containing fossils.

“Yeah, I hit the motherload,” he says looking them over. “It looks like there was some kind of creek bed, I don’t know, a quarter mile out into the field, and that’s where the best ones are. In this round here, the red ones are the hardest to find.”

“The variety pack like the cool green and white one, those are harder to find. Lot’s of white ones.

So this little batch out there, way, way, way out there, was chocked full of ones that had red in ‘em. So I got a bunch.”

In the past he’s used these field gathered stones to make perfectly smooth, conical  cairns on the property. A cairn is a man made stack of stones, used since prehistoric times -  typically as landmarks.

“Right now I am just placing my rocks along the edge of my porch, in kind of a nice, foot wide row,” he says lining up the rocks.  “Some of the little ones are layered to fill the voids where the big ones kind of intermingle. It’s very attractive, and it’s very satisfying for my OCD, to try and keep the edges of funky, irregular, roundy kinda rocks as even as I can.”

This is all reminding me of a similar situation during another stressful time in U.S. history involving a local Miami Valley man. It’s actually the first radio story I ever made, back in 2013,  about a Folk Art roadside attraction called the Hartman Rock Garden located behind a house in a quiet suburban Springfield neighborhood just 15 minutes from our place.

Here's an excerpt of that tape which includes a guided tour of one man’s attempt to stay busy during a time of massive layoffs.


HARTMAN ROCK GARDEN GUIDE: This is where it all began. This is the beginning of the hobby gone wild, as they said.

NARRATOR: It was the great depression. Ben Hartman like many others had lost his job. He began looking for a project to occupy his time, and that’s when he began collecting rocks. After 8 years and a lot of coffee, his backyard became a shrine that expressed his personal views on family, religion, and patriotism.

Ben harvested the materials for his creations from the stream that ran behind his property, rubbish piles, and donations from friends and visitors. He was also known to send his kids out with buckets after the streets had been freshly graveled, to collect the rocks off the road.

HARTMAN ROCK GARDEN GUIDE: We don’t know how many stones were used to build this, Ben always said about 20,000 to build the tree of life, so when you start adding it up, there were a lot of rocks.)


Check out the Hartman Rock Garden website while you’re stuck at home. It’s a pretty impressive testimony to how one man dealt with the adversity of his times.

It took Ben Hartman 8 years to transform his backyard. My husband has only been at it two weeks. But as this pandemic drags on, who knows, we might end up with our own roadside attraction, or at least some cool yard art.

"Again, not looking at my phone, not freaking out, not wearing a mask,” my husband reminds me, “Just doing my thing, and having a moment that is just kind of satisfying.”

“Everything’s just better with rocks.”

Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO

County Lines is WYSO's series on rural life, made possible by a grant from Ohio Humanities. This story was created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.