October 16, 2007

Rock Solid Tradition

photo by Leslie Pugmire Hole/copyright Redmond Spokesman

Imagine living amongst a flock of two dozen peacocks and peahens. Imagine being surrounded by 60 acres of hay fields, a small flock of sheep and free-range chickens whose eggs no one bothers to collect. Imagine the place you live is visited by thousands of strangers every year, people who wander around your home gawking all day - and sometimes at night when you want peace and quiet. Imagine your house is surrounded by acres and acres of folk-art creations of huge proportions.

Imagine living in the center of a "historic resource," a place so important the county has placed it on a short list of sites so treasured it wants to protect it.

Sue Caward, 42, has lived in such a place her entire life. Sixteen years ago her husband, George, joined her and five years ago their daughter Melinda joined them.

Three generations of the Petersen family have lived at Redmond's Petersen Rock Gardens, beginning in 1935 when patriarch Rasmus Petersen began taking time from his 300-acre farm to indulge his hobby of rock hounding - an ironic hobby for a man who farmed some of the rockiest soil in Oregon. Jasper, obsidian, petrified wood, agates, thunder eggs, lava rock and malachite - Petersen used everything he could find in Central Oregon and even traveled farther afield for his own collection, now housed in the gift shop/museum.

The gardens are open 365 days a year until shortly before dusk falls and have been since anyone can remember. Vacations?

"We haven't heard of that yet," says George Caward. The rock garden "staff" consists of the Cawards, Sue's mother and a handful of friends and family who help out during the peak season.
There is no admission to view the gardens, only a hopeful donation box near the entrance. The family supplements the donations from visitors with a modest gift shop and the surrounding farm acreage.

Rasmus Petersen, a Dane who came to Central Oregon about 1906 with the first wave of settlers, sold much of his farm land in the 1940s and devoted most of his time to building the gardens. He died in 1952 and a succession of Petersen women have spent the last 55 years preserving his creation, which has remained unaltered since Rasmus laid his last stone.

"He built the two rockeries in front of the house first then his friends and neighbors came by to show their friends and relatives and it grew from there," says Sue. "A donation box was put up eventually. When I was a kid it was 25 and 50 cents and we were lucky if people would leave that."

When George and Sue married he knew little about rocks and even less about repairing and maintaining what has become an iconic place in Central Oregon. He took it upon himself to learn about the rocks he was hauling around, re-cementing and selling in the gift shop.

"It's been a lot of trial and error," says George. He's had to replace all the old steel pipes that supplied water to the ponds and fountains, a cinch compared to figuring out how to repair objects held together with 70-year-old cement.

In Rasmus' day, the rock gardens were literally gardens of stone. The Petersen women have gradually added more living refinery to the mix, planting trees and flowers all around the structures and paths.

"When I was growing up we had people who worked here ever year. We had two ladies who lived in the area, they'd come every spring and leave in the fall," says Sue.

Since the gardens have no set admission, the couple is unsure how many visitors come every year - although they know how far away they come from; it isn't unusual to find people from Japan, Scandinavia and Europe wandering the grounds.

There is no Petersen Rock Gardens Web site ("We have a computer and we know how to use it but that's it," George says ruefully) and the only advertising they usually do is in visitor centers around the northwest.

There's been talk of charging admission and/or seeking nonprofit status but the gardens have been run the same way for 72 years and change comes hard.

So everyday the doors to the shop and museum are opened, peacocks and chickens are fed, and loose rocks are reattached. On good days visitors leave generous donations in the entry box and decline to abandon their pets ("We wouldn't mind so much if they dropped off cows or pigs or something useful," jokes George, while Sue adds "or a German Shepard with papers around his neck").

On the bad days little is collected in the way of admission and less kindhearted visitors harass the animals or steal rocks.

Regardless, the gardens continue, open to the public and run by the family - just as Rasmus Petersen wanted it.

-- story by Leslie Pugmire Hole

Petersen Rock Gardens is located at 7930 SW 77th Street, south of Redmond. Call 541-382-5574 for more information.

No comments: