The project site is the historic Ellsworth Rock Gardens located on the northern edge of Kabetogama Lake in Voyageurs National Park. Built between 1944 and 1965 by Chicago carpenter/contractor Jack Ellsworth (1899-1974), the Ellsworth Rock Gardens are a composite of 65 terraced flower beds constructed on a 60-foot granite outcrop, punctuated by some 200 delicately-balanced rock sculptures. During its peak (mid-1960s), the gardens bloomed with a profusion of perennial and annual flowers, drawing thousands of visitors across the lake to experience the “showplace of Lake Kabetogama.” The stone walls are an essential feature of the gardens. Ellsworth mortared most sculptures in place but he used a traditional technique for the rock walls and dry-stacked them without mortar. Ellsworth gathered stone for his walls and sculptures from the immediate area. Schist, granite and gneiss are easily found on or just below the surface of the ground in the forests surrounding the gardens. The elegant, finely-constructed dry-stacked stone walls form the flower beds and define pathways and borders throughout the garden. The stone walls are level and typically range in height from 18”-36” with at least one wall over 6 feet tall. The stones are irregular in shape and size with some extremely large boulders incorporated into the walls. The walls throughout the gardens represent an evolution of Ellsworth’s proficiency in their construction. Those that have been identified as less skillfully built are presumably indicative of his earlier work. Walls constructed later exhibit an impressive degree of craft, finesse, and structural integrity.
Ellsworth topped many of the walls with a distinctive white layer or “frosting” of crushed gneiss, a very coarse-grained metamorphic rock. Gneiss consists of a small amount of quartz, which provides the small chunky gray grains, and a large amount of feldspar, which gives the “frosting” its white color (correspondence from Brian Klawiter 4/17/2007). The Ellsworths left Kabetogama in 1965 when Mr. Ellsworth became ill. The National Park Service acquired the property in 1978 but efforts to preserve the gardens did not start in earnest until 2001. Without regular maintenance over a nearly 20-year period, the gardens became overgrown and paths and other features were obscured under dense vegetation. However, since the gardens had become such a popular place, people continued to visit, resulting in new social trails and damage to some landscape features. The Dry Stone Conservancy assessed the condition of stone walls in July 2005 and recommended priorities for repair (report dated March 17, 2006). The majority of walls are sound and have good integrity. Integrity is highest where dense vegetation or more precarious footing protected walls from visitors and animals (especially deer). Over time, rock walls were displaced by animals and visitors and damaged by fallen trees and vandals. Some walls had become structurally unsound and a threat to visitor safety and the integrity of the walls. A few problems may be attributed to the original construction, however while some of Ellsworth’s wall-building techniques were unconventional, the majority of these walls have survived the test of time. All of the walls have naturally weathered and are lichen covered. While this affects the look of the walls, it probably will not impact the condition of the walls. Impacts to stone walls generally include:
- Intrusive vegetation (especially grass, vines, and shrubs)
- Large amounts of accumulated organic material
- People, animals and tree roots dislodging rocks
- Compaction from foot traffic
- Uninformed repairs
- Displaced “frosting” from wall tops