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Petersen Rock Garden is one Danish immigrant's decaying legacy

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Matt Fox

Within the first two minutes I'm outside in the sweltering heat of the Petersen Rock Garden, I almost step on a peacock. The bird is resting silently in the shade of a towering miniature rock castle, and shocks me with a squawk as I'm staring up at the hand-placed stones decorating the walls of the exhibit. The sound is jarring as it is unnaturally silent on the farm. It's a window to the mid-century past, to an era when quirky roadside attractions tried to lure motorists into their penny arcades, and more precisely, it is a museum with one focus and an odd lifetime obsession: rocks.

Weaving out the old Bend-Redmond Highway to get to Petersen Rock Garden is a blast from the past in itself. It seems that most of the buildings that were built in the early 1900s are still (barely) standing, hanging on by a few creaking poles and rusting nails. The more modern farmhouses, along with a few motorboats and satellite dishes, are the only signs that the past few decades have even occurred.

But what lies up the short drive of the Rock Garden, a few miles off Highway 97 on the way to Redmond, is the strangest and more bizarre sight of them all.

Rock structures. Lots of them. They range from about two-feet tall to towering monstrosities with moats. All partially overgrown, the arms of ivy reaching over a rock American flag under the moniker, "God Bless America," murky ponds filled with lily pads. It's decaying and surreal, with thin rock staircases and dirt paths leading in figure eights around the displays, wilted flowers and unkempt bushes creeping over the borders of the walkways.

Sidestepping the peacock, I walk past a cardboard sign taped to a chair that says "employee parking only," a donation lockbox, another peacock and finally a rooster the size of my torso. Around another bend in the path, a massive Statue of Liberty replica sits atop a pedestal adorned with thousands of palm-sized, smooth, white rocks. Behind that, an incomplete star-shaped rock structure hides behind a dead brush.

The rock garden is the legacy of Danish immigrant Rasmus Petersen. The dozen or so structures took him the last two decades of his life to build. The small, ornate houses resemble miniature Danish castles, similar to those he would have grown up with in Europe. Mixed with strange odes to America, the garden is a first generation immigrant's dreamscape.

His granddaughter, Susan Caward, who currently runs the rock garden, explained that after Petersen made his way to Oregon via Odense, Denmark, he started the rock garden in 1935 as not much more than a hobby.

"He couldn't grow anything between the house and the road. Some places there is rock shelving and you can only dig a few inches down," said Caward. "He was a potato farmer so where he couldn't farm he started building."

Rasmus worked on the garden for 17 years until his death in 1952, 12 years before Caward was born. But Caward said she remembers growing up in the rock garden, her grandfather's late-life passion.

As for the physical garden, the structures are ornate; hundreds of thousands of rocks adorn houses, bridges, and walls, all of which were collected within 90 miles of the garden itself, said Caward.

"He used petrified wood, thunder eggs, agate, jasper, lava, all kinds of sandstone, obsidian. He would take the truck out and gather. At the time there were no restrictions and he could pick them up, he just gathered."

Beyond the rocks the farm is scattered with green and blue glass, and seashells that Caward said her grandfather bought from a sea captain's widow.

"He just wanted to put something in his yard," she said matter-of-factly.

The novelty architecture of antiquity and the legacy of one strange man's strange hobby lives on. Petersen's yard décor is now a tucked -away roadside attraction comparable to the Oregon Vortex or the Spruce Goose.

Petersen Rock Garden

7930 SW 77th St., Redmond.

$5 adult admission, $3 kids admission.


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