Anoka County History: Anoka’s rock garden fad of 1931

Occasionally some new idea captures the fancy of the general public to such a degree that its popularity exceeds all reasonable expectations. Such was the case with rock gardens in the 1930s. The July 15, 1931 Anoka Union newspaper explains, “Never in the history of Anoka have people been so interested in rock gardens and flowers of all kinds as this summer of 1931.”

These were hard-scrabble times and most people raised vegetables and fruit wherever they could simply for the food value, aesthetics aside. Still, the human spirit craves beauty, and people will struggle to create beauty in the most mundane things – even rocks. Rocks are also affordable, and multi-colored, thus allowing one’s creativity free rein. The other elements in the rock garden were equally abundant or easily acquired: flowering bushes or shrubs from the riverbanks, wildflowers dug up along the roads and ditches, ferns from the woods, vines from the bogs and a few flowers from the neighbors.

The point of a rock garden was – and still is – to create a place of tranquility away from the stresses of the real world. The world of nature is to be simply enhanced. Rounded rocks outline flowerbeds and edge walking paths. Flowering shrubs emit a soothing fragrance.  Sunlight glistens off the dew-fresh grass. Bright-colored blossoms invite the butterflies to flit about and birds to drop in for a visit.

People of means added furniture to their rock gardens, from simple wooden benches, to woven wicker settees. Often a table was made available for tea or lunches to be enjoyed in the garden. A fish pond or a fountain might be added for its soothing sounds, especially in city rock gardens. Where lots were large or fronted on the rivers, winding paths were created through the garden and carefully planned to showcase the component parts each in its best light. The gravel path was outlined in fist sized rocks, behind which there were flowers arranged from short to tall: hen-and-chicks, alyssum, moss roses, petunias, gladiolas, dahlias, and tall hydrangeas. Trellises were employed to maximize the small spaces in city lots and blazed with color from morning glories, climbing roses, clematis, and something the newspaper calls bog orchids.

The rocks were not ordinary either but often came with a story. According to the newspaper, Mr. and Mrs. B. C. Smith of North Ferry Street had a rock from Norway and one from the Caribbean Sea in their rock garden. At the time of the article they were expecting a rock from the Nile River Valley to be sent by “a learned friend.”(Picture Indiana Jones.)  The neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. T. J. Abbett, collected rocks from all the places they had visited in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and proudly displayed a rock from the Dakota County farm where Mr. Abbett was born. The frugal Mrs. Joslyn took her rocks from the riverbank, “thus affording a pleasing variety.”

Mr. and Mrs. George Young had a real sundial in their rock garden, standing on a pedestal.  The Smiths had a concrete frog “much to the delight of all the children who see it.”  Mrs. Blanchard had four rock gardens on terraced levels of her sloped lot connected by rock steps along the path to the river. Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Haller had placed rocking chairs and settees in their rock garden overlooking the water, “a sightly spot.” And the Smiths enter their rock garden “through an arched white gate with trailings of woodbine.”  It all sounds quite lovely, don’t you think?

Maria King is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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