Artists of the land

The lion peers out from his cover of Tall Prairie Dropseed.  A tree of monkeys rises from Sambucus Black Lace, Geraniums, Alliums, Irises and Sedums.   A deer stands in Gro-low Fragrant Sumac, and Snow White orchestrates her dwarfs, all surrounded by a sea of Hostas .

What manner of fairytale is this?  What wizards conjured flower and concrete, earth and glass?

Throughout the historic farm yard gorgeous flower gardens frame statues made long ago by Nick Engelbert, a dairy farmer who created them from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Carol (left) and Janet with Grandview flowerboxes

Over the years, as Nick created statues, his wife Katherine would surround each piece in a colorful nest of flowers.  The site fell into ruin and was resurrected by the Kohler Foundation in the 1990s.  As Grandview was restored, so were the gardens.  They had to be – they’re integral to the beauty of the site.  Katherine’s skill is not only alive and well today, it has doubled.  The gardens are now the work of Janet  Huebner and Carol Rademaker.  And they’re more than gardeners, they’re art environment innovators.

Janet and Carol are Master Gardeners and members of Dodgeville and Mineral Point garden clubs.  Being sisters, they surmise their love for gardening started with their grandfather and came from their father as well.  “We always did it”, they both say.  Carol adds with a laugh that, “We’ve moved plants from everyplace we’ve lived – they preceded us”.  Gardening for them is not only a self-evident passion, it is relaxing and satisfying.  It’s a part of a good life.

The Master Gardener and club networks give them inspiration and support from others.  Janet says they’re always catalyzed to work at Grandview after meetings, thinking “Boy, I better get going when I get here”.   The networks also represent life-long learning, and the inspiration to think “Let’s try this”.


Gardens like these at Grandview are the result of a huge amount of work.  “We start the summer before”, says Janet.  “Conditions change from year to year.  For instance, planning includes things like looking at shady areas and picking a plant that thrives with more shade”.  Native plantings work well because they don’t require that much maintenance.

February is time to get serious about seeds and in April the outdoor work begins in earnest with clean-up, pulling annuals, clearing branches, cutting off dead perennials and many other labor intensive activities.

When considering how to embellish a specific sculpture, Carol and Janet select flowers consistent with the piece, like Alliums for the Monkey Tree because they are whimsical like the art.  The prairie drop seed makes the lion look like he is in natural habitat.  Grow low sumac for the deer looks like low forest area habitat.  The Viking sails in a sea of blue festive grass.

Historical photos and the recollections of neighbors are also important. Grandview neighbor Mona Scott remembers that Katherine had a penchant for petunias.  “When the Kohler Foundation decided to restore Grandview,” she recollects, “numerous volunteers worked tirelessly toward the goal of replicating Katherine’s gardens for the Grand Opening in 1997.  We were in awe of what she had accomplished by herself when we, as a group, had difficulty completing the job.  We certainly developed a great deal of admiration for what Katharine had completed.”

Similarly, scores of people have since developed a great deal of admiration for what Janet and Carol do.  Planning alone is a huge task, then planting and nurturing.  Weeds consume a great deal of time, with Creeping Charlie and his friend Bellflower always lurking nearby.  The women hustle donations of money and plants, knowing when the best days are to get a donation or two from a local greenhouse.   The garden clubs also contribute.

“The gardens offer something more for the people who come to Grandview,” mentions Carol.  “Some visitors like the statues and some like the flowers.  They ask us questions.”  I know this first hand because on many occasions I have been there to talk about history, art, education or community development and invariably someone moves the conversation to the flowers.   “The gardens show the community cares,” adds Janet.  “They make it something special.”  True story.

Janet tends to the Monkey Tree

There is something larger here.  It is not lost on me that Carol and Janet are artists, as was Nick Engelbert.  They not only are specialists in horticulture, they have a passion for the planning.  They chase the question “why” as well as pursuing “what, when and where”.  There’s always a plan before they get to the nuts and bolts, so to speak.

Their annual deliberations about plantings at Grandview reveal a depth of values, historic and contemporary, but always based on the stories behind the art they seek to complement.  I think Nick and Katherine Engelbert would be amazed at how gorgeous their place looks in 2010, and the storyteller in Nick would find joy in hearing Carol and Janet talk about his sculpture as they do.

I remember my peripheral involvement years ago with some of Madison’s community gardens.  The obvious benefit was producing fresh veggies, but it was suggested to me that a great deal of community development was occurring.  People of widely varying backgrounds and ethnicities were all working their individual plots in the same garden and sometimes a succession of community building would begin with people simply bumping into each other as they worked.  Then they’d talk.  Then perhaps share gardening tips and some of their produce when the time came.  Before long, folks who were strangers before the season started were inviting each other’s families to dinner and coalescing around family and community.  Kinda makes veggie growing look secondary.

Still pretty in the fall

Carol and Janet make me think of that because they understand how these gardens at a small, isolated historic site can serve to nurture community.  Their vision includes the thought that “more local people appreciate what they have and become more involved” as well as the hope that more folks would “learn to appreciate different lifestyles and values”.  The educators in them would like to maintain a sense of history and appreciation for what has gone before.  These are cornerstones of developing strong places –urban or rural.

My kids would say “They get it”.  I’m simply content with the thought that, even at 60, I can still learn something.

So no wizards have been at work here, but plenty of magic has been unleashed over the decades by a succession of artists of the earth creating sculpture and garden alike.

Grandview wouldn’t be Grandview without the gardens.  It is unique.  And maybe the greater community wouldn’t be what it is without these artists of the land.  That is common to us all.

What’s your story?

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)

One Response to Artists of the land

  1. robert Miller says:

    Katherine Englebert was my great aunt. My grandfather Andrew Tannler was the first of the Thoni/Tannler clan to emigrate. I was born and raised in Chicago where Grampa Tannler settled, but I spent several summers in at various family farms. I remember Uncle Nick and the wonerland he created and the paintings he did.

    Bob Miller

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