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Petersen’s Rock Garden

The lasting legacy of one man’s rock revolution

If you’ve lived in Central Oregon long, you’ve probably seen the giant green signs between Bend and Redmond directing you towards a place called “Petersen Rock Garden.” The roadside attraction of eclectic novelty architecture has been attracting visitors for close to eighty years. Today, this fanciful, imaginative labor of one man’s love continues to attract visitors and rock enthusiasts, alike.

Born in Denmark in 1883, Rasmus Petersen travelled to America in 1901 and settled in Central Oregon in 1906 at the age of 23. Previously a resident of Junction City, Oregon, which had a large Danish community in the early 1900s, Petersen moved to the high desert after the death of his two brothers (both were killed in logging accidents), in hopes of establishing himself as a farmer. Motivated by the Carey Act, which permitted settlers to acquire 160 acres of arid land for homesteading if they agreed to use 20 of those acres for irrigation, Petersen arrived in Redmond with four friends and two teams of horses in the middle of winter. After several years, Petersen and his friends had successfully cleared 80 acres of land and began farming wheat, oats, potatoes and alfalfa.

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But one exasperating harvest that Petersen had not anticipated was the abundance of rocks that laid claim to his fields. Thousands of rocks littered his property, jutting out everywhere in every conceivable size, shape and color—a farmer’s worst nightmare. “He was not a fan of rocks at first, which surprises most people,” says Pattie Harris, CEO of the garden and long-time family friend. “He was a farmer, so why would you want rocks on your land?” Petersen began the arduous task of clearing his acreage and, while at first infuriated by the crop of rocks that proliferated on his property, Petersen soon became enamored with the unique stones that upped his workload, and began to stockpile them on 12 acres he reserved solely for his growing collection of native minerals.

Accustomed to working fourteen-hour days as a farmer, Petersen didn’t like having idle hands, so in the wintertime, after his crops had been harvested, he worked in his “rock garden,” building miniature houses out of the rocks and minerals he found on his homestead. “He came up with this in his own mind and never really told anybody,” says Petersen’s granddaughter Susan Caward, who is the current owner of the property. “He just started doing it. He loved what he did; it was his way of unwinding. He told my mom once that it was a lot easier doing this work than it was to farm.” When Petersen retired in 1935 at the age of 52, he began to pursue his newfound passion in earnest, constructing castles, churches, bridges, fountains, monuments and models of historic buildings out of the obsidian, agate, jasper, lava, opal, sandstone and volcanic cinders that he had amassed over the years.

It was in the last 17 years of his life that Petersen’s vision came to fruition. He enhanced his structures with lily ponds and lagoons, built a rock museum and gift shop showcasing his favorite specimens, and opened a café on the property that served guests until closing its doors in 1978.

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Another constant on the Petersen premises are the peacocks that roam about with a proud strut and a mournful call. Petersen’s passion for peacocks was a result of homesickness. In the small town he grew up in in Denmark, peafowl farms were common. Wanting a reminder of home in the country he had immigrated to, Petersen kept a collection of these elaborate and iridescent birds, whose progeny continue to roam about the gardens to this day, displaying their beautiful plumage to onlookers.

At its height, the garden was one of the best-known attractions in the state and drew approximately 150,000 visitors a year. Petersen proceeded to work on his remarkable tourist attraction until his death in 1952, after which the property remained in his family’s care. In 2011 the garden was named one of the state’s most endangered historic places, and in 2013 the attraction took a much-needed break in order to address critical areas for preservation, restoration, repairs and improvements. After years of neglect, vandalism and deterioration due to climate, the garden closed to the public for five months while Caward and a team of volunteers cleaned up the property and made repairs to Petersen’s intricate architecture. Petersen’s Rock Garden reopened its doors in May 2013, and on October 30, 2013 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its uniqueness and local significance. “We’re doing good and we’re moving forward,” says Harris. “We want to save this home for future generations. To know that there’s a new generation that’s going to be able to see everything that Rasmus did is very humbling.”

Caward says that in the past year and a half they’ve seen attendance go up considerably, and their plans for the future include reopening the café, rewiring the lights that Petersen installed in some of his monuments, getting the road signs redone and maintaining the garden as Petersen built it. “We want people to come here and just relax and go back to a simpler time,” says Harris.

Rasmus Petersen left an indelible mark on the high desert landscape and in the hearts of many. So the next time you see those signs heralding Petersen’s rock utopia, follow them! You won’t be disappointed.

Petersen’s  Rock Garden is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with a requested donation of $5 per person.

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