On my latest visit to Indiana, a friend gave me an interesting document–an old booklet for Rockome Gardens, a long-running tourist destination featuring rock gardens, intricate stonework and other attractions, located in the Arthur, Illinois Amish settlement (2023 update – unfortunately, Rockome Gardens closed several years ago – but I still hope you’ll enjoy this look back in time!).
The booklet is entitled “Your Visit With the Amish in the Arthur and Arcola Area”. I’m not really a collector, but old-time tourist memorabilia tends to catch my eye, and this publication did not disappoint.
The first 15 pages cover the history and culture of the Amish, along with a number of fascinating black-and-white photos of the Arthur community. The final 8 pages are on the Rockome attraction.
Though there is no date of publication in the booklet, one source I located put it at 1958, which was around the time Elvan Yoder acquired the property. Other clues suggest that it may have been printed around that time or soon thereafter. In one section Yoder writes that “[we] plan to operate it along the same lines as did the Martins [the original owners]”, suggesting that their acquisition of the property was recent at the time of publication.
Rockome Gardens has an interesting history, detailed on its website and in a number of other places. Rockome was founded by Arthur and Elizabeth Martin on a sizeable property in Douglas County:
The Martins started off with a dream to have the largest flower garden in Douglas County. They purchased this 208 acre farm, five miles west of Arcola, and decided to devote 7 acres of the farm to flower gardens, rock formations and their summer cottage. Work toward development of the gardens has been going on since 1937. Arthur Martin was the owner of Progress Industries in Arthur, IL., and work was slow due to the war and the depression. Instead of letting his workers become unemployed, Martin sent them out to construct rock formations and fences on his property. The first gardens to be constructed were the sunken gardens.
More gardens were added, the project expanded and grew to a large scale, to the point that visitors came from all over to view the property. The Martins eventually donated the property, in 1952 to the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities of Elkhart, Indiana, who turned it into a retirement facility for missionaries. The group later sold the property to Elvan and Irene Yoder, who transformed it into a tourist attraction. The name is a melding of “Rock Home”.
Rockome has since passed through a series of owners, last changing hands in 2011. According to the website, the current owners, previously frequent visitors to the site, “noticed that Rockome was in need of major repairs and renovations” and “are intent upon bringing warmth and beauty back to Rockome”. In 2010, the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center moved to Rockome.
You can read more on the Rockome website.
Your Visit With the…AMISH
Rockome is an attraction in and of itself, but no doubt benefits from its close proximity to the large Arthur Amish community, which the creator of this booklet certainly recognized.
This publication gives us an interesting look at how the Amish were presented to a tourist audience decades ago. Elvan Yoder was raised Amish and no doubt drew on his personal knowledge to create the booklet. Intended as it was for a tourist readership, some information seems a little off, particularly in the discussion of Amish history, which gets some names wrong.
However, there are also valuable bits of info shedding light on Amish life in Arthur at the time. I also enjoyed the writing style in a number of places:
- “An Amish wedding is something of an endurance contest. Festivities begin shortly after 8 a.m. and continue all day and late into the night.”
- “At one time, before the land shortage, the Amish did not sanction members working in business establishments or otherwise deserting the farm. Now a large canning factory is owned and operated by Amish people near Arthur…Others do watch and clock repairing, one makes harness and others have blacksmith shops…Several work as contractors and craftsmen in the building trades where they are considered good workmen.”
- “Perhaps this system is, as some maintain, a “ridiculous, old-fashioned hangover from the Middle Ages.” But in general, it works and gives these people a better than average financial return and a good measure of personal happiness.”
I tried to imagine what it would have been like learning about the Amish people, possibly for the first time, from this publication fifty years ago. It would have been a time of relatively little available info on the Amish, certainly not like today, with books, television, blogs and so on.
While it’s no Amish Society or Riddle of Amish Culture, you would probably come away from reading this with a decent idea of who the Amish are. It touches on a broad range of topics, including Amish church, education, food, and mutual aid, and seems fairly well done given the time and its intended audience.
Here are a few of the photos found inside. I don’t have specific dates for any of these photos.
This first shot is actually of the back cover. “Located near the only Amish community in Illinois.” The Arthur community was founded in the 1860s. The second-oldest Illinois settlement has only been around 20-some years. A number of churches which started out Amish in Illinois are not part of the Old Order circle today.
“Two Amish men enjoy a visit on the streets in Arthur.” Hey now, no posing.
“An Amish family strolls along the business section of Arthur on a shopping trip into town.” Mom looks most ready to be home already. Little man looks amused by something.
“A scene along State Route 133 where the state maintains a road for “Old Dobbin” as well as for the modern automobile.” Route 133 is the main artery dividing this settlement. It takes you right through Arthur and on to Arcola. It appears this “Dobbin lane” was dirt or some natural surface at the time.
“A view of the Amish hitch racks in Arthur.” This photo just feels especially old to me. Maybe it’s because no cars can be seen.
“A group of Amish boys pose following a baseball game, their favorite sport at school.” Looks like a lot of other team photos I’ve seen. There is another photo in the booklet of the girls watching the game.
“Amish students on the porch of a rural school.”
“A few of the Amish work off of the farm as this man at Rockome Gardens.”
Not all of the original rock creations survive. The property’s rock homes were torn down a few years ago due to deterioration. Rockome has also added a number of other attractions, such as a cheese factory, buggy rides, and a horse-powered buzz saw.
The booklet closes with a map to help would-be visitors find Rockome and the Arthur community. “MORE THAN 20 years of work have gone into the dramatic presentations of the Rockome, one of the most unusual attractions of rock work in the United States. Started as a hobby, it is now enjoyed by thousands of visitors annually.”
I hope you enjoyed that look back in time at Arthur and Rockome. Switching gears, quite a few serious, even deadly accidents involving Amish have been happening recently, including in Flat Rock, Illinois; Pontotoc, Mississippi; Daviess County, Indiana; and Pawnee City, Nebraska.
One reporter wrote a piece on the Pawnee City community, which experienced the loss of a young man in a buggy accident last Sunday. The article is a nice look at a growing settlement, albeit one inspired by sad circumstances.
A number of these accidents have occurred in small communities just a church district or two in size. The Amish population has been historically sparse in Nebraska, but this was apparently the first buggy accident in the state this century. Ohio, by contrast, averages over 120 buggy accidents each year.
Inside Gordonville Bookstore
Finally, you might recall me mentioning Gordonville Bookstore on a number of occasions. It is one of the best-known Amish bookstores, in part for its location in the heart of Lancaster County. This is usually one of the last few stops I make on my way home from PA.
If you’ve never been inside the store, a reader who recently visited shares a photo which I thought you might enjoy seeing. This is the inside of Gordonville Bookstore, facing the check-out counter and register. I pick up publications like The Diary or the occasional Ladies Journal (research purposes, folks) from a rack on the right-hand side, just out of view in this shot.