REDMOND, Ore. — There are hidden treasures across the high desert that take a bit of patience to discover, like the treasures that rise above juniper and sage along a lonesome lane between Redmond and Bend.
You know you’ve arrived at Petersen Rock Garden when the sight of the welcoming flock – some 40-odd peafowl – catches your eye.
And then something more – something bigger, more colorful and full of imagination comes into view.
Rasmus Petersen, a Danish immigrant, came to Deschutes County to be a farmer in 1906, but Susan Caward said her grandfather immediately developed an appreciation for the area’s geologic history.
“Mom always said that Rasmus never picked up a rock that he had to put down,” said the proud grand-daughter and owner of the seven-acre Rock Garden. ”He always knew where he was going to put it when he picked it up, and I always asked Mom: ‘How was he at jigsaw puzzles? She’d say, ‘I wouldn’t know – he never had any time!”
Rasmus Petersen farmed nearly 300 acres for many years but then discovered what would become a life-long love affair or was it obsession - with the beauty of desert rocks. He collected tons of them including petrified wood, thunder eggs, agate, jasper, lava, sandstone and obsidian - all located within a 90-mile radius of his farm.
Caward added that Rasmus always wanted to make his yard a “pretty place” that people would stop and admire. “He loved his new home in America and wanted to express that love in ways that would make people take notice.”
She said that her grandfather had no formal art training and he never wrote down his ideas nor did he talk much about his motivations. “I don’t think he ever thought it would become as popular as it did.”
Not content to simply collect, sit back and admire his rocks, Rasmus Petersen created “rockeries;” monumental structures and displays out of the varied rocks that he collected.
His ornate structures included castles, churches, bridges, fountains and more – in appreciation for his new country - he built replicas of Independence Hall, the US Capitol Building and the Statue of Liberty.
He built a dozen large set pieces between 1935 and 1952. All by hand!
In the 1950’s, the Petersen Rock Garden became was one of the best-known roadside attractions in Oregon and drew approximately 150,000 visitors a year.
It was an amazing feat made more impressive by the fact that Rasmus never advertised. The popularity of the garden spread by word of mouth.
Susan said that even today, folks will stop in and reminisce about their grandfathers or great-grandfathers who would boast of stopping by to “lend a hand” with Rasmus’ latest hand-built creation.
In the 1940s, Petersen built a museum to show off some of the more impressive rock specimens that he accumulated from across Oregon and beyond – including a 300-pound quartz crystal that he bought in Arkansas. It’s a real show stopper inside the quaint museum.
“In our museum, visitors can see rocks from all over the world,” noted Caward. “My favorite spot is probably the fireplace because it has so many varieties of Oregon rocks and it’s terrific fun to try and identify the names of each rock specimen."
On October 30, 2013, Petersen’s Rock Garden was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its uniqueness and local significance.
While the grass is taller, the weeds more abundant and the shine is not quite the same nearly nine decades later, people still come to visit an important Oregon legacy that is worth your time for exploring. It’s a connection to Oregon through one man's strange hobby and his love of country that’s as compelling today as it was so long ago.
Directions: Midway between Bend and Redmond. From US 97 turn north on SW 61st St., then left on Young Ave. Cross Canal Blvd and then quickly turn right on SW 77th St. The Garden is less than a mile on the right. Address: 7790 SW 77th St, Redmond
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