Rocks rocks rocks…The Molehill in Sauk Rapids and the Itasca Rock Garden in Albert Lea, MN

The Molehill, The Towers and Gardens of Antiquities and Louie’s Rock Garden

Louis C. Wippich 1896-1973
Built 1949-1973
Private property, artist deceased
Sauk Rapids, MN
It was storming like crazy when I headed out to find the Molehill.  Luckily, the weather broke for about 20 minutes as I ran around the perimeter shooting photos. (No one was home, and I am hesitant to trespass)
Folk art environment, “The Molehill” has been called a “folk folly” but it is much more than that.  Built over 25 years by Louis Wippich, a former worker for Great Northern Railroad (connecting Seattle to St. Paul) .  Perhaps he was under the influence of the rugged landscapes in the West and Southwest…but whatever drove him, his creation is truly inspirational.
Wippich  was a Theosophist, writing books on his interpretations of the principles, which believes in the infinite possibilities inherent in mankind, the ability of each soul to become divine directly, without interference of gods or hierarchies.  Perhaps the gardens were a manifestation of these beliefs?
The home environment with towers and temples, pools, bridges and grottos, were all built with scrap granite from nearby quarries. The largest structure, a 45 foot tower, has been described as “remarkably close to several designs by Bruce Goff. (Guide to the Architecture of Minnesota, by David Gebhard, and Tom Martinson.)
This amazing backyard environment looked like it may have started with a large lily pond and garden, but the Wippich started to take his creation in a different direction.  He started to pile large field stones into “mountains” over a part of the pond and adding huge granite posts or towers, defying all sense of common sense.  Mostly he worked alone, sometimes hiring the local kids to help move some of the bigger stones.  
(much thanks to the Minnesota Museum of the Mississippi‘s website for making me sound smart. Here is a great map that I “borrow” 🙂
Molehill Map

  1. Seven Steps to Hell
  2. Mountain
  3. Small Granite Tower
  4. Meditation Room
  5. Sunken Garden
  6. Greek Temple
  7. Temple Lawn
  8. Columns, Mountain
  9. Cantilevers
  10. The Pulpit
  11. Lily Pond
  12. Former Site of Wippich House
  13. Underground Chambers
  14. Large Granite Tower
  15. Flower Garden

Itasca Rock Garden (aka Christiansen Rock Garden)
Albert Lea, MN
Rock garden environment
Visisble from the street, private property
So the rain ran me out of the middle of the state, and headed on to Iowa. Suddenly remembered a website that had mentioned a rock garden in Albert Lea, so decided to look around.  (You can “swing a dead cat” and find a rock garden in the upper midwest – so this was going to be a long shot at the gas station, when I stopped to see if any one knew about the place.)  The really great thing about the midwest, is that people seem to go out of their way to help.  It is as if you have presented a problem that they must solve.  Next thing you know 4 different people at the Kwik Trip were helping out.  
Got a little lost (vague instructions pieced together does that sometimes) so stopped and asked a guy gardening in his yard.  His directions got me there, although I can’t tell you how to get there, now.

Albert Lea, Minnesota

This elaborate rock garden, sometimes known as the Itasca Rock Garden after the township of Itasca where it is located, was started by John Christensen in 1925. At the one end of the garden, the battlements of a castle-like structure dated 1927 is built into an artificial hill and conceals a tool shed. Below this tower, to the north, he constructed several pools circled by paths and bridges. Christensen and his wife often collected rocks while travelling, bringing back geodes and unique specimens to add to the walls of the garden.

On the higher ground at the opposite end of the pools he added a miniature hotel-like castle of rock and concrete to overlook the picturesqe scene.

The postcard above calls this rock garden a “grotto” but there doesn’t seem to be any religious overtone to the garden, as the term generally suggests in the Midwest. It is an extensive garden, with lily ponds, numerous bridges, arches, rock walls and miniatures. The last constructions in the garden were built in 1938, and Christensen passed away in 1939. Fortunately, the rock garden was maintained and kept open to the public by his widow and the following owners of the property. The postcard of the miniature castle above was printed in 1952, after the property was sold, showing the garden was still thriving as a tourist attraction.

The Christensen Rock Garden is located 2 miles northwest of Albert Lea, MN. The garden is privately owned and now closed to the public, but it still exists, a hidden treasure in the small city of Albert Lea.