Unusual garden: Once upon a thyme

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2010 - 10:37 AM

A 90-year-old storybook garden that was once an Up North tourist mecca gets revamped.

Minnesota might be the land of 10,000 lake places, but the shore-side gardens that bachelor brothers Arnold and Hugo Vogt sculpted out of stone 90 years ago remain a testament to, well, quirkiness and resiliency. ¶ Nostalgia and begonia lovers are expected to ooh and aah this Saturday -- and Saturday only -- along Tame Fish Lake about 120 miles north of the Twin Cities between Aitkin and Garrison. ¶ The nearly two-acre spread along 343 feet of lakeshore is called Ak-Sar-Ben Gardens. That's Nebraska spelled backward. Arnold and Hugo sold real estate in Omaha before World War II, but spent summers tinkering around their cabin in overalls on what was then known as Long Lake. Hugo's penchant for training bass from minnow-hood to eat from his hand would become such an attraction that the lake was formally rechristened Tame Fish in 1942. ¶ Arnold, the younger of the two, was the green thumb of the operation. A respected Duluth flower show judge, Arnold was known for his own brilliant iris, tulips, jonquils and more than 500 dahlias, including his flaming red Son of Satan specimens with orange-salmon centers. ¶ Hugo left his younger brother to the flowers. When he wasn't taming his favorite pair of bass, Amos and Andy, Hugo was busy working with rocks and pebbles. Eventually, word began to spread.

Starting in 1918, people began to swing by to see Arnold's new roses. Or the wishing well. Or the storybook castle and drawbridge that Hugo created from stones, marble, quartz and chunks of iron ore. The registration book, stationed in one of Hugo's stone-covered masterpieces, soon included the names of celebrities of the era, including humorist Will Rogers, silent movie star Norma Talmadge and Gov. Harold Stassen and his wife, Esther.

By 1939, the Vogts were charging a dime a visit, replacing wooden sidewalks with marble and counting a staggering 40,000 visitors a summer. The boastful bachelor brothers even hung a stone sign that proclaimed the place an "Eveless paradise."

Thyme marches on

Today, Hugo's castle is layered with creeping thyme, which just flowered a vibrant purple. Time, indeed, has crept on. Hugo died in the early 1940s and Arnold gave up his "eveless" bastion, marrying in 1944. After Arnold's death a dozen years later, his widow carried on the best she could.

A truck driver named Rudy Seliga and his wife from Minneapolis took over the neglected weedy gardens from her in 1959, raising their four kids and charging 75 cents a visit. A petting zoo, picnic area and drive-in restaurant operated next door, serving burgers, shrimp baskets, fries and malts as annual attendance climbed to 60,000 in the 1960s.

In 1969, Minneapolis Tribune "Your Weekend" writer Ben Kern stopped by, reluctantly: "For years I have been instinctively ignoring Ak-Sar-Ben signs on the theory that any Minnesota tourist attraction called 'Ak-sar-ben,' which is Nebraska spelled backwards, had to be a loser," he wrote. "Now I have visited Ak-Sar-Ben, paid my 75 cents, and report that it is well worth it -- no big news flash, perhaps, but a tip for flower admirers."

By the late 1970s, the place again had gone to seed as renters neglected the treasures, tossing beer cans in the moat that surrounds Hugo's castle. The tamed bass had gone belly up decades before.

Enter RoxAnne and Richard Bouley, the current keepers of the castle -- not to mention the fountains, altar, arches, benches, nymphs, wishing well and butterfly-shaped planting bed carefully constructed from piles of Hugo's pebbles. The Bouleys took over the overgrown oasis in 1982, clearing weeds and repairing what they could.

They rebuilt the Vogt cabin, raising it up and putting on an addition, but gently preserving the rock chimney complete with a stone birdhouse on top -- vintage Hugo.

"It's just a unique piece of property and it's neat to own little bits of other people's history," said Richard, 63, who drives a tow truck and runs an auto repair business nearby.

Because people were constantly stopping buy to reminisce about childhood visits, the Bouleys decided to open it up for one day last July. More than 400 people descended.

"Pretty much every one of them had a story about coming by with their parents or grandparents," said RoxAnne, who sells ads at the Aitkin Independent Age weekly newspaper.

Among their favorite stories was one they heard from lawyer Diana Longrie, the former mayor of Maplewood who grew up in Grand Rapids, Minn. She has a photo of herself at age 6 by the castle with her kid brother, snapped on a mid-'60s trip with their late grandmother, LuLu Longrie. Diana never knew where the snapshot was taken, but told friends that "one day, I'll find my castle."

When a friend saw a story about Ak-Sar-Ben in the Brainerd newspaper in 2002, the mystery was solved and Longrie made a beeline up to Tame Fish Lake to relive a forgotten moment.

"We hear stories like that all the time," Richard said. "We had a bunch of concrete workers stop by the other day and they say they put up chimneys that start crumbling 30 years later. They couldn't believe how well these old rock structures have held up since the '20s."

The Bouleys have planted enough impatiens, geraniums and wave petunias to make Arnold Vogt proud. Deer have been relentless, but RoxAnne noticed that the intruders weren't eating the begonias, just pulling them out. So the gardens are now awash in scarlet begonias.

They rent out the place for a couple of weddings each summer and entertain bus tours by reservation only. They've been busy mowing and weeding for Saturday's open house, which runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It's free, but donations are accepted to help defer garden costs.

Richard plans to add some water elements of his own. And the couple, married for 34 years, clash at times about annuals vs. perennials.

"I love the colors of the annuals," Richard said. "But RoxAnne does all the work and prefers the perennials. Being on the lake makes it that much nicer. But we don't have as much time as we'd like to enjoy the lake. We're in the yard all the time."

For that, they can thank a couple of bachelor brothers from Nebraska who knew more than how to spell things backward.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

  • related content

  • A favorite spot at Ak-Sar-Ben is the rock castle with rock bridge and moat.

  • Brothers Arnold and Hugo Vogt pooled their talents to build the gardens.

  • Richard and RoxAnne Bouley, current owners of Ak-Sar-Ben gardens

  • An old family photo shows Diana Longrie and her brother Jeffrey at the gardens.

  • AK-SAR-BEN GARDENS

    This 90-year-old treasure of stone and flowers is open to the public only one day each summer near Aitkin, Minn.

    When: July 24. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

    Cost: Free, but donations accepted.

    What you'll see: Five water features, including a castle and moat, a butterfly-shaped stone begonia bed, wishing well made of iron ore and a swinging rock flower basket tucked along the shore of Tame Fish Lake.

    Directions: It's 120 miles north of the Twin Cities. To get to 27527 Tame Fish Lake Road, go north on Hwy. 169 north of Garrison, turn left on Aitkin County Road 11 in Bennettville, head west on Tame Fish Lake Road about 4 miles and it's on the left. Or, it's 3 miles east of Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge.

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