Open for the 2012 season, Rockome Gardens is an iconic place that brings back childhood memories for many. Today, under the management of the Rockome Gardens Preservation Inc., the popular tourist venue at Arcola was purchased in January by Steve Maher and his wife, Bev.
Coming to the gardens for the past 35 years before purchasing the property, they were not happy with the decline they saw, Steve said. “My wife (Bev) and I thought we should do something. We bought the property and we are trying to get Rockome back as close as we can to its early existence,” he said.
Go for the gardens
“The land that is now known as Rockome Gardens was once used just for farming,” according to the Rockome website, www.rockome.com, The founders of Rockome Gardens were Arthur and Elizabeth Martin. 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 seven 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, 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.
When the Martins moved on to other pursuits in 1952 they gave Rockome to the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities of Elkhart, Ind., who used it as a retirement village for a few years. In 1959 they sold it to Elvan and Irene Yoder. It was the Yoders who realized the potential of the land and opened the gardens to the public. Steve explained that when the property was purchased by Alvin Yoder he built the other structures. After being purchased by other investors, the gardens fell into disrepair, but today, visitors can enjoy the creative rock sculptures, and seven gardens (the Sunken Garden, the Formal Garden, The Herb Garden, the Spanish Garden, the Fern Garden, the Hill and the Victory Garden).
The gardens are filled with 36,000 floral plants. Located in the heart of the largest Old Amish Community in Illinois, Steve asked, “Where else can you go to see rock structures of native rocks off the original farm that were built during the Depression?”
“This is not a Six Flags,” he added, “but I don’t want it to be. I want to show the farming history of our forefathers. Kids should know about it. It is an education.”
Go for the fun
Rockome’s calendar is chock full of upcoming events that vary from plow days to car shows to bluegrass music. While the buildings have changed, there are lots of activities and shops to see. The Amish Museum focuses on the Amish religion and lifestyle. There is the blacksmith shop, buggy rides (for a nominal fee), the gift shop and shopping at the Trading Post. Owner Tinker Taylor may even be working on her triangle loom and provide you with a demonstration.
Go for the food
Rockome Restaurant offers old-fashioned food with a buffet that has something for everyone. The fried chicken is to die for and the chicken and noodles are like my husband’s grandmother used to make. The Dutch Kitchen in Arthur is another amazing restaurant. In fact, anywhere within the Amish area the food is fantastic.
Amish baked goods, bread, cheese, meats and other treats also attract visitors to the area. These can be purchased at Rockome, Arthur and Arcola stores. There are several bakeries and butcher shops also sprinkled throughout the Amish countryside as well.
Go for the shopping
Near Rockome is Arthur. In this area more than 1,000 Amish families live in the countryside. “Arthur’s surrounding Amish settlement was established in 1865 by a handful of families, and has grown to over 4,500 members,” according to the website www.illinoisamishcountry.com. “The Amish farm the rich land of the Arthur area with teams of six to eight horses, and operate numerous ‘country shops.’ The horse-drawn black Amish buggies are a common sight around Arthur and Amish country.”
Besides Arthur there is Arcola, where a visitor’s first stop should be the Tourist Information Center. Located in the historic Illinois Central train depot built in 1885, the museum offers railroad memorabilia, a Raggedy Ann doll collection and antique brooms and brushes. Arcola also sports the World’s One and Only Hippie Memorial.
Want to know more? Check out the website at Rockome Gardens www.rockome.com or call 217-268-4106 for more information about Rockome Gardens.
Cindy Ladage of Virden is an author of novels and children’s books.