Over many years of our marriage, my wife and I have periodically traveled down to the Arcola / Arthur area in Central Illinois. This area is notable due to its population of old-order Amish, who operate a interesting combination of craft, food and furniture operations. Although this area of Illinois can tend to be somewhat bland from a landscape photographer’s perspective, it still remains an interesting destination to visit, if only to remind us that simple living is indeed possible and that a home-style meal at Yoder’s can leave you pleasantly stuffed and still leave you with plenty of cash in your wallet to do other things.
One of the local attractions we had visited in that area while our boys were still young, was a park called Rockome Gardens. It was an assortment of tourist attractions, such as Amish carriage rides, a petting zoo, and various kid entertainment areas, all having a definite homespun, country-art flavor to them. Rockome Gardens had been a facet of the Arthur / Arcola area since 1958, but the rock garden areas in the boundaries of the park, which gave the place its name, predated the property’s function as an amusement park.
As the story goes, in 1939 a local businessman decided to create a unique garden around his home. Using workers from the area and tons of local rock, they hand-formed the materials into an unusual assortment of walls, porticos, arches, ponds and unusual statuary around the property.
When it was sold in 1958, the purchaser of the property added a few exhibits that demonstrated vintage farm and Amish life and opened it to the public as “Rockome Gardens”, an Amish theme park. It continued to operate in that capacity until it started seeing a decline in attendance in the early 2000’s. In 2005 the park was shuttered and although various attempts were made to resuscitate for alternative uses, it finally shut down for good and sat gradually decaying since.
The Rockome lands recently sold to a developer who intends to convert the 200 acres into a wildlife park. In preparation for that transformation, the contents of the park buildings were put up for auction. My wife and I decided to visit to watch the proceedings. It was an interesting opportunity to witness the passing of a landmark and watch as the community came together to capture a remnant of a well known institution. As we walked the grounds, we were able to listen discretely to conversations between locals, recalling past visits to the place or what their own involvement with the business had been, all the while the voice of the auctioneer called out in an effort to bid up the price on the latest piece being presented to the crowd. It was a unique way to savor a crisp central Illinois fall day and experience yet another reminder that we live in an impermanent world.