Monday, December 22, 2014


Read Parts One and Two at the following links:

Impressive though it was to spend time with Jim Bowsher inside his extraordinary home full of stories on Wood Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio, the really astonishing sight was still awaiting me on the other side of his unobtrusive back door. He led me through an old-fashioned kitchen—whose walls and shelves, like those of the rest of the house, were festooned with memorabilia, rather like proverbial strings tied around the digits of his memory so as to remind him of the stories that they symbolized and to hold them in their grasp—out through a classic back door (wooden with a windowpane in the upper half), and down some steps into the backyard.
Astounding and surreal...
From that point on, however, it was like in my most vivid and moving dreams in which doors that look commonplace so often lead to totally unexpected venues, whose impact is astounding and surreal. For such a sight as greeted me on stepping into that magical place, I might rather have expected a great gate, an imposing portal, huge bronze doors with ornate reliefs, or something, at least, other than a common, early twentieth-century kitchen door to give me a first clue as to the nature of the phenomenon that lay beyond it. But that only rendered it more surprising still, more like jumping down a rabbit hole only to find yourself in a whole new world that you had never imagined existed. 

Some people call it simply The Rock Garden. I would call it something more like “the Wapakoneta Stonehenge”, at the center of which stands the imposing Temple of Tolerance. The best description I’ve heard was provided by my high school friend Jane Siferd Maley, who said that, on seeing it for the first time, “I felt as if the earth was hard put to hold up those mighty rocks.”
Entrance to the temple proper

Without seeing it, this garden filled with natural stone “sculptures” (for lack of a better term) is hard to describe and harder still to imagine, unique as it is. Jim told me a story about a pilot who showed up at his door one day after clocking the coordinates of Jim’s house so that he could come and find out first-hand what it was that he had seen from the air. The guy had been so surprised the first time he’d flown over The Rock Garden and Temple of Tolerance that he decided to do a three-sixty and overfly it again. That’s how big and impressive a sight it is, even from thousands of feet up.

Jim explains that the millstones behind him are "the smoking gun"
regarding the usurping of Shawnee land by white settlers. 
(Photo by Mary Yo Knoch)
As for me, I tried, almost immediately, to imagine some archeologist centuries from now coming across this baffling find and speculating about what sort of culture might have erected it, and what its purpose might have been. That is, of course, assuming that, after Jim passes on, future generations of Wapakoneta and/or Ohio officials are wise enough to preserve it for posterity and that the town’s citizens will be savvy and tenacious enough to make them do so.

Whatever the case may be, it is unlikely—unless Wapakoneta historians are as meticulous about preserving Jim’s story and passing it on as he has been about preserving and recounting those of the generations before his—that far into the future anyone will immediately surmise that The Rock Garden and its centerpiece Temple of Tolerance are the brainchild and work of a single human being. They will likely jump to the conclusion that it is the product of a cult, because it would be ludicrous to think that a single man could have the strength, will and persistence to build something so intricate yet massive, so universal yet focused, so free-minded yet obsessive.
Standing atop the temple and in typically histrionic style, Jim 
explains the tremendous forces of nature that created a particularly
unique rock.

But if that ends up being their presumption, then it will only be because they’ve never met Jim Bowsher personally. Because meeting Jim, spending time with him, holding a conversation with him, is a little like standing on the verge of an enormously powerful whirlpool. You get as close as you can, teeter on the brink, so to speak, because his massive swirling energy is so magnetic that you want to peer over the edge into the vortex, but, caution! His force field is so potent that, if you don’t keep a firm footing, it can draw the energy of everything around it into its core, rather like some extraterrestrial phenomenon that unintentionally blacks out entire cities, just because it doesn’t know its own strength. And that’s precisely the kind of unique vigor, stamina and purpose required to create something like The Temple of Tolerance and its attendant Rock Garden.  
The imposing profile of Jim Bowsher's visiom, the Temple of Tolerance. 
(Photo by Michael Boruff)
Jim tells me that everything I see, there beyond his unassuming back door, was “a vision”. He saw it all before he built it—with the scant mechanical help of a World War II vintage dump truck and a tractor with a backhoe—and having seen it, felt compelled to make his vision materialize. Most of the “heavy construction” has been carried out with enormous stones (many weighing several tons) that form part of the story of Mother Ohio herself. These are the striped morainal boulders of Ohio’s Ice Age, stones dragged and sheared and compressed and worried by the gargantuan blocks of continental ice that carved, planed and molded the landscape from Lake Erie in the north to Hocking Hills in the south. Jim and his brother Walt and sometimes one or another of a handful of close friends traveled far and wide across the state culling the stones from farmers’ fields—and, in the process, gleaning the stories of some of the farmers themselves and of their ancestors.

Jim perched atop one of the stair columns from
our junior high school.
(Photo by Robyn Becker Scott)
But these geologically significant stones are combined with cut stones as well, pieces of carefully collected masonry with what might be called anthropological and historical meanings of their own: the stone entry columns from the Blume school building where Jim and I went to junior high and from which our parents graduated high school, the stone water fountain that used to sit on a corner downtown and where generations of kids on bikes stopped to quench their thirst, the slab that was the first step leading up to the meeting hall of the Ku Klux Klan headquarters above an erstwhile popular jewelry store on Wapakoneta’s main drag, random pieces of the old Cincinnati ball park where the Queen City’s baseball tradition was born, two huge mill wheels used by early Ohio settlers to grind the grain grown on land usurped from the Hog Creek Reservation (of which Wapakoneta formed part), ostensibly ceded to the Shawnee Nation after the Battle of Fallen Timbers, an obelisk-shaped stone post that is the only known surviving marker from that same reservation, theater-mask-like façade ornaments from some long-since demolished emblem of architectural history—pieces known to the Irish as “moon dogs” since they change expressions from jovial to sinister by the light of the full moon—a chunk of the Berlin Wall, wrought iron fences and gates and myriad other items, each with a story of its own, skillfully and artfully combined with the natural stone base-work.

"What's  this?" Jim asked, and I immediately recognized it as a counter
stool from the Teddy Bear restaurant that my father had owned and 
closed down in 1969.                                             (Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
Speaking of items with a story of their own, as Jim and I are standing at the top of the 14-foot temple with our mutual friend, photographer Mary Jo “Jodi” Knoch, Jim suddenly says, “Oh wait, I’ll be right back,” and dashes off down the steps from the altar and out of sight. But he’s back as swiftly as he left, carrying something in his arms. What he sets down before us at the top of the temple looks immediately familiar to me.
“What’s this?” he asks, to which a dubious Jodi responds, with a palpable question in her voice, “A barstool?”

I gaze at the pitted chrome foot and cracked red leather seat of the piece and say, “One of the end-counter stools from my dad’s restaurant, the Teddy Bear,” a business that my father shut down for good in 1969. 

A barrel-shaped speakeasy...
(Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
“Correct!” Jim says, and now I’m almost convinced that between his house and this garden, he must have a piece of every Wapakoneta son and daughter at his fingertips. Like the barrel-shaped wooden hut that sits just outside of Jim’s covered back patio (which is also crammed with objects whose stories he hoards more than the items themselves) and that once sat on Jodi’s Uncle Bum’s farm. In the Prohibition era it served as a kind of rural speakeasy and it still has the bullet holes in it to prove it.    
One other memorable piece is a marble slab salvaged from a demolished bank in nearby Bluffton, Ohio. The attraction to this piece was its connection with thirties gangster John Dillinger. Elsewhere in The Southern Yankee

The notorious John Dillinger
I’ve narrated, in detail and with a personal family anecdote, the story of how Dillinger’s reign of terror affected local history in our part of Ohio, mainly because of his gang’s murder of Sheriff Jesse Sarber at the Allen County jail in the city of Lima, fifteen miles north of Wapakoneta, where the gangster was being held in 1933. And Jim hasn’t forgotten it either. That particular slab was the one Dillinger hopped up onto before catapulting himself onto the tellers’ counter at the Bluffton bank and, for the first time in his brief but prolific criminal “career”, shouting, “I’m John Dillinger, and I rob banks.”

Johnny Depp in "PublicEnemies"
But this isn’t the only Dillinger story Jim knows. The best one he tells is how Dillinger, in a way, introduced him to actor Johnny Depp. It seems that when Depp was cast as Dillinger in the 2009 picture Public Enemies, part of the movie was shot on location in nearby Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Van Wert, Ohio. Someone involved in the motion picture’s production had heard of the Temple of Tolerance and decided to drive over to Wapakoneta and have a look-see. In the course of talking to Jim, the guy mentioned that he was working on the film and, typical of the ever-outspoken Jim, he told this fellow to give a message to Johnny Depp: “Tell him,” Jim said, “not to go turning that murdering gangster into some kind of folk hero.” Depp, Jim felt, should be honest in his portrayal, and show Dillinger for the hardened killer and thief that he was, not as some romanticized Robin Hood of the Depression era, which he wasn’t.
A short time later, Jim was working at his house with one of his volunteer helpers who, answering the phone, turned to Jim and said, “Hey Jim, there’s either some delusional guy on the phone who thinks he’s Johnny Depp, or it’s Johnny Depp asking to talk to you.”
Jim took the phone, said hello, and immediately got a batch off hell from Depp, who asked him who he thought he was sending critical messages to him about his interpretation of Dillinger when he had no idea who Depp was, the depth of his skills as an actor, his own thoughts as to how to play the role, etc. Jim unabashedly came back with his own thoughts on how Hollywood all too often turned scoundrels into heroes and vice versa, and, although his intention wasn’t to offend Depp, it wasn’t hard to figure that if Dillinger was to be the protagonist of a Hollywood feature film, the producers weren’t going to sink that kind of money into a film about a guy the audience would hate.
They argued on for a while and finally, agreeing to disagree, said their chilly goodbyes and hung up. A short time later, however, Jim got another call from Depp, who asked laconically, “So what the hell’s this Temple of Tolerance?” Jim invited him to visit it and find out. To his surprise, the actor showed up. When he saw The Rock Garden, he was blown away, and remained there talking to Jim, listening to his stories and asking numerous questions about this vision made reality. By the time Depp left, they had become friends.

Jim sits at the summit of his stone vision explaining the 18-year 
construction process. Just behind him, the only known surviving 
boundary marker for the Hog Creek Shawnee reservation of which 
Wapakoneta formed part.
(Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
It took Jim Bowsher eighteen years to build The Rock Garden and Temple of Tolerance, frequently to the chagrin of city building inspectors, whose basic question was, “Just what the hell are you building anyway, Jim, and why the hell don’t you have a permit?” Jim basically told them to think of it as art rather than architecture, and somebody finally decided to set a standard policy of ignoring “whatever the hell it was” that this genial madman was doing in his backyard...even when he started acquiring other backyards and erecting his stone sculptures further and further beyond his own back door. By the time he was finished, Jim owned the entire center of the block and his maze of stone monuments had expanded to cover it all.
By the time Jim was finished, he owned the entire center of the block
and his maze of stone sculpture had expanded to cover it all.

The same dichotomous line that I had earlier discovered inside Jim’s house comes into full bloom out here, and the reason for it is the same as indoors. It is a combination of the sacred and the profane, of good and evil, of right and wrong, of, in the end, tolerance and intolerance. And the idea is that the good should assuage the bad and, eventually, cleanse and purify it.  The step from the KKK hall is a good example: Jim says that when he first saw black kids and white kids sitting on it together, he knew the karma cleansing had begun.
Anybody’s welcome anytime at the Temple of Tolerance, but kids have the run of the place. There’s only one hard and fast rule—besides no dope, no bullying and no bad vibes driving wedges between folks: No profanity. In "Bowsherspeak", that doesn’t mean you can’t cuss. What it means is that no racial epithets, no party politics, no religious intolerance, indeed, no verbal intolerance of any kind will be permitted. This is a place for peace, harmony and human fraternity.
As such, it tends to be a gathering place for writers, poets, photographers and “pickin’ people” who, when the weather is good, get together and jam on Thursday evenings. And even when it’s chilly, at the top of the temple there’s a pit for a fire around which people can sit and exchange their songs and stories, like people did in the earliest of societies.  
Jim no longer considers the vast garden—with its multiple emblematic natural and cut-stone structures—to be his. It is a privately owned property that he has conjured into a public space, where people come and go at all hours of the day and night and from all over the state, the country and the world, slipping in through a side entrance without having to go through Jim’s house. It’s now more like Jim belongs to the garden than it to him, in his role as the keeper of the temple—a sort of respectful but often irreverent, non-denominational but highly spiritual monk, charged with the task of imbuing others with the philosophy of tolerance that inspired its construction. 
It's now more like Jim belongs to the garden than it to him. 
(Photo by Michael Boruff)
At one point, as I’m sitting at the summit of the temple, in the golden light of a late autumn afternoon, looking around at the painstakingly modeled piles of massive stone—each a kind of “side altar” to the Temple of Tolerance proper—I’m reminded how necessary this instructional role of Jim’s might be in understanding what all of this is for, since I recall the dry stone pirkas built by pre-Columbian Native Americans and scattered throughout South America. The Spanish Conquistadores, who had no interest whatsoever in comprehending the local culture, were only capable, in their discriminatory and narrow-minded conquerors’ vision, of seeing the pirkas as walls. Conjecturing at what they might be used for, they referred to them as “corrales de piedra” (or stone corrals). But in fact, these open-air stone enclosures were carefully constructed as places of gathering and worship, social magnets of sorts, temples, as it were, integrated into the big-sky landscape of the Andean region.

Yes, stones have a magnetism all their own, but in the hands of humans, they are also imbued with other forces and may well require interpretation, philosophy and even cleansing when arranged with purpose, intent and aforethought. So Jim remains the Temple Master of his creation for now, with the hope that, when he’s gone, others will carry on the tradition of tolerance and growing empathy that his vision has bred in this unique garden and gathering place that he has lovingly built and nurtured to be shared with the world.


Gretchen Siferd Leppla said...

I wanted to read each of the three parts of Dan's story about Jim Bowsher and The Temple of Tolerance in one sitting. Mission accomplished.........and what a treat it was!! When ever I am back in Wapakoneta I always try to visit Jim's masterpiece. Dan, you have done a tremendous job of telling this story. I too hope that our future generations find a way to preserve this "jewel of history" for all the world to see! Congrats to two men from a very small town talented and creative enough to draw attention to and shine light on peace and love for all our future generations!

Dan Newland said...

Many thanks for your kind thoughts and comments, Gretchen!

Darla Ginter said...

The 3 Temple of Tolerance blogs are fascinating, and will hopefully spark interest locally to continue Jim's legacy. His work is thought-provoking and it creatively supports tolerance and peace, as well as valuing the history of everyday events in our lives.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks, Darla. Jim would love to hear this comment. It's what he tries to do every day: make the world a better place through peace and tolerance, by creating art that makes people think in new more unlimited ways.

Janis Jeanneret said...

Wow! This was incredibly interesting! I now will read the first two. My brother Monty has been to this place, and spent time with Jim. He was overwhelmed with emotions that showed when he was telling me of his stories of absorbing the vibes of his treasured moments there. I have never been there myself. I don't know how, I was a Wapakoneta citizen most of my life. Thanks for such awesome pictures and words that embrace the place called-Temple of Tolerance. Janis Jeanneret

Dan Newland said...

Thank you for reading it Janis. I think there are probably a great number of Wapak people who have never gone to see the Rock Garden and Temple, and I don't think that's at all usual since when you have an attraction so close by, it's easy to think, "One of these days I'll go," and just never get around to it.

I remember when I was very young, maybe 9 or so, my parents took my sister, brother and me to see Niagara Falls. Far from the city of Niagara, you could already see the cloud of mist rising above it where the falls rolled off the edge of the earth and crashed against the rocks far below. And once within the city limits, you could hear the muted rumble of the crashing water from numerous locations blocks distant from the falls.

I also recall, however, that when we arrived in the city of Niagara, my dad started asking how to get to the falls, and he ended up having to go to three places before someone could finally give him proper directions. In other words, despite living in the city that houses one of the wonders of the world, either we just happened to run into the only three people in town who were hermits, or a surprising number of residents had never been the the falls or knew how to get to them. And I'll bet if you'd have asked them, they'd have said that "they were always meaning to get there."