Folk Art in Hillsdale County

The Will Carleton Poorhouse

The Will Carleton Poorhouse

      When Isaac and Sarah Vandenbergh purchased property on the current Wolcott Street from Henry Waldron in 1851, Pleistocene rocks in the soil created both an aggravation when they tried to plow and an opportunity to display their new wealth with the creation of a cobblestone home. The Vandenberghs had come to Hillsdale County in 1846. Through hard work and assertive leadership, Isaac established himself as an important man in the village of Hillsdale. On his new property he chose to display his prosperity with the building of a labor-intensive cobblestone home. He hired George Wheaton, a stone mason who built some of the college buildings and the second County Courthouse, as well as the other cobblestone homes on State Street. Then commenced an effort of about three years to gather stones of the correct size. The term "cobblestone" means a stone that will fit in one hand. More precise measurement of the stones was done by dropping them through a sorting board that had circular holes of the desired size. All the stones in the field that didn't meet the exacting size requirement were put to the side to become the "rubble wall" of the home. This wall was about 20 inches wide and provided the real support for the house. For all the effort the cobblestones required, they were only a facade.

    This type of folk art assured that the Erie Canal masons still had work after its completion. Many of these men came from England, where they had erected cobblestone buildings. They emigrated to America to lay the limestone blocks that lined the locks and aqueducts of the proposed canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. With the Erie Canal completed in 1825, the masons took advantage of the abundant cobblestones they found in northern New York state and southern Ontario and worked their way west creating buildings from the stones. It was the right time for the masons. The canal provided new markets for farmers in the "west" to sell their produce and grains, which brought prosperity to them and the desire to display their wealth. With this convergence of happenstance, the income of the Erie Canal masons was assured.    

This gazebo in Slayton Arboretum, Hillsdale College, is an example of "Trabajo Rustico." The roof resembles intricately knotted rope tying bundles of straw.

This gazebo in Slayton Arboretum, Hillsdale College, is an example of "Trabajo Rustico." The roof resembles intricately knotted rope tying bundles of straw.

    The art of Trabajo Rustico came from Mexico. The 1930s were turbulent times in that country, with war, revolution, economic depression and labor unrest combining to stir up the social order. In the wave of sentiment that cried out for the common people to be equal to the elite, new art forms emerged that weren’t found in museums. Dionisio Rodrigues led the movement that used cement to create imaginative bridges, trees, water falls and other natural features that were publicly displayed. Remaining secretive to the end about his methods, he kept his recipes for paint formulas locked in his car. Rodrigues imitated the bark of over 20 trees, including insect holes and peeling bark. His intricately knotted rope can be seen on the roof of one of the gazebos at Slayton Arboretum, tying together bundles of carved straw. This was called "palapa," or thatched straw.  Rodrigues didn't normally sign his work, which makes it difficult to know which pieces he created. However, on one stone in the concrete waterfall in the Arboretum are the initials, "D.R."

    W.H.L. McCourtie made a fortune in Texas speculating in oil and cement. There he became acquainted with Dionisio Rodrigues through another cement magnate who was a patron of the artist. McCourtie commissioned Rodrigues to create 17 bridges and two hollow trees on Aiden's Lair, his estate in Somerset Township. The bridges were whimsical, and the hollow trees served a very practical purpose: they were chimneys for an underground retreat. McCourtie apparently used them as a private club where cigars, poker and illegal liquor were enjoyed. Rumor among the locals was that the infamous Purple Gang from Detroit dropped in for a visit to this retreat on their trips between Detroit and Chicago. As titillating as that may have been, it's not known whether the rumor was founded in truth or in wishful thinking by the locals who craved excitement in their neck of the woods.

    As with Mrs. Stock's Park in Hillsdale, McCourtie Park was open to the public. The Hillsdale Daily News of Aug. 14, 1930, reported that "three Mexican artists" singing in Spanish for the crowd at a community picnic in the park so charmed their audience that they were asked for several encores.

    Melinda LoPresto, a Hillsdale native, admired the skill of the Mexican artists and taught herself the technique of Trabajo Rustico. In 2008 she was commissioned to restore some of the pieces in the Slayton Arboretum. Besides the restoration work she did, LoPresto created several benches. In respect for the original artists, she signed all her work so visitors could distinguish it from that of Rodrigues, Rafael Corona and the others who worked during the 1930s.

    The art of building cobblestone structures, although still known, is rarely if ever practiced. Trabajo Rustico, on the other hand, has experienced a rebirth, with modern artists developing their own methods to pursue this unique folk art.

In writing this article I drew heavily from one written by Gladys Saborio in the Michigan History Magazine dated July/August 2008. I am indebted to her for making my rewrite so simple.

JoAnne P. Miller 2014