Tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah is the mysterious Gilgal Garden. But is not a regular garden. It’s a garden of stone. It’s easy to miss; in fact, Madge did miss it on the first pass since it’s a very narrow sliver of land next to a house. Only a simple black fence with a small sign notes it’s existance.
What wonders lie beyond this fence?
What is Gilgal
Gilgal is a location mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible. It is often associated with the Israelites’ early history in the land of Canaan and is considered a significant site in their history. According to the book of Joshua, Gilgal was the first place where the Israelites set up camp after crossing the Jordan River into Canaan. It was there they celebrated the first Passover and after which, they were considered to be under the covenant with God.
In later books of the Hebrew Bible, Gilgal is mentioned as a place of religious worship and sacrifice, as well as a gathering place for the Israelites for various important events. It is also mentioned in the prophetic books of Hosea and Amos, where it is described as a place of idol worship and disobedience to God’s commands. Overall, Gilgal serves as an important symbol of the Israelites’ history and religious heritage, and its significance is emphasized in the context of the narrative of the conquest of Canaan and their establishment as God’s chosen people.
Gilgal Garden History
From this inspiration, the garden was created by Thomas Battersby Child Jr., a Mormon Bishop and retired stone mason, who enlisted fellow Mormon and noted sculptor Maurice Brooks to help build this backyard monument to his faith and the craft of stone masonry. Child was already in his late 50s when he started the garden in 1947 and worked on it almost up to the day of his death in 1963.
Gilgal is full of haunting images from the Old Testament and Mormon mysticism. Child took the story of the Gilgal Stone – twelve stones for the twelve tribes. From this stand twelve sculptural groupings, plus over 70 stones engraved with bible passages and poems. The very compactness of the garden makes the size of the rock sculptures even more striking.
There’s scarcely a rock that doesn’t have a quote or poem engraved on the surface.
The Carved Sculptures
One of the first pieces Madge encountered was this enormous Sphinx with the head of Joseph Smith, found of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Though the tableaus are grounded in both the bible we are familiar with plus the Book of Mormon, the exact reasons for the symbolism are lost to history. What for example, do the hands in this cave represent?
A statue of Thomas Battersby Child Jr. surrounded by the tools of his trade
A Mysterious Tribute to Queen Victoria
Embedded into one of the large boulders is a dedication plaque listing acquaintances, friends and of all people, Queen Victoria already 50 years dead when Child began to build.
Garden Decline and Revival
Child led hundreds of tour groups through his masterpiece over the years but after his death, the garden went into a long slow decline as his widow found it increasingly difficult to maintain.
Eventually, the garden fell into ruin with few people in Salt Lake even knowing it existed. But a small band of local artists did know and in 2000 when a developer announced plans to buy the site to build condominiums, they sprung into action.
After raising the funds to outbid the developer, the group, Friends of Gilgal Garden, worked to restore the sculptures and oversees the ongoing management of Gilgal, now officially a city park. The Salt Lake County Master Gardener Association adopted the garden as one of their community projects and planted the shrubs and flowers that they continue to maintain.
What makes a man create such a fantastical world? What religious fervor engulfs him with such a lifelong obsession? The answer lies somewhere in the stones of the mysterious Gilgal Garden.
If You Go
Gilgal Garden, 749 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City, Utah is open for self tours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, April through September, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., October through March. It is closed on Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Thanksgiving.