Time Machine: A Cedar Rapids rock garden
Frank Nesetril built dramatic fountain, arch in 1930s
Frank Nesetril was born in 1875 in Johnson County and grew up on a farm near Shueyville. He was one of 11 children of Anna and Josef Nesetril, both immigrants from Bohemia. He graduated from Shueyville High School.
Nesetril was injured June 11, 1896, when his buggy collided with a wagon driven by Frank Novotny. Two of his friends, Selia Schieh and Maud Plumley, raised $36.90 to help Nesetril pay his doctor bill and repair his buggy. Frank Novotny paid for whatever wasn’t covered by the fundraising.
In 1901, Nesetril and his bride, Anna Jirsa, moved to the west side of Cedar Rapids following a sawmill accident that claimed Frank’s right forearm.
Nesetril’s first job was selling fruit from a stand on 16th Avenue SW. He was hired at the Sinclair meatpacking plant in 1908, and he and his wife moved to their lifelong home at 137 17th Ave. SW in 1910, where they raised their sons, Frank Jr. and Milo.
In 1919, Nesetril began thinking about building a rock garden.
In 1922, he began collecting rocks from all over the Midwest. But not just any rocks. He looked for unique colors, sizes and shapes.
Nesetril was 54 in 1929 when he started building his rock garden in the 40-by-30-foot side yard of his home.
Working alone in his off hours from his job at the packing plant, he built steel reinforcements, mixed cement for the foundations and placed rocks in position, all with one hand.
He was 59 when he finished his garden in 1934.
Stone arch, steps
A Gazette story that year offered this description: “Under a stone arch and through a stone gate one enters the little garden and walks along the gravel path and up stone steps along the miniature cliff road where you look into the hanging pool at one side and over to the inlaid pool below at the other. Down the second tier of steps one can see into the cave beyond the pool and cross the bridge to the high stone-columned fountain whose spray keeps the moss, flowers, ferns and seedlets as fresh and green as if there’d never been a drought. ...
“Strange colors and shapes of fossilized stones, gray rocks studded with glittering pieces of granite, smooth white crystal rocks, make up the seven-by-seven columns into which steel posts were hoisted by block and tackle, balanced and let down three feet into the ground. The stone rose rack arch bends over a stone-railed gateway, which swings open easily and does not look heavy, but each door of which weighs 150 pounds. White lattice work tops the stone arch over which a Japanese vine is being trained.”
The main feature was the tall, steel-reinforced stone fountain with two bowls, topped with a female figurine Nesetril found in Illinois.
Nesetril wired the fountain with colored lights and embedded the top with fragments of broken dishes that had once been the Nesetrils’ wedding gifts.
The fountain was estimated to weigh 6 tons.
Frank Nesetril Sr. was 77 when he died Aug. 4, 1952. He had retired from Wilson & Co., the successor to Sinclair, in 1946, after working there 44 years. He was buried in Czech National Cemetery beside Anna, who had died in April 1949.
After their father’s death, Frank and Milo Nesetril sold the house with its unique yard art to Milo Simanek, who remodeled it and added a garage in 1953.
The house with the stone fountain became a rental property and was home to more than a dozen families over the following decades. The home, divided into two apartments, was last sold in 2011 and is being managed by a Marion real estate holding company.
Showing its age
With the passing of more than 82 years, the fountain, arch and arbor are showing signs of deterioration. Many of the original features, such as the bridge, pools and steps, have long since disappeared. Pieces of tiles and rocks have chipped away. After the flood of 2008, the fountain no longer worked, although the piping and electrical conduit are still there. A steel plate bearing the old Carmody Foundry trademark — looking like a miniature manhole cover — covers the elements that could make the fountain work again. Light bulbs are still visible in the outlets embedded in the rocks, but the fountain figurine has broken off.
After a recent storm, a tree fell on the stone arch, damaging a trellis and leaving some of the spikes dangling.
The nearby arbor is decorated with a mosaic of mirrors and tiles. When bricks were removed from Czech Village following the Flood of 2008, the couple living in the home’s lower unit obtained permission to use some of the bricks to make a patio under the arbor. It’s a nice place to relax and have a close-up view of the old fountain and arch.