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Storybook garden that was once a tourist mecca gets revamped

Minnesota might be the land of 10,000 lake places, but the shore-side gardens that bachelor brothers Arnold and Hugo Vogt sculpted out of stone 90 years ago remain a testament to, well, quirkiness and resiliency. Nostalgia and begonia lovers are ...

Minnesota might be the land of 10,000 lake places, but the shore-side gardens that bachelor brothers Arnold and Hugo Vogt sculpted out of stone

90 years ago remain a testament to, well, quirkiness and resiliency.

Nostalgia and begonia lovers are expected to ooh and aah today -- and today only -- along Tame Fish Lake between Aitkin and Garrison.

The nearly two-acre spread along 343 feet of lakeshore is called Ak-Sar-Ben Gardens. That's Nebraska spelled backward. Arnold and Hugo sold real estate in Omaha before World War II, but spent summers tinkering around their cabin in overalls on what was then known as Long Lake. Hugo's penchant for training bass from minnow-hood to eat from his hand would become such an attraction that the lake was formally rechristened Tame Fish in 1942.

Arnold, the younger of the two, was the green thumb of the operation. A respected Duluth flower show judge, Arnold was known for his own brilliant iris, tulips, jonquils and more than 500 dahlias, including his flaming red Son of Satan specimens with orange-salmon centers.

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Hugo left his younger brother to the flowers. When he wasn't taming his favorite pair of bass, Amos and Andy, Hugo was busy working with rocks and

pebbles. Eventually, word began to spread.

Starting in 1918, people began to swing by to see Arnold's new roses. Or the wishing well. Or the storybook castle and drawbridge that Hugo created from stones, marble, quartz and chunks of iron ore. The registration book, stationed in one of Hugo's stone-covered masterpieces, soon included the names of celebrities of the era, including humorist Will Rogers, silent movie star Norma Talmadge and Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen and his wife, Esther.

By 1939, the Vogts were charging a dime a visit, replacing wooden sidewalks with marble and counting a staggering 40,000 visitors a summer. The boastful

bachelor brothers even hung a stone sign that proclaimed the place an "Eveless paradise."

Today, Hugo's castle is layered with creeping thyme, which just flowered a vibrant purple. Time, indeed, has crept on. Hugo died in the early 1940s and Arnold gave up his "Eve-less" bastion, marrying in 1944. After Arnold's death a dozen years later, his widow carried on the best she could.

A truck driver named Rudy Seliga and his wife from Minneapolis took over the neglected, weedy gardens from her in 1959, raising their four kids and charging 75 cents a visit. A petting zoo, picnic area and drive-in restaurant operated next door, serving burgers, shrimp baskets, fries and malts as annual attendance climbed to 60,000 in the 1960s.

By the late 1970s, the place again had gone to seed as renters neglected the treasures, tossing beer cans in the moat that surrounds Hugo's castle. The tamed bass had gone belly up decades before.

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Enter RoxAnne and Richard Bouley, the current keepers of the castle -- not to mention the fountains, altar, arches, benches, nymphs, wishing well and butterfly-shaped planting bed carefully constructed from piles of Hugo's pebbles. The Bouleys took over the overgrown oasis in 1982, clearing weeds and repairing what they could.

They rebuilt the Vogt cabin, raising it up and putting on an addition, but gently preserving the rock chimney complete with a stone birdhouse on top -- vintage Hugo.

"It's just a unique piece of property and it's neat to own little bits of other people's history," said Richard, 63, who drives a tow truck and runs an auto repair business nearby.

Because people were constantly stopping by to reminisce about childhood visits, the Bouleys decided to open it up for one day last July. More than 400 people descended.

"Pretty much every one of them had a story about coming by with their parents or grandparents," said RoxAnne, who sells ads at the Aitkin Independent Age weekly newspaper.

The Bouleys have planted enough impatiens, geraniums and wave petunias to make Arnold Vogt proud. Deer have been relentless, but RoxAnne noticed that the intruders weren't eating the begonias, just pulling them out. So the gardens

are now awash in scarlet begonias.

They rent out the place for a couple of weddings each summer and entertain bus tours by reservation only. They've been busy mowing and weeding for today's open house, which runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It's free, but donations are accepted to help defer garden costs.

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Richard plans to add some water elements of his own. And the couple, married for 34 years, clash at times about annuals vs. perennials.

"I love the colors of the annuals," Richard said. "But RoxAnne does all the work and prefers the perennials. Being on the lake makes it that much nicer. But we don't have as much time as we'd like to enjoy the lake. We're in the yard all the time."

For that, they can thank a couple of bachelor brothers from Nebraska who knew more than how to spell things backward.

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