Imagine walking into the backyard of an unassuming single family home, only to find thousands of pairs of beady little eyes peering out at you beneath pointy red hats. No, this isn’t the setup for some creepy B-horror film; it’s a dream-come-true for every hardcore gnome collector. This summer, I had the pleasure of visiting Gnome Man’s Land, an elaborate gnome home and garden in Santa Rosa, California. Now this is no fly-by-night gnome collection tucked away in the bowels of obscurity. Oh, no no. This is a gnomish fantasy land nearly 40 years in the making, operated by my good friend and personal idol, Jean Fenstermaker. Jean was inspired to create Gnome Man’s Land in the 1960s after a few key life events: her Disneyland storybook canal ride, her mother’s rock garden, and her friend who had two gnomes on an office desk. Jean’s first gnome garden was born on January 25, 1976 and spanned just 18 inches by 35 inches in size. From the very beginning, Jean loved to create mini-themes within her garden and stories about her gnomes. With some plant clippings from her mother and tiny bridges and accessories built by her woodworking father, her gnomes’ stories began coming to life. Over the years, Jean has created eight additional and separate gnome gardens in her backyard. There’s The Forest Rock Garden with wildlife, The Frog Garden with gnomes and amphibians co-existing in harmony, and the Life-Size Garden…which is, you guessed it, full of LIFE-SIZED GNOMES. But keep your britches on…even in real life, gnomes are still pretty tiny. You can find everyone from immigrant gnomes, partially-clothed gnomes using the bathroom, gnomes with gambling habits, gnomes fighting neighbor gnomes, and vegetable-growing gnomes lurking around every corner and begging for your attention. The spring and summer seasons bring local visitors, out-of-state travelers, and gnome aficionados from around the globe to Jean’s gnome home. The typical crowd comes from church groups, “red hatters,” and senior living facilities. Gnomes are pretty fragile, and I know that if I ever have kids, I’ll be keeping my gnomes safely packed away ’til they’re old enough to understand how awesome they are. I personally met Jean a few years ago through the International Gnome Club, where we are both tri-annual contributing newsletter writers. For over a decade now, I’ve gotten a kick out of being part of a subculture that baffles the other 99 percent of humanity. I also just need to put this out there: Jean’s husband, Jim, deserves a ton of praise and recognition. Jim has helped build the gardens, weeds the plants, prunes the roses, AND he enthusiastically socializes with random gnome fanatics wandering through his backyard. If I ever have a husband, he damned well better be as supportive of my gnome obsession as that Mr. Fenstermaker. And I’ll just leave it at that. Despite Jean and Jim’s attempts at keeping a low profile, they’ve been featured in lots of newspapers – most recently the San Francisco Chronicle, which led to two subsequent radio interviews. Jean’s garden was featured in the amazing book Gnomeland by Margaret Egleton (yes, I have a copy). And TV crews have been out to her Santa Rosa home from Home & Garden TV, The Travel Channel, and ABC’s Dream Home and Collectibles. Jean is one of the kindest and most welcoming human beings I’ve ever met. So much so that she made a sign (held up by a gnome, of course) welcoming my boyfriend and me to Gnome Man’s Land as soon as we pulled into the driveway. Gnome collectors truly are kindred spirits. After an extensive VIP tour of her gnome garden, Jean whipped out the Gnome Bingo cards and we settled in for some good ole’ fashioned non-monetary gambling with refreshments. Not surprisingly, each Bingo square depicted a themed section of Jean’s quirky gnome garden. Much to my grumbling stomach’s delight, she offered to cook a delicious dinner to share with us to further chat about all-things-gnome and all-things-non-gnome. All of the dishes were adorned with gnomes, and there were even gnome cookies for dessert. Can you say gnome overload? I was practically hyperventilating for hours. Jean has a true and unwavering passion for gnomes, and it shows so beautifully every time her eyes light up with the reflection of a red hat in the distance. She takes such pride in her home, yard, collection, and loyal following that I can’t help but admire her to the point of stealing her ideas for my own home display one day.
As I mentioned earlier, Jean and Jim like to keep a low profile. Although they are the friendliest of friendly to fellow gnome fans, they don’t exactly just open up their backyard to just anyone either.
You just can’t be too cautious with vandals lurking in the night. I keep up with daily gnome news, and nearly every day there’s a police report filed about gnomes being maliciously stolen, broken, and vandalized!
However, if you’re ever planning a trip to the Napa Valley region of California and would like to have the BEST DAY EVER, I’m might just be able to hook you up with a Gnome Man’s Land VIP Tour.