Temple of ToleranceJim Bowsher (1948)
About the Artist/Site
Behind Jim Bowsher’s house in the small-town of Wapakoneta, Ohio lies the Temple of Tolerance, an extensive and impressive art environment. Bowsher started building in his backyard in 1981, and over the next eighteen years, as he kept buying up property and annexing it to his original lot, he built deeper and deeper back, setting the last stone on September 9, 1999.
Bowsher’s site actually includes two separate components: the home, which is a museum itself, crammed with collections of numerous American artifacts of all genres and sizes; and the combined backyards, which house the various components of the Temple complex. His idea was to craft the exterior space—roughly equivalent to about two dozen typical-size backyards in Wapakoneta—so that it would become a sanctuary for the local youth, and, with no bullying and no drugs allowed, it has indeed become a safe haven. It is now recognized as an unofficial city park and cornerstone for the community, and has even been used for weddings. Bowsher has also indicated that some local Native Americans consider the place a holy site.
Bowsher is an archaeologist, historian, and raconteur - a natural born storyteller. In fact, he makes his living by bringing artifacts from his collections in order to discuss different components of history with local school and civic groups. His environment on South Wood Street reflects that, as scattered throughout the yard are countless curious objects that reveal countless stories. Visitors will find a bench that James Dean slept on, a jail door that helped keep John Dillinger’s gang off the streets (for a very limited time), and a Barrel House with bullet holes from a prohibition era shootout (claimed to be the only house in the US deliberately constructed to look like a barrel). There is a stage for music performances, a Vietnam War memorial, and a wide variety of found and natural objects, some created by neighborhood youth, but most either by Bowsher himself or collected by him. As he puts it, “the yard is permeated by the history of the things in the yard.”
At the far end of the property is the Temple of Tolerance itself, created by giant boulders that Jim dug up in rural Ohio by following the glacier line. Most were rescued from nearby farms, buried by farmers who didn’t want them marring their agricultural fields. The Temple proper, a rather stocky and circular pile of hundreds of tons of these rocks, resembles the ruins of a lost civilization, with smaller stone outcroppings flanking all sides. Increasing vegetation that has grown over the interstices between the rocks adds to the sensation that one has discovered an ancient civilization. Yet each rock has been individually catalogued and photographed by Bowsher himself, to provide provenance information for each of the thousands of rocks that he has moved onto the site for when he is no longer around to tell the stories of each piece.
According to Bowsher, the best way for first-timers to visit the Temple is to park in front of his house, walk up his driveway into the backyard, and keep on walking. The layout of the yard changes and evolves from tight garden paths with odds and ends scattered around, until the noteworthy Barrel House becomes evident. Past that, eventually the path opens up to the Temple itself. From the street in front of his house to the very back of the rock mound temple, the environment is over 100 yards long.
The yard is open daily during daylight hours. Bowsher has willed the site to the city of Wapakoneta, and finally installed a donation box after repeated requests from visitors who wanted to give a little something for upkeep: donations are appreciated but are not required for visitation. All are welcome, as long as they abide by the single rule of the site’s name: tolerance.
~Rich Gabe and Jo Farb Hernández, 2014
Map & Site Information
203 South Wood Street
Wapakoneta, OH, 45895 us
Latitude/Longitude: 40.5686659 / -84.1839607