This story was originally published in August 2019.
Akron’s own Gnome Village includes a chapel and the Sherwood Florist. There’s a grist mill next to a swinging rope bridge, and there’s an enchanted cottage. This summer, a few larger-than-life florescent flowers popped up, and a group of gnome-powered hot air balloons float overhead.
Funny to think this started as the easier of two options to deal with a tree stump.
At that time, the Warwick to Ephrata Rail Trail was about to cut through Don Reese’s backyard at his Akron home.
“Either I’m gonna dig that ugly stump up or do something. And I built that,” he says, pointing at the stump, now decorated with a shingle roof, a front porch and three gnomes. “And every time I come out, there’d be a crowd out here laughing at it.”
Then he wondered, “Why not add another building.”
Years later, Reese has transformed this overgrown section of his backyard into a beloved stop on the trail. The gnomes celebrate holidays like Halloween and Christmas. Their luminaria on Veterans Day brought some to tears. To Reese, the gnomes and their world on the hillside are another creative outlet.
“It’s kind of like there’s this creativity that just kind of needs to come out and be expressed,” says Reese, who is a photographer. “Me and my wife (Deb) enjoy landscaping, and this is a whole ’nother level of landscaping. It’s something different. I can kind of create stuff from my imagination. And then people can in turn see that and maybe be inspired.”
Let’s go back to that first stump house, Reese can’t remember why he added a gnome.
“I have no real fascination with gnomes,” he says. “It’s kind of something with kids, sparks their imagination.”
Children ask about the gnomes and Reese plays along. He added a hobbit hole in the growing village.
“Then I woke up one day and was like, ‘I’m going to make a flower shop,’ ” he says.
Reese built just about everything in the village, aside from some metal sculptures he has added. He’s always on the lookout for potential in what some might call junk.
Scrap wood becomes a garden shed. A discarded fire hydrant becomes the home of a firefighting gnome. A $1 mannequin became a fairy (but some call her a witch).
This summer, Reese spotted brightly colored pool noodles and added some bright plastic plates as petals. Voila: a new garden.
A tall way-finding sign points out places near (Rothsville, Ephrata) and far (Great Wall of China, Key West) and far out (Narnia, Whoville).
Other features are more seasonal.
Brightly colored bicycles decorated the hill one summer. The bikes were rescued from the curb and painted.
He’s decorated for Christmas and collected dozens of letters to Santa.
Before the last presidential election, he put cutouts of Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s faces on gnomes in the hobbit hole. “Have no fear Trump and Hillary are here,” he wrote on a sign. “Hillary will be working on her EMAIL skills, and TRUMP will be working on getting a better HAIRDO. They agreed to stay in the hobbit hole to mend their differences.”
A few weeks ago, Reese brought back the hot air balloon festival. The balloons range from Christmas ornaments and painted globes to a grill and a chair frame. With thrift store baskets held by tomato cages, the balloons were ready to go. Reese’s wife handles the painting.
A few years ago, he lined the trail with 200 luminarias on Veterans Day, played patriotic music and gave out hot apple cider. It brought some people to tears. The set-up may return this fall, Reese says.
However, he wonders how long he’ll be able to keep up the village. Hanging the balloons took a good amount of time on a 20-foot ladder.
“At 57, I feel like one fall and I’m done,” he says.
Last year, when he went through the death of his father and his own health issues, fans offered to help. Reese says the intentions are good, but he’s too persnickety to take them up on their offers.
For now, he has comfort in the fact that the village has a lot of fans.
More than 1,100 people have liked the village’s Facebook page, Nibbles McGibbles.
“You make the trail worth the trip,” writes Wendy Miller-Fontanazza.
They say it’s a highlight on the trail. It brings smiles and joy. When Reese takes time to weed the village or fix something, people stop and thank him.
“It’s turned out to be more than I could ever dream for people appreciating it,” Reese says.