Interesting Places to Visit
Gnome Habitat USA (Auburn, California)
By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — February 16, 2011
Over 2,000 gnome figures are in residence on a mystical five-acre tract of land in the foothills near Auburn, California.
Interior view of some of gnome habitat usa's more than 2,000 gnomes and other related items of interest. (Photo © elizabeth m. Spera)
Gnome Habitat U.S.A. was founded following three years of preparation by Elizabeth M. (“Liz”) Spera, a former district advisor in the Auburn Journal’s circulation department who now works for Placer County in the Elections Division. The private museum is really a converted barn-like outbuilding on Spera’s property, the culmination of her decades-long love affair with the little good luck charms and the rich legends and lore surrounding them.
People tend to confuse gnomes (found in many gardens in the form of cute figurines) with trolls, which are Scandinavian in origin. The idea of gnomes, small human-like creatures who live underground, probably originated in the iron and copper mines of Cappadocia, a part of modern Turkey, where strange mountains and cave-dwellers are in abundance. Gnomes entered Teutonic mythology in the Middle Ages as mining increased in central Europe. They made their first appearance with the name “gnome” in the Renaissance and in particular in the alchemical works of the 16th Century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. The Swedes, however, do have something equivalent, the tomte. In Norway and Denmark there is the nisse. Nisses are depicted as small elderly men ranging from a few inches to half the height of an adult, often with a full beard and dressed as a farmer.
gnome habitat usa is a private museum, the work of Elizabeth M. Spera, who became fascinated with gnomes after reading a book about them in 1979. (Photo © elizabeth m. spera)
Many beings similar to the gnome/tomte appear in other European folklore, such as the Scots and English brownie, the Northumbrian English hob, the nains of Brittany, the German erdmanlein (or heinzelmännchen of the Alpine regions), the domovi djedoes of western Russia, the Bulgarian and Albanian djube, the Dutch kabouter, the Belgian skritek, the Swiss and Luxembourgian kleinmannken, the Hungarian/Yugoslavian/Czech mano, and the Polish gnom. Indeed, there many small statues of gnomes scattered all over Wroclaw, Poland placed there by artists long ago who used gnomes and gnome-related art and dress to protest communist rule.
In the early 1800’s they began to appear as ceramic garden decorations in Germany. The eastern German state of Thuringia is considered the birthplace of garden gnomes, where in the mid-1800’s they were made by Phillip Griebel in the town of Graefenroda. Aside from their decorative value, the superstitious folk thought the tiny statues would protect their property by shooing away would-be thieves of harvested grain and other crops, and would even tend to the garden or farm during the night.
gnome habitat usa reflects a life-long interest of elizabeth spera. the private museum is nestled on a five-acre property in beautiful california surroundings. (Photo © elizabeth m. spera)
Statuary, or garden, gnomes were introduced to England in 1847 by Sir Charles Isham, who purchased a shipment from Germany to enliven his garden in Northamptonshire, causing a sensation. In such aristocratic gardens, the gnomes warded off evil in a manner reminiscent of the erotic statuettes of Hermes in ancient Greece or Priapus in ancient Rome. The gnomes’ popularity continued to spread, and today there are over 15 million of them throughout Europe alone, particularly in Germany and Switzerland.
The great gnome quest for Spera started in 1979 when she came upon the best-selling coffee-table book, Gnomes, by Wil Huygen. She began collecting gnome figures and more gnome-related books and other items, eventually opening her museum and grounds, Gnome Habitat USA, one weekend in 2008, in a place where the gnomes can “live, work and play.”
Spera envisions school and senior groups visiting gnome habitat usa to learn more about gnome folklore. (Photo © elizabeth m. spera)
The design of Gnome Habitat USA is inspired by that of the 4-acre Gnome Reserve & Wild Flower Garden set in the countryside of North Devon, England, between Bideford and Bude just seven miles from the Devon-Cornwall border. (That place attracts about 25,000 visitors a year, all of whom don free red gnome hats and are allowed to wander through landscapes of woodland, stream, a 30-yard-long pond, meadow and garden, all home to over 1,000 gnomes and pixies, not to mention over 250 labeled species of wild flowers, herbs, grasses and ferns.)
In the Gnome Habitat USA museum building, Spera has on display hundreds of her prized, highly valuable, early gnomes made of fine terra cotta and clay, as well as those made with cement, wood, and porcelain. The older clay and terra cotta gnomes are valuable because there is more workmanship involved: it takes quite a while to make them since the clay requires special consideration involving the molding process, and then it must be painted, glazed, oven-fired, etc. (Indeed, an existing terra cotta gnome originally received in Sir Charles Isham’s 1847 German shipment is now valued at 2 million pounds sterling.) Most gnome manufacturers have now switched to making gnomes out of plastic because plastic is cheap and more durable than clay, and plastic gnomes are easier to mass produce.
at gnome habitat usa, you can find gnome cookies and Gnome candies, posters, and the paintings of gnome artists such as Rien Poortvliet (Photo © elizabeth m. spera)
“We have on display Limoges gnomes, wine bottle toppers, and every other form of gnome you can imagine,” Spera says. You can also find in the museum gnome cookies and candies, posters, the paintings of gnome artists such as Rien Poortvliet, and a book featuring her museum and awesome gnome collection.
Then there is the land itself. As you stroll through the Gnome Habitat USA grounds, enjoying the magnificent scenery and avoiding the occasional chicken or dog, you’ll suddenly be asked for “coppers” (pennies) by a “Tree Man” (a face on the side of a tree) to ensure safe passage to the nearby swan-and-duck pond.
Gnomes were said to tend to a garden or farm when the owners were asleep or weren't looking. (Photo © Theowl84 | Dreamstime.com)
You’ll also find a labyrinth situated on the property, along with a Native American sacred circle or “medicine wheel,” a symbol of symmetry and balance representing the never-ending circle of Life (birth, death, rebirth). Here you can engage in meditation on various aspects of your life—self, family, health, life purpose, relationships, community, finances, etc.
Spera lives on the property with her husband Joe and son J.T. along with their dog and some chickens. During the 1990s, Liz and Joe owned the No. 1 male Norwich terrier in America, seen at the American Kennel Club’s Westminster Dog Show, where it received an award of merit.
During her years of indefatigable work collecting gnomes and gnome paraphernalia, Spera also became president of the International Gnome Club, which publishes three email newsletters a year.
Garden Gnomes on a swing? Why not? In this case, however, the International Association for the Protection of Garden Gnomes, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, would object to the presence of a female gnome/ (purists maintain that all gnomes are of the male gender.) (Photo © Lonniehb | Dreamstime.com)
In the 1960s, gnomes descended to the nadir of their popularity as cheap painted plastic garden gnomes made them kitschy symbols of upper-middle-class bourgeoisie life. Purist gnome aficionados criticized the introduction of alternative designs and female gnomes, resulting in the formation of The International Association for the Protection of Garden Gnomes, founded in 1980 in Basel, Switzerland, to promote the gnomes’ original purpose of adorning gardens.
Gnomes then suddenly made a comeback as pop culture icons, appearing in 1997 film, The Full Monty, and the 2001 film Amelie, where the protagonist sends her father’s gnome on a world tour with an airline flight attendant, which inspires him to travel.
mass production has taken some of the mystique out of Gnomes. Here we see many ceramic gnomes ready for firing in a kiln. (Photo © Cristina Deidda | Dreamstime.com)
In 2009, German-born artist Ottmar Hoerl, the president of the Academy for Fine Arts in Nuremberg, got into some trouble with German prosecutors when he produced an art installation featuring 1,250 garden gnomes with their right arm raised in a Hitler salute, and one of the gnomes ended up in a Nuremberg art gallery. Such salutes and other Nazi symbols have been illegal in Germany since the end of the World War II. Hoerl eventually convinced prosecutors that he was in fact poking fun and ridiculing the Reich, not enlisting gnomes in supporting it.
“I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” said Hoerl. “With my gnomes I’m highlighting the danger of political opportunism and right-wing ideology. I get the feeling that this gnome has reopened an old wound.”
Gnoming Gone Wild
Around this time there began a rash of pranks targeting garden gnomes, collectively termed gnoming. Gnoming includes the theft of garden gnomes (also called “gnome hunting”) for the alleged purpose of returning the inanimate garden gnomes “to the wild.” Some of these kidnapped garden gnomes have been sent on trips to various locales around the world—the travelling gnome prank—and the pranksters send photos of the gnomes in various locales (sometimes other countries) to the original owner. This was the inspiration for Travelocity’s “Roaming Gnome” advertisements begun in 2003. After all these years, Travelocity still maintains an amusing website called www.whereismygnome.com where you can catch up on the gnome’s current location and activities.
Carved and painted wooden gnomes. (Photo © Massimiliano Leban | Dreamstime.com)
Another website, www.freethegnomes.com, is the information center of the so-called Garden Gnome Liberation Front (GGLF), also known as the Front for the Liberation of Garden Gnomes—le Front pour la Libération des Nains de Jardin (FLNJ), founded in France in 1997. The GGLF is a humorous organization that calls for “an end to oppressive gardening and freedom for garden gnomes worldwide.” The GGLF’s Italian branch, a group calling themselves Malag (Movimento Autonomo per la Liberazione delle Anime da Giardino— Independent Movement for the Liberation of Garden Souls), have the goal of establishing a European Gnome Sanctuary in Barga, Italy.
This kind of gnome “emancipation” humor has on many occasions gone too far: Even though the GGLF doesn’t officially endorse theft and trespassing to “liberate” the “enslaved” Garden Gnomes, various owners’ gnomes have been abducted, their appearances changed via repainting, and then they are dumped into forests (“released back into the wild”) far from home. Other more unscrupulous “liberators” abduct the gnomes and photograph them at international landmarks, and sending the pictures home to their former owners, occasionally accompanied by ransom notes.
Gnomes made of plaster on sale at a Vietnamese marketplace. (Photo © Jan Borecký | Dreamstime.com)
In 2002, to counter the GGLF’s more nefarious activities, the International Association for the Protection of Garden Gnomes in Switzerland began pushing for tongue-in-cheek legislation making gnomenapping a criminal offense—a felony, in fact. Liz Spera also reports that another organization–the Federation for the Protection of Garden Gnomes–has also been established to protect them, she said.
Spera said there doesn’t appear to be many “gnome-nappings” in America and remains guarded about the whole idea of “gnomeland security.”
Gnomes reached a new height of popularity with the 2011 release of the film, Gnomeo & Juliet. (Photo © Walt Disney Studios / Touchstone Pictures, Inc.)
The Big-Screen Treatment
In any case, Spera and Gnome Habitat USA rode a new wave of gnome popularity with the February 11, 2011 release of the 3D animated adventure film, Gnomeo & Juliet, a comic makeover of Shakespeare’s play, directed by Kelly Ashbury (who also directed Shrek 2) featuring music by Elton John and the voice talents of James McAvoy and Emily Blunt in the title roles as the star-crossed gnomes.
Since Spera’s Museum is a private collection, visitors must schedule a visit by contacting her at GnomeHabitatUSA@aol.com. There is no charge to visit Gnome Habitat USA, but donations are accepted to help with upkeep and improve the Museum.