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Grottos of the Midwest

Sep 24, 2012

by Linzee McCray handmade and vintage goods

Obsession can rear its head in unexpected places. Thus it was in 1929 for William Lightner, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, contractor known for building staid banks, churches, and Warde Hall on the campus of Mount Mercy College. It was there that the former boxer, who converted to Catholicism when he married, asked the college’s nuns how best to give thanks for his newfound religion. They suggested a monument to the Virgin Mary, and, inspired by the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, Lightner began work on his own version, the Grotto of the Lady of Our Sorrows. Twelve years later, the Mount Mercy sisters had to sue him to cease work on the ever-expanding structure. Lightner, who used more than 300 varieties of stones in the construction and spent more than $40,000 of his own money, had become so captivated with building the structure that he simply couldn’t stop.

When Jane Gilmor, an emeritus art professor, joined the Mount Mercy College faculty in 1974, she only learned about Lightner’s grotto from reading the college history. The structure was so neglected she had to hack through weedy vegetation to even find it. Though it had for years been a revered site of worship and contemplation, by the 1960s it was viewed as kitschy and the neighbors complained that its lagoon was a breeding ground for mosquitos. By the 1970s, unable to afford its upkeep, the college drained the lagoon and demolished a portion of the grotto to build student housing and a parking lot.


Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa.

Linzee McCray

The 10 Commandments temple at Our Lady of Sorrows; each column represents a commandment.

Linzee McCray

Grottos — sites associated with nature, religion, and reflection — have been around for centuries; famous grottos are found in Lourdes, France, and the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy. In the late 1800s, German transplant Father Paul Dobberstein kicked off a grotto building mania in the Midwest after promising the Virgin Mary that, if she would restore his health, he would build a grotto in her honor. In 1898, he began stockpiling rocks and precious stones for the structure. More than a decade later, the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, started taking shape — it ultimately covered a city block and took 42 years to complete. From 1920 to 1930, Father Mathias Wernerus constructed a series of grottos in Dickeyville, Wisconsin, that honor religion and patriotism. Improved concrete construction techniques, honed during the building of massive grain elevators, made it possible for untrained enthusiasts to more easily construct these sturdy arches, columns, and bridges encrusted with semi-precious stones, shells, and marble.

Linzee McCray

A detailed archway at Our Lady of Sorrows.

Rich Griffith

Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa.


Intricate stonework at the Grotto of the Redemption.

These massive grottos and the visitors they drew didn’t go unnoticed, and small towns and religious orders wanted similar structures — Dobberstein alone designed and built six more grottos throughout Iowa. The structures also inspired backyard artists to try their hand at concrete work, and flowerpots, pergolas, fountains, and birdbaths soon sported rocks and shells: a few of these structures, usually in disrepair, can still be found in Midwestern parks and backyards.

At Mount Mercy College, Gilmor made it her mission to remind the college and community that the Grotto was not just a work of art, but a touchstone in its academic history. There was a time when nuns prayed at the grotto, students used the site for interpretive dancing á la Isadora Duncan and for amorous rendezvous, and 700 sightseers would stop by on a Sunday afternoon to marvel at the Grotto and buy ice cream cones from the sisters. In 2001, with the help of an NEA grant and countless volunteers, portions of the structure were renovated, vegetation similar to the original landscaping was replanted, and a small pond restored.

Mount Mercy College

Mount Mercy College

Students dancing in front of the grotto.

Though Gilmore retired this year, she’s staying on to help with a preservation plan and further renovation. Her quest to preserve Lightner’s grotto has been aided by an increased appreciation for outsider art in the mainstream art world. She notes that these Midwestern grotto makers were clearly obsessed with projects that might have seemed odd to many — Dobberstein brought in 100 train-carloads of geologic specimens from myriad locales to cover his structure, while Lightner personally traveled more than 40,000 miles throughout the U.S. and Mexico searching for construction materials to adorn the Grotto of the Lady of Our Sorrows and shipped in hand-cut glass tiles and a Carrera marble Virgin Mary from Italy — a significant purchase during the Depression years.

“At that time, in order to do something like this, you had to tie yourself to religion,” Gilmore says. “In some places you might have been able to get away with something like it [she cites Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles as one example], but in Iowa and Wisconsin you would have been seen as too odd if what you were doing didn’t glorify God.” Though their outward motivations were religious, Gilmore thinks these visionaries had less in common with priests and congregants than with artists.

Linzee McCray

“These people were so genuine,” she says. “They were not trained, but like artists, they weren’t afraid to go against the grain. They were inspired not by money, but by a vision.”

3 Featured Comments

  • GracefullyGirly

    Kimberlee from GracefullyGirly said 5 years ago Featured

    I love to see things from the past resurrected and enjoyed once again. The grottos look so amazing with all that stone work. I can't even imagine the time and back breaking work it took.

  • WaterlilyStudio

    Suzanne from JanuaryGirlJewelry said 5 years ago Featured

    I've been to the grotto in West Bend, and I agree with Helen - the pictures do not do it justice - it truly glitters with all the geologic materials and most of it is made using intricate patterns, rather than random placement. A stunning place to reflect and unwind! :)

  • HalleyDawn

    Halley Dawn from HalleyDawn said 5 years ago Featured

    This is absolutely amazing! I have studied mosaics for years, how have I never heard of this paradise? Thank you so much for sharing, I must make a trip to the midwest sometime in the very near future. Miss Linzee, thank you so very much for this story, and also for featuring my mosaic planter! I am honored.


  • MelodySage

    Melody Sage from MelodySage said 5 years ago

    Love this! I have been to the Dickeyville grotto several times. If you are into this sort of thing, check out Fred Smith's concrete park and the Rudolph grotto in Wisconsin as well. The Rudolph grotto has a handmade 'cave of wonders' that you walk through that is pretty fantastic.

  • JulieMeyer

    Julie Meyer from JulieMeyer said 5 years ago

    I've been to the Grotto in West Bend - amazing!

  • tracinicole

    Traci from tracinicole said 5 years ago

    This brought tears to my eyes. My grandmother, who just recently passed, use to take us to Dickeyville. She loved the grotto there. Thank you for this post. For me it was almost as if she was saying, "Remember these days Traci."

  • kellydesigns

    Kelly Hendershot from kellydesigns said 5 years ago

    I can't help but think of the time it takes to create these grottos. Amazing!

  • volkerwandering

    Jess from volkerwandering said 5 years ago


  • leeannasjewerybox

    Leeanna from LeeannasJewelryBox said 5 years ago

    It's wonderful that Gilmore's passion for her work was recognized and was able to inspire others.

  • hmmills

    Helen Mills from 1820BagCo said 5 years ago

    I've been to the gotto in Iowa, and pictures do no justice to the amount of work and detail that went into building it... It is quite amazing.

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 5 years ago

    What amazing work! I wonder how long it takes to create one! Beautiful!

  • GracefullyGirly

    Kimberlee from GracefullyGirly said 5 years ago Featured

    I love to see things from the past resurrected and enjoyed once again. The grottos look so amazing with all that stone work. I can't even imagine the time and back breaking work it took.

  • HansHolzkopf

    Natalie from HansHolzkopf said 5 years ago

    wow!very beautiful works!

  • ProfessorTiny

    Susan Sanford from ProfessorTiny said 5 years ago

    Fascinating article. I am a long time fan of Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens in Athens, Georgia. The mosaic process is indeed hypnotic. Isiaih Zagar has done remarkable work in Philadelphia in this medium.

  • nicolanis

    Michelle from FoamyFactory said 5 years ago

    Amazing work and pictures!

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth said 5 years ago

    INCREDIBLE. I love to see handcrafted structures like these because they are unique, one of a kind... something that a machine can never do. ♥

  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 5 years ago

    Fascinating lesson. Thank you.

  • StringBeardCraftery

    Stephanie from StringBeardCraftery said 5 years ago

    Wow. Those pictures were abolutely gorgeous.

  • WaterlilyStudio

    Suzanne from JanuaryGirlJewelry said 5 years ago Featured

    I've been to the grotto in West Bend, and I agree with Helen - the pictures do not do it justice - it truly glitters with all the geologic materials and most of it is made using intricate patterns, rather than random placement. A stunning place to reflect and unwind! :)

  • LeasaMarie

    Leasa from LeasaDesigns said 5 years ago

    Wow - I have never seen the gotto featured in anything- would be great to see on a road trip some day! Reminds me of Barcelona, Spain - only with rocks!

  • pollymakes

    Polly Tucknott from PollyTucknott said 5 years ago

    I once went for a drink in Britain's official weirdest pub, in Devon. It had a carriage for the entrance porch, a sailing ship's cabin for the restaurant and a cave/fairy grotto complete with rocks and mini rock pool next to the bar. You could get a drink then climb down into the grotto and drink with your head peeking out at floor level. V odd, but fun!

  • HalleyDawn

    Halley Dawn from HalleyDawn said 5 years ago Featured

    This is absolutely amazing! I have studied mosaics for years, how have I never heard of this paradise? Thank you so much for sharing, I must make a trip to the midwest sometime in the very near future. Miss Linzee, thank you so very much for this story, and also for featuring my mosaic planter! I am honored.

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 5 years ago

    Wonderful and amazing!

  • dianacolada

    Diana said 5 years ago

    So great! The story behind these works are fascinating. I've had the pleasure of taking in the grotto on the Mount Mercy campus after my sister's graduation from there. I'm glad I read the comments too, since now that I live in Georgia I can stop by the gardens mentioned in Athens. Woohoo!

  • IkvothaMashiach70

    Gabrielle Knight from RuffleNBustle said 5 years ago

    What beautiful places these are! You can tell the people who made them just poured their hearts and passion into them. I'm amazed by the beauty and detail.

  • solocosmo

    Jessica Grundy from solocosmo said 5 years ago

    Holy WOW!

  • SquidWhaleDesigns

    Elizabeth McTear from HonestAlchemyCo said 5 years ago

    I want to go to there. (Liz Lemon)

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 5 years ago

    Amazing to see what one person can achieve in their lifetime, strangely beautiful I love how organic it seems

  • berrysbeanies

    Wendy Hogue Berry from berrysbeanies said 5 years ago

    Thank you so much for featuring the Iowa grotto. I went there when I was a kid and forgot just how impressive it was.

  • cberez

    CB DESIGN'S from CBDesignsPR said 5 years ago

    Love it!

  • BCtwo

    Katrina Balling from BCtwo said 5 years ago

    lovely, thank you for sharing!

  • gardenjewels

    Julie DeGroot from JewelsInTheGarden said 5 years ago

    Such Beauty featured here ~ Awe-inspiring work! Loved this article!

  • messinabella

    messinabella from BandBEstate said 5 years ago

    Great article!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 5 years ago

    I can't decide whether this is obsession or simply artistic vision run slightly wild, but the results are certainly impressive.

  • AllOccasionsWrapping

    Reina Blocker from AllOccasionsWrapping said 5 years ago

    Wow! Its so neat to think about a person having some much love inside them to construct such masterful artistry. There are not many imaginery's in this world that would dedicate basically their lives to a work, let alone do it for free. I would what he was thinking about as he placed each stone. I wonder if God and him had amazing conversations during the peace and quiet or if his mind was just full of creativity with the designs buzzing around in his head as placed each rock. I've never been there, but I'd sure love to go, just to touch his and others' work. Just to be there...ahhhh!

  • CTCosta

    Chris Costa from CTCostaPhotography said 5 years ago

    Amazing work!

  • EmSewCrazy

    Emily from EmSewCrazy said 5 years ago

    This is facinating! What a great example of artistic passion!

  • onlineleila

    That Leila Girl from onlineleila said 5 years ago

    Grottos are truly an ageless art that are birthed out of the creative spirit, hearts, minds and souls of those with a passionate fortitude that allows them to keep reaching foward into the future...that with each elemental placement there goes yet another strident stroke of attempting to give form to the inner self that strives to emerge a heartfelt mirror of creative thrust...I have never before had a yearning to see Iowa until I stumbled upon this wonderful is a gift of slowing down with the natural beginnings of autumn so richly surrounding me during this otherwise domesticated beginning of my work recalls for me the magic of standing before the small Khalil Gibran Museum in B'sharra...a still small mountainside village amid the Cedars of Lebanon...a mosaic of my own inner life which reflects the shared consciousness of all that is beyond the realm of the natural...that which seeks the supernatural worth is beyond religious monuments and iconography which remind us to live is more so the bringing of the heavenlies closer to our natural world so that we may be reminded to stop and smell the live in abundant annointing of the aroma of the Creator's blessed breath...we are but the crystalline prism of all the perfumed petals that promise our greatest flowering...thank you for the angelic kisses from heaven which I now look foward to seeing myself one day soon.

  • rickrackshack

    Vanessa Ryerse from TheMosaicButterfly said 5 years ago

    Having a very good idea of just what these works entail, I am fascinated and yet, not at all surprised that someone would choose this medium to express their religious ferver. My own tag line comes from the Bible, too: Gather up the fragments; let nothing be lost." So enjoyed this story!

  • PinkCheetahVintage

    PinkCheetahVintage from PinkCheetahVintage said 5 years ago

    would love to check those out in person-- cool article

  • papernickle

    Brandy from BrandyCupcakesStudio said 5 years ago

    I've been to the grotto in West Bend, and it is truly a sight to behold. Whether you are a religious person or not, all that piecework and glittering rock can certainly stir up wonder and amazement in your heart.

  • TheBeautyofBoredom

    Gracie from TheBeautyofBoredom said 5 years ago

    Wow, I live in Iowa and I have never heard of this! That is so incredible. He must have been working on this day and night for years. I could never come up with something like that. I wonder why he just kept building. Perhaps I will go and see it sometime. It is hard to believe that just one person created all of that. Crazy he got sued because he wouldn't stop! Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

  • DewyMorningVintage

    DewyMorningVintage from DewyMorningVintage said 5 years ago

    Gorgeous structures, so obviously built with amazing passion! I love that he did what he did only from passion and not monetary gain. Great interesting story!

  • tugboatprintshop

    Tugboat Printshop from tugboatprintshop said 5 years ago

    Wow wow wow ~ jawdropping cool! Thanks for sharing! Amazing to think about what is possible to create in 12 years time...

  • BirdEnergy

    Genise Park from GeniseParkArts said 5 years ago

    Beautiful structures! Truly amazing!

  • takeapicturedesigns

    Lynne from RiverSpring said 5 years ago

    I have traveled a bit in my time. But I have missed this. It would be awesome to see it. from Lynne

  • BobbiLewin

    Bobbi Lewin from BobbiLewin said 5 years ago

    I used to go to the Grotto in West Bend when I was a kid; I took my own children there years later. It's so fun to see this here:)

  • ParisCabinet

    JD Kohler from ParisCabinet said 5 years ago

    I love the cement mosaic and rock wonders by craftsmen! They are so creative. I remember one north of Amersfoort in the Netherlands in the early 1990s.

  • rubyfloy

    Nathalie Thompson from rubyfloy said 5 years ago

    Great article! When I grow up, I want to be a grotto builder and use ugly china as building materials. Thanks for the renewed inspiration!

  • nadene

    Even Howard from nadene said 5 years ago

    amazing places! Thanks for highlighting some of the history of art and reflection made manifest. The commitment of these creators is a reminder of the kernel of industry that I think exists in every heart.

  • iammieCLAYshop

    iammieCLAYshop from iammieCLAYshop said 5 years ago


  • wildthingz

    Andrea from wildthingz said 5 years ago


  • northbirdsong

    Jeanne B from KOUSAsupply said 5 years ago

    Absolutely fascinating feature! I LOVE grottoes, especially one of the most famous.....Lourdes in France!

  • PinwheelStudio

    Whitney from PinwheelStudio said 5 years ago

    Ah, what a beautiful work!! Thanks for featuring it so that we all can learn about it.

  • sarahgriffiths1560

    Sarah from LucidPrints said 5 years ago

    This is amazing! Love this! Sarah Griffiths Lucid Prints

  • secondarycreations

    Trudy Shaw from secondarycreations said 5 years ago

    I grew up with the grotto in West Bend. It's where we met up with our cousins from Minnesota every year, and I also went there as a Girl Scout and as an adult. I'd encourage anyone who goes there to not just wander around but take the guided tour (assuming they still have them) - you'll be even more amazed by what you learn. Geologists will be as captivated as artists (not that one person can't be both). I'm actually sitting here with tears running down my face. I think I need to go back. --Reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien building his cosmos as a "secret vice" for 20 years before sharing it with even his closest friends. But, then, everything reminds me of Tolkien...

  • secondarycreations

    Trudy Shaw from secondarycreations said 5 years ago

    P.S. I recognized the "Paradise Lost" picture immediately. Couldn't believe the grotto at West Bend would end up on Etsy!

  • TheEverlastingPosy

    TheEverlastingPosy from TheEverlastingPosy said 5 years ago

    Really interesting!

  • TheMoonlitStitch

    TheMoonlitStitch from TheMoonlitStitch said 5 years ago

    Amazing! And sad there are those who wish to destroy. ~*~Lisa

  • EmiliaFaith

    Edie Ann from OhHoneyHush said 5 years ago


  • rakijaa

    Kim from KimberlyAndertDesign said 5 years ago

    If you get to South Bend, Indiana, there is a grotto on the Notre Dame campus. Not grand, but it is a small replica of the one in France, Our Lady of Lourdes. It is also a gathering place for reflection and prayer. It is a must on the list of people who are married on campus, visitors, students, etc....

  • kristenvsmothra

    Kristen Rogers from TryTryAgainVintage said 5 years ago

    What a great post. I would lovelovelove to see something like this in person.

  • michellegale

    Shelly from michellegale said 5 years ago

    I love this post! Growing up in northwest Indiana, I recall the grotto in Munster, Indiana. Now I live near another grotto in Lisle, Illinois.

  • blainedesign

    Karen Brown from blainedesign said 5 years ago

    When I think that our culture used to provide "sites of contemplation," it makes me pause -- and contemplate. This is a wonderful thing, Linzee. My family used to drive cross-country every summer and I saw many unusual things, but none as strange and beautiful as this. I do remember one stop-over somewhere in the midwest at the "The World's Largest Ball of String." As a tiny child, I stood before it -- and contemplated.

  • ElenaMary

    Elena Mary Siff from ElenaMary said 5 years ago

    Wonderful eccentric outsiders..would love to see the grotto..we have our own monument to outsiderness in Los Angeles called Watts Towers by Simon Rodia...if you ever get to L.A. do not miss it!

  • recycledwares

    Nerrissa W from RecycledWares said 5 years ago

    oh my, i didn't even know about this place - thanks for sharing. another place to add to my list of must sees.

  • kristinasmiley

    Kristina Smiley from CreativeEndeavorsKS said 5 years ago

    Fascinating story! Thank you for sharing!

  • printsofpeacedesign

    Bonnie from PrintsofPeaceDesign said 5 years ago

    I've been to the Grotto in West Bend also. Amazingly cute little town. I'd really recommend a visit. They have quite a few small shops and really promote one another very nicely.

  • Vida19

    Vida said 5 years ago

    Artists can't be religiously inspired? Inspiration comes from God, the original and ultimate creator, and you should never discount that to others or yourself.

  • apairofbluebirds

    apairofbluebirds from LoveAlwaysGalicia said 5 years ago

    WOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW! What gorgeous photos and article, thank you so much for this! :)

  • karankashyap

    karan kashyap said 5 years ago

    (^_^) Really very beautiful art of the stones and colors. i really like it. :=)

  • 7WishesDreamcatchers

    Sarah from 7WishesDreamcatchers said 5 years ago

    I am blow away by the beauty of this. I must visit one!

  • cole931

    SK Cole from SKColePortraitsNPics said 5 years ago

    Wow, these are great. Thanks for posting!

  • CrazyAngelArt

    Susanne Snyder from TheVintageHippy said 5 years ago

    Such a magical place that anyone...religious or not, can enjoy and marvel at the talent and dedication required to create such beauty.....Peace....

  • DylanRBrown

    Dylan from DBStampDesigns said 5 years ago

    Looks like Paradise has been found!

  • jmayoriginals

    jean from jmayoriginals said 5 years ago

    interesting. i would love to visit one.

  • BridgetBlue

    Robynn Rankin from BridgetBlue said 5 years ago

    Loved this blog! I am happy to see that the place has been not been lost, as so many structures have over the years.

  • Marniebydesign

    Marnie Fischetti said 4 years ago

    I'm so glad you posted this article. I grew up in NW Iowa & our family would take road trips to The Grotto in West Bend, IA many times. We now live in Greenville, South Carolina. I was trying to show my three kids pictures of it, but their website doesn't have any good pictures. So, used googled images and found your blog on Etsy. Thank you so much for taking time to write such a thorough article with great pictures.. I would love to bring my kids one day so they can experience the magnitude of The Grotto in person. Pictures just don't do it justice.

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