When I was a child my family took a family vacation to San Antonio, Texas to see the Alamo of course. While on our trip we drove through Stephenville, Texas because Texas artist Jerry Bywaters had told my father about a strange and wonderful place called Ray’s Ornamental Gardens.
Much later while in college my sculpture teacher Sam Hernadez did a presentation about some outsider art sites that he and his wife Jo Farb Hernández had photographed and documented. I lit up when Sam started talking about Ray’s Ornamental Gardens in Stephenville because my girl friend and future wife was from Stephenville.
Trinkets and Rayism
Sam Hernadez was most gracious in giving me a couple of the tinted postcards and a booklet called “Our Experience” that he and Jo had collected and were originally sold for 10 cents in the garden’s gift shop.
“Our Experience” is full of “Rayisms” such as:
“God is peace. God is love. God is right, and man is right with God when he is right with man and wrong with God when he is wrong with man. Salvation is to right the wrong between man and man, and is no less than to do good to each other.”
I treasured these items and thankfully still have them.
George Ellis Ray: Store Owner and Outsider Artist
George Ellis Ray was born in February 16, 1881 in Wayne County, Tennessee. He married his first wife, Melissa Martha May Gallaher in May 1900 and they had 4 children. They moved to Stephenville, Texas where George owned a general merchandise store downtown.
Melissa passed away in Stephenville in 1932 and it is thought it was then he started building the gardens. Sometime later he married his second wife Ruth.
The gardens were constructed out of concrete embedded with tile, colored glass, and ceramic pieces and hand painted signs of text. The garden was wired for lights that illuminated the garden and sculptures. In the middle of the garden was a big orb form put together from pieces of quartz. I can imagine at night it looked like a meteorite had crashed into the middle of the garden.
Supposedly when people strolled through the gardens, gospel music would play through a loud-speaker.
In its heyday, the gardens became a popular place where locals and people traveling through Stephenville would come to visit. Even my in-laws went to the gardens on some of their first dates.
On my first visit to Stephenville to meet my future in-laws, my wife and I took a little field trip out to the gardens. The garden was up on top of a hill overlooking the dry branch of the Bosque River.
When I turned onto the street, the state of the site was heart breaking. After the gardens creator, George Ellis Ray, passed away there was no one to maintain the property and it fell into disrepair and was also heavily vandalized. I’ve heard it said that some people have bits and pieces of the garden in their backyards.
The property had changed hands several times and one of the previous owners had bulldozed a lot of it off the side of the hill toward the river and the rest of it he was stacking lumber and junk on.
George Ellis Ray died July 3, 1957 at the age of 76.
From archived information on SPACES archives he died from schizophrenia /dementia.
He was buried at East Memorial Cemetery in Stephenville.
An Eerie Beauty
There is not much that still stands of the once glorious Ray’s Ornamental Gardens and not many people who presently live in Stephenville even knew it was there.
Photos by Tyler Wade Tuggle
To find out more information on Ray’s Ornamental Gardens and other similar sites:
Empire-Tribune article December 1, 1972
A special thanks to Jo Farb Hernadez of SPACES archives and Sam Hernadez for the gift of the tinted postcards and the copy of “Our Experience” and Jean Gaines for loaning me some wonderful photographs. To all the people who’ve joined Ray’s Ornamental Garden FaceBook group, and to Connie Conatser who found more photos from old family scrapbooks and shared them. To Tyler Wade Tuggle for taking the pictures of how it presently looks. To Johnny West who shared his stories of his grandparents who lived next door to the Rays and to Gene Fowler for his continued interest in the site.
I am hoping that more photos and postcards will surface.