Gig Harbor’s ‘Turtle Man’ Has a New Project
By Colin Anderson
There is a secret Gnome Village in Gig Harbor. Few know about it, but if you walk the Cushman Trail and pass Wilkinson Park, you have come close to finding it. Roger Johnson is best known as the “Turtleman of Gig Harbor” because one of his hobbies is to make brightly colored stone turtles and give them away to people he sees doing acts of kindness. There’s a decent chance that you’ve seen one of Roger’s colorful turtles either at a downtown business, a medical facility, or in a friend or loved one’s home.
“I typically make and give away two of my rock turtles each week, and considering that I've been doing this for 10 years, I've given away at least 600," Roger shares.
Each turtle is a unique work of art, and although he continues to make them, he has found himself immersed in another unique art project.
In June of 2018, Roger and his wife Elizabeth moved into a new home in Gig Harbor that backs up to the east edge of Wilkinson Park. During a storm, a massive Madrone tree broke and fell close to their home. “The damaged tree had now become an eminent threat to our home, so I hired a professional tree faller to cut it down to just 10 feet tall so that I had the option to build myself a tree house someday." During a drive to Port Townsend, Elizabeth spotted a stump in a yard that had a door, a shingled roof, and flower pots hanging from the sides. She pointed and said, “There! That's what you should do to our Madrone.”
A week later, Roger had decorated his stump much the same way—with a temporary peaked roof, a small door and several painted bird houses. Voila! Roger was now inspired to build a real gnome village atop several tree stumps left over from when the land was cleared. He began the project with an extensive internet research for designs and decided to begin with the shortest of the three stumps. Being an “old hand” at innovation, Roger built walls of sticks and wire mesh, and then covered this framework with mortar to mimic tree bark. He built a rock chimney, covered the roof with miniature shake shingles, and used terracotta pots for the door and windows. With a hand on the roof, Roger says, “This first gnome home took me from spring to fall to build, but now that I understand the process and the various materials involved, I could transform most any tree stump into a gnome home in a month."
That was 2019, and fortunately, Roger did not stop at just one gnome home. He decided that the second and third homes needed to be more complex. For the roofs, he ordered large sugar pine cones, broke them apart and used the scales for shingles. There's a rope ladder, a snaking stairway with a rope handrail, and even an arched bridge between the two stumps that is home to a hungry troll. Roger populates the village with gnomes and fairies he finds at garage sales and thrift stores but would welcome "gift gnomes" from visitors.
On sunny days when Roger is working in his backyard, hikers will often stop to greet him. Similar to spreading smiles through his turtle giveaways, Roger will invite people off the trail to come take a look at his Secret Gnome Village. Everyone is amazed at the attention to detail, and everybody takes photographs to send to loved ones. “Several people have offered to pay me to build them a gnome home on their tree stump, but I explain that I don't have that kind of time. I will, however, give them advice on how to do it themselves. I would love to see more gnome villages start springing up all over Gig Harbor and the nearby communities."
Keeping busy and providing smiles is what it’s all about for Roger. If you're lucky, you’ll still find him handing out turtles around town. While he’s not sure what project he’ll do next, it’ll definitely be something that brings joy to friends, family and the people of Gig Harbor. “Looking back at my overlapping careers as a Navy helicopter pilot for 21 years, as a firefighter for 27 years, as a professional cartoonist for 12 years and an author of 14 novels, God has blessed me with a wonderful life. Now, Lord willing, it's time to spread those blessings to others through my novels, as I give away my turtles, and as I share my Gnome Village with my community.”
Roger welcomes anybody reading this article to come and enjoy his Secret Gnome Village in person—especially those with children they wish to inspire by his unique art form. To request a personal visit, you can email him at email@example.com.