Weekend Wanderlust: Get lost in the Temple of Tolerance

Kevin J. Elliott
The Temple of Tolerance in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Ohio is borne of mythos. The name refers to the river, the “big” river, or the “great” river. Or, my favorite translation from the Iroquois “ohiyo,” and what should be our tourism tagline: “It is beautiful.”

Ohio, the proverbial flyover, has river towns, lake towns, canal towns and plenty of railroad towns. It has towns in rural prairies, towns in deep hills and towns like Wapakoneta, which have little explanation.

Were Neil Armstrong not born in Wapakoneta, it may have fallen off the map or been relegated forever as a former French fort abandoned in 1794. Should you adventure into Wapak, you will encounter a stuck-in-amber, extremely proud downtown. There’s an off-the-radar vintage store; a beautiful, one-screen theater; a historic courthouse; and a strangely un-scaled statue of Armstrong, commemorating his return to Wapakoneta in a grand parade after being the first person to walk on the moon. A true Ohio visionary.

That said, you probably aren’t pulling into Wapak to venture to its center. You're likely there for Neil. Directly off of 1-75 you'll see a building designed to look like a “futuristic moon base.” That’s the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum, an elementary field-trip staple filled with modest exhibits meant to honor those who “defied gravity.” For now, you can’t visit. Hopefully that will soon change.

“There are a lot of factors to consider as we move to reopen," said Savannah Robles, PR coordinator for the Ohio History Connection. "At the heart of all of our decision-making is our commitment to keeping guests and staff safe.”

As always, I will stay abreast of any changes and report back here, as I’m eager to explore these sites and museums, many of which tend to already be “socially distanced.”

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Luckily, Wapakoneta is also home to another iconoclast, Jim Bowsher. His business card touts him as a “writer, archaeologist, folklore collector, and lecturer,” but most people in town know him as the eccentric figure who built the Temple of Tolerance in his backyard.

Bowsher's house is off-kilter from the rest in this quiet neighborhood on South Wood Street. In the front, it’s wildly decorated with strange tchotchkes and graffitied propaganda. Walking up the steps to the porch feels slightly spooky in its desolation. It’s a quiet, almost meditative space. A missile hangs from the roof emblazoned with the word “peace.”

Behind Bowsher’s driveway, inhabiting his nearly 2 acres of land, can best be described as an elaborate rock garden — a labyrinth of boulders and found artifacts assembled to give visitors the illusion of “infinite space.” As an Ohio adventurer, I’ve visited the Temple several times over the years, and in each trip I find something whimsical and new. It’s easy to get lost in the place. It’s easy to believe in Bowsher’s magic.

Relying on providence, Bowsher hasn’t closed the Temple throughout the pandemic. I called him on a Tuesday afternoon and got his answering machine, which relays a message I’ve received for the last decade: “I’m out making the world a better place than to which I was born.”

As I started to leave my own message... he picked up. I immediately asked Bowsher why he stayed open.

“It has its own spirit,” Bowsher said. “And I think that spirit is more powerful than the illness. I do believe something’s happened here, something magical. I have to be careful. I have to let it be a spontaneous space. I can’t muck with that magic too much.”

Before this becomes a story of a rebel defying orders or snubbing government regulations, Bowsher can and has regulated the Temple — as much as he can from his kitchen window, at least. It’s always been a place to social distance. In the last two months, he’s seen bikers, nuns and wayward fathers bringing their children through, but he claims everyone traversed through the Temple safely.

“I created it as a beacon for the lost,” said Bowsher, who spent 25 years as a creative writing instructor to prisoners and juvenile delinquents before having the epiphany to build somewhere those troubled souls could find a place of their own. “When I started, it was for alcoholics and those who were addicted. And here you have all the world. You have no triggers. You are mainlining rocks.”

Since 1994, Bowsher has been transforming and adding to the maze of geology, history and spirituality in his backyard, eventually buying up other backyards to extend his vision. At first, the Temple is just an oddity wrapped around his garage, with bowling balls lining the walls, a series of shrines and grottos adorned with wrought-iron arches and birds, a bust of Abraham Lincoln. But then it starts dividing, through various gates, past a barrel house, past the bank counter John Dillinger robbed, past a piece of the high school foundation on which Armstrong met his future wife, and into the final dais: a multi-level structure of rocks that looks over the entire expanse.

Though Bowsher has claimed to have finished the project in 1999, every day since he’s been adding objects and warping the trails through it. My first attempt at an interview with him was met with the excuse that he’d be busy for weeks — a sign that he was content in the madness of his project, but also at complete peace with exactly where his project should be. A constant enigma.

In your quest through the site, you’ll encounter Bowsher’s favorite rock — an erratic, banded stone found in front of Annie Oakley’s house. You'll see the front step of Wapakoneta’s Ku Klux Klan downtown base (stepping upon it removes its power, Bowsher says) and a 4.2 million-year-old hunk of magma filled with energy because native people believed the rock was made by a prehistoric man.

The “rock and wrought” aesthetic has baffled the architects, designers and philosophers who have passed through the temple, according to Bowsher. “Man came from caves and stone,” he said. "So everyone feels a strange connection to this place when you’re here.”

If we really want to make a connection, at least in the Ohio mythos, we can tie a thread between Neil and Jim. One searched for the rock farthest away, the other for the ones buried deepest in our earth.

“When people with low self-esteem or personal problems climb to the top, the Temple becomes a great motivator,” Bowsher said. “For others, roaming the grounds causes people to simply slow down and observe.”

That’s exactly the travel we all need right now.

203 S. Wood St.

Wapakoneta, Ohio

Open daily from dawn to dusk

The Temple of Tolerance