Known in folklore for their mischievous but kind and welcoming nature, garden gnomes unite locals

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - There are six types of gnomes -- woodland gnomes, dune gnomes (pictured here), garden gnomes, farm gnomes, house gnomes and Siberian gnomes. Becky Tengs doesn’t just leave her gnomes in her yard.

She brings them inside her home. She takes them to weddings. She eats with them at nice restaurants, where they have their own place-settings (and very small portions served by indulgent waiters).

From outdoor décor to traveling companions to community builders to conversation ice-breakers, garden gnomes aren’t just funny figurines with hearts of stone.

For three local gnomeowners — a Forest Grove teacher, a Washington County judge, the entire Banks Country Garden Club — they’re passions.

They’re also steeped in folklore, history and popular culture, with roles in books and movies.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, gnomes were first named by Medieval scholar Paracelcus.

They were seen as mythical creatures much like trolls or dwarves, considered spirits in Renaissance magic and were penned into early fairy tales, such as the Brothers Grimm story “The Gnome.”

Gnome statuettes started appearing in Germany in the 19th Century to decorate and protect lawns from sorcery, and are still a staple in many a local yard.

Tengs has about 70 gnomes dotting her five partially wooded acres near Bald Peak, and they all have what Tengs calls “old man grandpa” gnomenclature — Carlton, Martin, Farney, Leigh, Jack.

Many were given to her as presents on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays or at the end of the school year.

Tengs’ preoccupation with gnomes is legendary at the Forest Grove Community School, where she teaches third and fourth grades. Students know her classroom doubles as a gnome sanctuary and have wallpapered it with gnome drawings. This year, one student even painted Tengs in the likeness of a gnome.

In her yard, Tengs’ mini-man menagerie is carefully arranged so there are always two or three huddled together in the shrubbery — so they don’t get lonely, she said.

Tengs is drawn to their docile faces, subtle charm and coy expressions. “They inspire my childlike imagination and wonder,” she said.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Gerome the Traveling Gnome, who travels with the ladies of the Banks Country Garden Club, appears as if he sleeps all the time, but is actually quite active. ‘Pick me, choose me’

In Banks, the ladies of the Banks Country Garden Club also offer refuge to these unshaven gents. They rescued one particular sleepy gnome from the bleak shelves of a big store, christening him Gerome the Traveling Gnome.

“He is so popular, at our meetings we have to put our names in a hat just to see who gets picked to take him home. Whoever gets picked gets to have him for a whole month, 30 days. We wait with baited breath ‘Pick me, choose me,’” Banks Country Garden Club President Rita Hofsheier writes, describing Gerome as “A gentleman that roams from woman to woman, garden to garden, never asking anything in return but a soft place to sleep.”

Gerome composes a monthly update for the club’s newsletter.

“I was placed under a very pretty Japanese Maple in the front yard until I learned there was a large garter snake in residence there and I said, ‘No way,’” Gerome writes under his gnome de plume while staying at Nancy Haskin’s house.

“Does she think that gnomes hibernate just like a bear?” Gerome complains at Dalice Sawyer’s house — writing under a pseudognome, of course. “She has kept me in the basement since she brought me home in October.”

Judge’s soft spot

In Hillsboro, Washington County Circuit Court Judge Gayle Nachtigal runs her courtroom with a firm hand, routinely sending convicted criminals off to prison. But Nachtigal has a soft spot. COURTESY PHOTO: GAYLE NACHTIGAL - Clyde II went to Bike Week in Sturgis, South Dakota, last year.

Nachtigal received her first gnome as a gift and now her collection features about 20 of the bewhiskered rascals.

“Once you get one gnome, they seem to find you,” explained Nachtigal, who also sports gnome key chains, earrings and socks.

She and her husband, Hillsboro City Councilor Fred Nachtigal, decided to bring along one gnome — Clyde — on a trip and have since continued that tradition.

Clyde, alas, fell off a railing at a German zoo and died, Judge Nachtigal said, but he was replaced by Clyde II, a veritable gnomad who has since traveled across the United States and Europe, from the Grand Canyon to England’s Parliament.

“When you start taking pictures with your gnomes, soon people want to be in your pictures, Nachtigal said. “Then you just meet all kinds of whimsical people.”

Under Nachtigal’s watchful eye, Clyde will never end up in gnome-man’s land.

“If more of us had whimsical things like this, life might be a little brighter,” Nachtigal said. “It’s hard to get angry or upset when you’re with a gnome.”

Harmlesss sprites or evil creatures?

Gnomes are known wedding-lovers who also smoke pipes

"Gnomes," a 1976 book written by Wil Huygen and illustrated by Rien Poortvliet, is a fanciful account of gnome anatomy, origins and history, folklore, home life and activities. It was a New York Times bestseller for more than a year.

Although there have been children’s, Christmas and craft books centered on gnomes, "Gnomes" is widely accepted as the standard for gnome knowledge.

According to Huygen, an adult male gnome weighs about 300 grams and is about 15 centimeters tall, with feet slightly turned in for ideal speed across grass.

Their average lifespan is 400 years and boy gnomes begin to gray at about 80.

Gnomes are vegetarians.

Huygen pens that gnomes are Scandinavian beings -- although they now live all over the world -- who live underground, protect crops and livestock, and for the most part are on good terms with other NEWS-TIMES PHOTO - As the chairman of the seven-member Metro Council, Tom Hughes is a Metro-gnome.

But could gnomes be hiding a darker side?

In "How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack," Chuck Sambuchino lists risk factors for an attack, starting with number one: “For some insane reason, you actually own lawn gnomes."

Other factors include living alone, living in a suburban or rural house on secluded, wooded acreage, and following a strict, predictable routine.

Someone like Bald Peak resident Becky Tengs, who allows her gnomes to live in groups and therefore plot together, seems prime for attack.

But Tengs believes her gnomes would actually rise up to protect her. “Their life work is to care for animals and tease humans. They are not violent, but rather benevolent creatures,” said Tengs.

Gnome attacks on gnomeowners are "rare but not unheard of," according to Capt. Mike Herb of the Forest Grove Police Department.

“Gnome attacks are vastly under-reported, likely due to the embarrassment of some homeowners who knowingly purchased or procured a gnome in the first place," Herb writes.

He suggests fearful gnomeowners try "blocking small passageways and securing small tools highly sought after by gnomes.

"Police are further challenged by the meek and benevolent appearance of gnomes. They also appear very unassuming and stand stoically motionless during our patrols.”

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