The elderly man had not uttered a word in over a year until he saw the garden of miniatures in Susie and Bob Kagel’s front yard.
It is like a model train set on steroids, but without the train — a collection of outdoor dioramas among rocks, creeping thyme, Irish moss and boxwood bushes at 944 Hudson Trail, Lake Geneva.
To call it a fairy garden doesn’t do it justice. Sure, there are fairies, mermaids and other magical and mythical beings.
But there are also elephants, turtles, orangutans, kangaroos, dogs, cars, a farm, houses, a beach, an in-ground pool, a tiki bar. It’s a miniature world, one Susie describes as “whimsical but realistic,” perhaps best encapsulated by a scene where a boat is being attacked by a gang of sea creatures that includes a giant octopus and a shark.
“My husband got me to add that,” Susie said, of the shark. She said Bob calls it Bruce, after the animatronic shark that was used in the filming of the movie “Jaws.”
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The garden of tiny wonders in the Kagels’ front yard attracts guests on a daily basis. While Susie enjoys putting a smile on people’s faces, there was one encounter that had a profound impact on the Kagels.
One morning, Bob looked out his window and saw an elderly couple by the garden. After noticing they were still there for over a half-hour, Susie went outside and talked to them.
She learned the elderly man suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Due to his severe dementia, he did not speak to anyone.
The man’s wife told Susie that, once she showed him the garden, he sat down on the bench and began to talk to his wife the way he used to 25 years ago, remembering the garden they used to have, how they would take carrots to their neighbors.
“It brought back all these memories for him, and he talked for like 40 minutes, just nonstop,” Susie said.
Another day, a woman brought her autistic son to see the garden. “He said, ‘I love it. It’s a little world,'” said Susie.
The little world is making a bigger impact on the community, even beyond their neighbors in the Townline Trails subdivision.
Susie believes about 30 people stop by to check it out each day.
Sometimes, it’s groups of people. One day, Susie discovered the Burlington Garden Club taking in the sights at her garden.
“I didn’t know they were going to come, but when I came out, they asked me to join the garden club and it was kind of neat,” she laughed.
Creative and artistic, Susie is also a people person, which is perhaps why she worked for 35 years for the U.S. Postal Service, at the post office in Lake Geneva.
Having retired about five years ago, she discovered she missed being around people.
Fortunately, her garden has attracted a following.
One of the girls in their neighborhood stops by the garden to have breakfast, sitting on one of the benches the Kagels put out for guests.
On June 22, Eloise and Lily Baertschy, ages 10 and 8, respectively, pointed out various figures and scenes to each other with wide-eyed wonder.
Each week, the Kagels hide a Sasquatch figure somewhere in the garden. It’s a challenge for the children to see if they can find it.
Susie said one boy from Genoa City stops by regularly. His grandmother drives him there.
When asked what inspired her to create such a unique garden, Susie recalled living near the Lake Geneva Public Library. About 25 years ago, the Kagels were raising three children, and each night they would walk down to Library Park to feed the ducks.
Along the way was a house that had a 5-foot-tall castle made of concrete in its yard.
“They had little princesses in the turrets, little dragons down below, a little moat,” Susie said. “My kids just loved it.”
Once, the figurines were stolen and it upset the Kagel children so much that Susie and her kids went to numerous thrift stores to buy replacements.
“We gave (the castle owner) a big bag of all different things, and she put them out there,” Susie said. “It was fun for the kids to see where she put all the little figurines and everything.”
Over 11 years ago, after the Kagels moved into Townline Trails, Susie decided to put her own take on the idea.
She started small, with one tiny house in a rock garden.
“People were knocking on my door, saying how cute that was — just one little house,” Susie said.
Each year, she would add more to it. Now, she doesn’t even know how many pieces are in the garden. “Thousands,” she said.
“Every year it’s different. I might buy a new house or something like that, then I have to figure out where I’m going to fit it in and then maybe the old area where the scene was doesn’t even work at all.”
Susie said it takes about 150 hours to bring everything outside.
But at the end of each season, the pieces are stored in black bins. After spending a couple hundred dollars on animal figurines for the garden one year, the sun faded them.
“I was sitting there, painting stripes on zebras and spots on giraffes,” Susie said.
Then she found an ingenious solution. She uses the same spray used to keep boat cushions from fading in the sun, a kind of sunscreen that she dunks each figure in before it returns to the garden.
Susie believes her attention to detail is what draws people. It is not something to glance at then pass by. Further inspection reveals such attributes as the writing on a box of chips, foam on a beer mug, even the pedals on the floor of a golf cart.
Susie made a Japanese tea house for her garden by taking off the rim from a tiny clock face, which she used as a window frame. Then, she wove pieces from a rattan place mat to make the walls of the tea house.
Just like that castle made the Kagel family happy years ago, Susie’s garden is bringing that same feeling to others.
And Susie couldn’t be happier.
“I love to make people happy and make them smile and just think about something that’s fun,” she said. “With all the troubles in the world, it’s just something lighthearted.”
World of tiny wonders: 19 photos from the fairy garden of Lake Geneva’s Susie Kagel