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Friends of the Wild Flower Garden

Notes on old springs in and around the

Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden & Bird Sanctuary
1939 - 1990

First-hand accounts

Ken Avery
Gardener Ken Avery

This document is a series of first-hand accounts concerning the activity of four natural springs in the area of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Theodore Wirth Park, Minneapolis, covering the time period 1939 to 1990.

For more details on one of those four - the Great Medicine Spring, and the rejuvenation work carried out on it by the Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, see this document - Great Medicine Spring.

During his tenure as Gardener at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden [1959-1986], Ken Avery wrote about the springs in and near the Garden. He provided considerable detail on their activity or lack of activity. His successor as gardener, Cary George, also made a few notes. Sometimes Mr. Avery’s description of what spring he is talking about raises some confusion due to the words he used to describe the location but we can clear that up with another source. In almost all cases his notes refer to the Great Medicine Spring. First - here is Ken’s earliest recollection:

“The first time I remember seeing the spring was in 1951 when I went through the Garden with a class from the University. At that time there were four springs in the area that were running - - There was one at the lower end of the Garden, one just outside the Garden toward the picnic ground (where, I’m told, people used to have parties on spring water and gin), and there was one kitty-corner to the present spring at Glenwood Avenue and Glenwood Parkway.”

“By the time I started in the Garden in 1954, all had dried up except for the present spring, but the water level there was some five feet higher than it is now, and there was a fountain there at that time. There was also the tiniest trickle of water coming from the spring in the Garden. The next year the trickle in the Garden was gone and the plumbers didn’t replace the fountain.” [The Fringed Gentian™ Vol. 23 No.1 Jan 1975] [See note on volume numbers at bottom of page.]

Except for the spring at the lower end of the Garden, which we shall deal with later in Martha Crones notes, his use of the term ‘the present spring’ can, years later, be a bit confusing to us as to location. We can clarify that with the following statement by long-time Friends member J. S. Futcher who wrote in 1992:

“When I was a kid, all three of the springs [ed. outside the Garden] were running and available for people to come with their jugs and take the water. Besides the main one, there was the one on the northwestern corner of Glenwood Avenue and Theodore Wirth Parkway, and the one to the east of the back gate.” [50 Years of Friends, published by The Friends in 1992]

Below: Map of South Wirth Park around the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden showing the locations of four springs mentioned in the text. Map from 1987 Garden Guide, updated by G D Bebeau

map of wirth park springs

The one Mr. Futcher calls ‘on the northwestern corner of Glenwood and Wirth Parkway’ is the one Avery calls ‘kitty-corner to the present spring’ and what Mr. Futcher calls the one ‘east of the back gate’ is the one Avery calls ‘just outside the Garden toward the picnic ground’. Mr. Futcher’s directions are exact as to where those other two springs are. The only one Mr. Futcher does not mention is the one inside the Garden that Martha Crone had work done on in 1939 and where Ken Avery states (above) “there was also the tiniest trickle of water . . . Thus, Mr. Futcher’s ‘main one’ is Mr. Avery’s ‘present spring’ - in other words - The Great Medicine Spring.

With that explanation, let’s read what Ken Avery wrote in the 1970’s:

“Finally, some of you might be interested in knowing that the spring (located in the bog just behind the Garden) has dried up just as it did last year. It had done this before but only after prolonged drought periods. Last year it dried up after a short dry spell and this year it did so before the drought started. I'm afraid our spring is gone.” [The Fringed Gentian™, Vol. 19 No. 4 October 1971]

Great Medicine Spring
The new fountain on the Great Medicine Spring, installed by a WPA masonary crew in 1939. Photo by Walter Dalhberg, 1939. Click on image for a larger photo.

Part of what makes his location description confusing is “located in the bog just behind the Garden”. There is a boggy area between the Garden and the location of the spring, but the spring itself is on raised ground.

“If you remember last year, [1970] the spring dried up in midsummer and then started to flow again in mid-November. This year [1971] it also dried up in midsummer and this fall I kept a faithful vigil to see when it would run again. It was not yet running when we left the Garden on December 1. At that time, however, I found by pushing a stick into the pipe that the water was less than two inches from the top. On December 5, my wife and I stopped at the Park to fill the bird feeders there and found a trickle of water coming from the pipe at the spring. By Christmas Day the trickle had increased to a significant little stream. It seems obvious that the area's water table has become progressively lower for the last decade or two, but it has remained quite constant for the last year or two so it may have reached, or at least be approaching, its lowest point.” [The Fringed Gentian™ Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 1972]

Great  medicine spring canopy
The new canopy over the new fountain on the Great Medicine Spring. Canopy built by Park Board carpenters and installed after the WPA masonary crew finished the fountain in 1939. Photo by Walter Dalhberg, 1939. Click on image for a larger photo.

“One physical phenomenon, which I have written of in the past and which seems to have been eliminated now, is the spring which ran from the time Minneapolis was first found until now -- I’m afraid that we have finally managed to bring an end to this faithful servant as we have to so many before it. I have checked the water level and it is still well below the the original present surface of of the ground (which is eighteen inches below the original contour of the earth). It may run again for short periods of time but I’m afraid it should no longer be called a spring anymore than we should call a puddle a lake.” [The Fringed Gentian™ Vol 21. No.1 Jan 1973]

“I’m afraid that this will be my last word on the spring which I have mentioned in my past reports. It remained dry all winter this year. I left town for a week and when I returned on March 17, I notice that someone had capped the spring. On my first day back in the Garden, (the 19th) I removed the cap and about one cup of water rushed out and then it was over; and I’m afraid it is over forever. Our spring has gone the way of the Passenger Pigeon and for somewhat the same reason.” [Fringed Gentian™ Vol. 21 No 2 April 1973]

“Guess What - - the spring is running again! The spring which I declared officially deceased in my report of March 1973 is running again. Actually I was wrong when I made my pronouncement as it never was completely dead, and even that year of 1973 it rose but it did so so late that I had already decided on its demise and had written its obituary. I think that the annual fluctuations of the spring are interesting and, assuming you will find them of some interest too, I will go back over its history.”

Below: The existing catch basin and pump of the Great Medicine Spring, not functional, as seen in 2008. Photo G D Bebeau.

Great Medicins Spring in 2008

That history he speaks of is the 1951 and 1954 comments given at the start of this article -
He then continues:

“During the next fifteen years the spring flowed at different rates depending on the rains and on the season. It dried up two or three times during droughts and each year the average level of the water was lower than the year before. Then in 1970 it dried up in mid-summer during a little drought as it had done in the past, but it was establishing a new cycle. That year it didn't come back until mid-November.”

“Then the next July, just as it had the previous year, it dried up. This time we hadn’t even had a good dry spell, and it didn’t come back until the first week in December. The next year it ran a little less and then in 1973 it didn’t return until mid-April after I had declared it dead. Last spring it came back equally late but it lasted a little later into the summer before it dried up. Now it’s back running again. I found the first trickle of water coming from it on the 5th of December and it is running fairly well now. Until this year my feeling that the area was slowly drying up explained all but its actions this last year have me puzzled. I guess I can add that to that book I’m compiling of natural phenomena that I can’t explain.” [The Fringed Gentian™ Vol. 23 No.1 Jan 1975]

“For those of you who are waiting breathlessly for news of the Garden spring. It is flowing stronger than it has for at least 10 years.” [The Fringed Gentian™ Vol. 27 No.1 Spring 1979]

The spring obviously ran periodically and sporadically in the years after 1979 as that is when Steve and Sally Pundt remember getting spring water along with others. [see article on Spring rejuvenation by The Friends] But at a meeting of the Friends board of directions on April 15, 1989, Gardener Cary George stated that the spring outside the Garden had dried up. While it may or may not have run again, the lack of water and poor quality of what water there was, led to the suggestion that The Friends should undertake the project of rejuvenating the spring.

It is also obvious from Ken Avery’s notes that the water table was lowering long before the I-394 construction occurred. While the dewatering for the freeway construction cannot be said to cause the drying up of the springs in the area, it is probably contributing to water levels not rising again.

The Natural Spring at Glenwood Ave. and Glenwood Parkway

Each day hundreds of people drive by the intersection of Wirth Parkway and Glenwood Ave., perhaps on their way to or from the Wildflower Garden just around the corner on Wirth Parkway. Most probably never pay any attention to this ragged group of shrubbery on the NW corner of the intersection, but therein lies one of the four natural springs in the immediate area of the Wildflower Garden.

MW corner of Wirth Parkway and Glenwood Ave

In the text above on this page the location of this spring is identified by both former Eloise Butler gardener Ken Avery and by Friends member J.S. Futcher. Mr. Avery states that in 1951 the spring was still running. It was one of three running springs in the immediate vicinity of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, plus the spring in the Garden, but that by 1954 it had dried up.

Their remains today a metal pipe sticking out of the ground and the crumbling semi-circle of stonework. In 1939 a WPA masonary crew installed that stone work and a catch basin. They came back in 1941 and installed concrete steps leading from the Parkway down to the spring. Today, nature has taken over, the staircase is gone, but the traces of history are there.

Spring on Glenwood and Theo Wirth Parkway
As seen today: The catch basin of the old spring at the corner of Glenwood Ave and Theodore Wirth Parkway with old capped pipe showing. Photo - 2016, G D Bebeau.
old spring catchbasin
The old catch basin of the spring just prior to 1939 WPA concrete work. Photo by Walter B. Dahlberg.
Spring at Glenwood Ave
New stonework just completed by the WPA crew in 1939 at the corner of Glenwood and what is now Wirth Parkway. Photo by Walter B. Dahlberg. Click on image for larger version.
1941 steps added to spring
In 1941 a WPA masonary crew added these concrete steps leading off Glenwood Parkway down to the spring basin. Photo by Walter B. Dalhberg.

Martha Crone’s notes on the Spring in the Garden.

Martha Crone
Martha Crone in the Upland Garden in June 1951, from an article in the Minneapolis Tribune.

Martha Crone was Curator of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden from 1933 through 1958, succeeding Eloise Butler. During that time an open pool of water was maintained in the marsh area of the Garden. It filled naturally from rainwater and from the general level of water in the marsh, which came from runoff and from a spring. The 1930s were mostly dry years and water levels fluctuated considerable. In 1939 during late summer and into fall Martha started of project of the tapping of a spring in the marsh to fill the pool of open water maintained there. [This is the spring the Ken Avery refers to in his notes as being reduced to a trickle.]

Old spring by back gate
The catch basin of the old spring just outside and east of the Garden's back gate, 1939 construction. Photo - 2015 G D Bebeau.

On August 22 a group of men came in and began looking for a spring near the pool. While they were there they closed up a hole in the office dug by a woodchuck. On the 28th the men struck the spring on the west side of the pool, they secured the area from their work making it un-noticeable. The spring had a large flow and within 24 hours had noticeably put water in the pool. By the 31st, the pool was running over so on Sept. 2nd the men came back and put in a drain pipe so the pool would drain excess water through a pipe. This crew may have been the same WPA masonary crew had been placing new masonry work around the other springs near the Garden, of which there were the three mentioned above - the one behind the Garden back gate, the Great Medicine Spring and the oneon the Northwest corner of Theodore Wirth Parkway and Glenwood Ave. [Notes from Martha Crone’s diary, 1939, Minnesota Historical Society.]

The 1939 semi-circular stonework around the spring on Glenwood and the one outside the back gate of the Garden are identical whereas the 1939 stonework of the Great Medicine Spring was removed when the fountain was dismantled. It is unclear when the existing rectangular stone catch basin was put in, but it is just downhill from the pump on the spring and predates the work done by the Friends in 1999/2000.