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Friends of the Wildflower Garden

Notes on old springs in and around the
Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden & Bird Sanctuary

First-hand accounts

Ken Avery
Gardener Ken Avery

This document features 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 1916 to the present.

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.

The Great Medicine Spring

In almost all cases Ken Avery's 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 January 1975 and also Vol. 26 No. 2 Spring 1978] [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. See additional notes at end of the text about this 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 masonry crew in 1939. Photo by Walter Dalhberg, 1939. The fountain was permanently removed at the end of 1954. 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 on three sides of 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 January 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 masonry 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 January 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. [The Fringed Gentian™ Vol. 23 No.1 January 1975]

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 January 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. But at a meeting of the Friends Board of Directors on April 15, 1989, Gardener Cary George stated that the spring outside the Garden had dried up. He noted again in 1990 that since 1987 the flow from the Great Medicine Spring had been minimal (1); former Gardener Ken Avery suggested that perhaps a hand pump could be used to still obtain water.

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.

Renner Well Drill Rig
The E. H. Renner & Sons drill rig at the site of the Great Medicine Spring, January 1999. Photo Friends of the Wildflower Garden.

The Great Medicine Spring became part of the history of the Friends of the Wildflower Garden when the Friends agreed to fund a new well to try to reactivate the spring. In the spring of 2000 Friends President Steve Pundt wrote about the history of that involvement. Subsequent events which led to the virtual abandonment of the old spring are also reported below. Saratoga Springs was the original name of the area within which Wirth Park (originally Glenwood Park) was created, and, as the name suggests, there was a time when the area’s water table was much higher and springs and seeps were everywhere.

Gardener Cary George wrote in 1998: The spring lies on an ancient Indian trail used by the Dakota Indians. They believed all of nature was endowed with "medicine.” In 1851 the Dakota tribes ceded land that included the Great Medicine Spring to the United States government. The new well will be drilled to a depth of 240 feet. This is the same depth as the Glenwood-Englewood Springs just to the east of The Great Medicine Springs and lies within the same aquifer” [The Fringed Gentian™ Vol. 46 No.3 winter 1998] See note at end of this text.

In the spring of 2000, Friends President Steve Pundt wrote in The Fringed Gentian™:

"In her carefully researched biography of Eloise Butler, Martha Hellander wrote that the spring located southeast of the intersection of Wirth Parkway and Glenwood Avenue was apparently the Great Medicine Spring which had been described in 1880s articles and books about Minnesota geology and history. It was reported that Indians traveled great distances to drink from the spring because of the medicinal properties of its water. [Also, see notes at end of text.]

When Sally [Mrs. Pundt] and I first discovered the Garden over 20 years ago, we also came across the old spring. We stood in line with others who were filling bottles and jugs. I remember one elderly man who claimed he drank nothing other than water from this spring! The water was cold, clear, and tasted great. It is a true spring - the water flows from the earth on its own, but the strength of the flow has always varied considerably. The flow decreased substantially, and stayed low, after the construction of the Highway 100/394 intersection. The quality has declined too. [A process called 'de-watering' was used to lower groundwater during the construction and following construction it continued due to the depression of the roadbed below the normal grade.]

To increase the water flow and quality, the Friends’ Board hired Renner Well Company to drill a well at the site of the spring. [The well was completed on January 29, 1999] The result was disappointing. The water was no better. It turned yellow and tasted bad, not all what we remembered.

Hand Pump at Great Medicine Spring
The hand pump installed on the well head

The Renner Well people have been great to work with. At a special Board meeting in February [2000], they explained that the “spring water” we remembered was probably from a shallow well, primarily fed by rainwater. The old well pipe is only about 30 feet down, based on Renner’s information about the Park Board wells which date to 1906-1912.

Other wells in the park system are much deeper, 300-450 feet, into the Shakopee-Jordan aquifer. When drilling our well, Renner hit a strong flow of water at only 135 feet down. Drilling all the way down to the aquifer would have required double casing and would be very expensive. Renner recommended pumping out a large quantity of water to try and clean the spring water. This was done at the end of March [2000]. The results were good. Taste and clarity were improved.

To improve the flow of the water Renner is to install a hand pump. To improve the appearance of the area and the spring, the Park Board landscape architect is designing a site plan. To educate the public about the historic significance of the spring, the Friends will fund interpretive signage. Our long-term vision is to upgrade the entire entrance area off Wirth Parkway with improved landscaping and signage.” [The Fringed Gentian™ Vol. 48 No.2 Spring 2000.] See note at end of this text.

Text in [ ] has been added for clarification of events.

The above was the state of affairs in the spring of 2000.

Subsequent Events 2000 - 2010

Spring and new well at Great Medicine Spring
The catch basin and pump of the Great Medicine Spring, not functional, as seen in 2008. It is unclear when the existing rectangular stone catch basin was put in, perhaps when the fountain was permanently removed in the 1950s, but it is just downhill from the pump on the spring and predates the work done by the Friends in 1999/2000. Photo G D Bebeau.

There were new developments in 2000. The spring did not flow at the previous rate. A report dated February 15, 2000. was received by the Friends from Renner & Sons. They addressed the reduction in flow from the spring. During the winter of 1999-2000 the well had been allowed to flow freely (as Steve Pundt mentioned in his article) to prevent freezing and now a hand pump was discussed as the practical option to install.

Renner’s report stated We originally anticipated a flow rate of 5 to 7 gallons per minute, which would prevent freezing, and hoped that a hand pump would not be needed. The well initially produced this volume. However the flow quickly diminished, over the next couple of days, to its current rate [approx. 1 gallon per minute]. The Well has flowed through the winter which makes us very optimistic that it will not freeze as long as we allow it to continue. With the current configuration [see diagram] a hand pump could be installed and we would not expect any alteration in the flow rate of the well.

The hand pump was installed in the summer of 2000 but water flow declined even more from the initial good flow and the purity of the water was in question. In addition, landscape work around the new well construction site still had to be finished.

Eventually, public access to the spring was discouraged, first by the Park Board removing signage about the spring from the parking lot area along the entrance road to the Garden and then several years later by removing the spring parking area entirely. The landscaping completed around the well and drainage basin is shown in the photo as it was 2008.

Below: The configuration of the new well placement with its connection to the old spring drainage basin. Diagram by E. H. Renner & Sons.

Installation diagram of well and spring at Great Medicine Spring

More recently 2011 - 2012

Garden Entrance after storm Great Medicine Spring well head after storm

On May 22nd, 2011 a powerful tornado began its destructive path near Glenwood Ave and Theodore Wirth Parkway, just west of the old spring. There was damage within Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, but the heaviest damage was just to the north, including the area of the old spring. The photo of the Garden entrance road was taken by Judy Remington just after the storm. The other three photos show the condition of the site 14 months later on July 25, 2012. Gone are the trees and the appearance of previous landscaping. Water still drips from the pipe outlet of the spring, but all is abandoned and nature begins her reclaiming process. (Site photos - G. B. Bebeau).

Great Medicine Spring july 2012 Great Medicine July 2012

2018 events

In 2014 the hand pump handle was removed so that people could not attempt to pump water as testing indicated the well had contaminant issues. In 2018 the contaminants of bacteria and arsenic exceeded maximum allowed levels so the site was closed off. The 1st photo shows the pump in the Summer of 2014. The second photo shows the scene after the pump, well pipe, concrete pad and valve box were removed on June 25, 2018 and the well capped. Only the catchment basin retaining wall remains.

great medicine spring pump 2018 with well removed