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.
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 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
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]
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,  the spring dried up in midsummer and then started to flow again in mid-November. This year  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]
“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.” [The Fringed Gentian™ Vol. 23 No.1 Jan 1975]
Below: 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. The pump was removed and the well capped in 2018. Photo G D Bebeau.
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 the Great Medicine Spring] 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.
For current history updates and photos on this spring see the article Great Medicine Spring.
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.
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.
There remains today a capped metal pipe sticking out of the ground and the crumbling semi-circle of stonework. In 1939 a WPA masonry 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.
Martha Crone was Curator of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden from 1933 through 1958, succeeding Eloise Butler. During that time an open area of water existed in the wetland area of the Garden. Excess water in the wetland from rainwater and from the general level of ground water drained northward out of the wetland. Spring water was also known to exist.
A small pool had been created at the north end of this wetland by a dam Eloise Butler installed in the first years of the Garden's existence. It was an earthen dam at first, replaced by a concrete dam in 1917 and then a rock dam in 1992. Overflow from the dam drained into the meadow north of the Garden's current back fence, where in 1932 Eloise Butler created her Mallard Pool (Details on the pool in this article).
The 1930s were mostly dry years and water levels fluctuated considerable. In 1939 during late summer and into fall Martha started a project of tapping 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.]
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.
It's not clear from her notes as to where this pipe went or why it was necessary as all excess water drained northward where it could flow over the dam and out of the Garden. The drain pipe may have been necessary to prevent washout of the northward flowing water channel that drained the wetland. The pipe would have led to the dam area where the excess water could then drain.
In a conversation with former Gardener Cary George (May 18, 2018) he said that when the current small pool was dredged there was a 4 inch pipe coming out in the hillside of the existing pool - so this may have been the outlet for the excess water. The crew that worked on that Garden spring may have been a Park Board work crew or the same WPA masonry 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 one on the Northwest corner of Theodore Wirth Parkway and Glenwood Ave. [Notes from Martha Crone’s diary, 1939, Minnesota Historical Society.]
The catch basin of the old spring just outside and east of the Garden's back gate, 1939 construction. The run-off channel is seen in the upper right of the photo - water there flows northwestward to join with the outflow from the Garden and then into to area of Eloise Butler's Mallard Pool. Photo - 2015 G D Bebeau.
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.
This spring contributes to the history of Eloise Butler's Mallard Pool (Details in this article), which lay in what is now a wild area north of the Garden's back gate. Eloise stated she placed her pool just below where two streams combine in the north meadow. One of those streams is the runoff from the Wildflower Garden and the other moves water from the east, incorporating any runoff for the spring, and then joins the Garden runoff stream and the combination flow north toward Wirth Lake.
In the Text above, Mr. Futcher states that the spring was running when he was a kid (i.e. 1940s). Although in 1934 Martha Crone noted in log on July 2 that the 'drinking spring' had dried up. Based on the text below, we believe this is the spring she was referring to. Thus, the events of later years were already foreshadowed in the 1930s.
This is the spring that Ken Avery referred to in the text above "where, I’m told, people used to have parties on spring water and gin". The name "Bubbling Spring" came about in 1916. On September 24 that year the Minneapolis Tribune announced that the Park Board would open this week a hiking trail traversing the length of Glenwood Park from Superior Blvd. (now I-394) to Western Avenue (now Glenwood). Along the rolling hills were to be dozens of camp sites for "the hiker to stop and kindle a small fire." The Park Board was planning to erect a series of stone fireplaces along the trail.
The natural amphitheater at the northeast edge of the Garden was mentioned along with the mammoth elm the stood there, referred to as the "patriarch of Glenwood" and at the base of the hill was a natural spring that had now, to prevent contamination, been forced to run through a bubbling fountain. Here is the origin of the name "bubbling spring" used often in the future. (pdf copy of Tribune article.)