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Friends of the Wild Flower Garden

The Great Medicine Spring

The attempt to restart a flow of good water

A project of The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.

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 Wild Flower Garden.

The Great Medicine Spring became part of the history of The Friends of the Wild Flower 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.

Friends' member J. S. Futcher remembers that when he was a kid in the 1940s there were three main springs in the area of Garden - the Great Medicine Spring being considered the main one; another on the northwest corner of Glenwood and Theodore Wirth Parkway; and one to the east of the back gate of the Garden. (Read more of Futcher). There was also a spring in the Garden wetland. Gardener Cary George noted in 1990 that since 1987 the flow from the Great Medicine Spring had been minimal (1), and that in 1989 it was dry; former Gardener Ken Avery suggested that perhaps a hand pump could be used to still obtain water.

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” (note 1)

More Background: See this article for a series of first-hand accounts by the Garden curators and gardeners, 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 1934 to 1990.

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.
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.

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.

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.” (note 2)

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 spring drainage basin with the new well and pump in the background. Click on image for larger image. Portions of the stonework may date back as far as 1939 (note 3)

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.”

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

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.

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