The Rice County Wilderness Area: A Concise History
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left
O let them be left, wildness and wet
Long live the weeds and wilderness yet.
By Paul Jensen
With editing and assistance from C. Umbanhowar Jr.
A Publication of the Friends of the Cannon River Wilderness Area
HOW THE PARK CAME TO BE
At the beginning
When Ken and Jackie May built a home (1954-1955) on the east side of the Cannon River off State Highway 20 on the edge of the future park, there were only two farm houses along the highway. On the other side of the river there were also a scattering of farmhouses atop the bluffs. Some of the local people hunted the woods for deer and grouse each fall. Others, perhaps all, enjoyed walking the old logging roads. On the east side of the river, cattle could be encountered ambling down these roads or grazing any where from the May place south to Fiske’s hermitage. On the west side, cattle grazed all the bottom-land except for a small section toward the south end. Both bottom-lands were heavily grazed until 1968.
Within the park area, toward the southeast in a shack near a sacred, burbling spring lived Henry Fiske (né Feisk?), a hermit. Fiske had a garden, raised potatoes and, at some times, had a cow or a horse, chickens for sustenance, all supported by occasional shopping trips to Faribault or Northfield. At the south end of the future park Aylmer (Barney) Code operated a small portable sawmill supplied with logs from the surrounding woodlands especially black cherry. With his aid the Mays cut trees for an addition to their home. At that time, the park woodlands were all obviously second or third growth, a product of the complete lumbering of the park area in earlier years. In the ravine below the May property a huge gully (8-10 feet deep in spots) formed in deep prairie soil was seen by the writer in 1956. Similar gullies could be found elsewhere in the park.
The river then supplied large quantities of carp to commercial fishermen, and crappies, occasional Northerns and walleyes and a scattering of other species to the amateur. The excessive carp (introduced from Europe) populations were harvested through the nineteen seventies for the making of gefilte fish. In 1956, the river was still heavily polluted by sewage from upstream farms and towns. The river is not so polluted now and still supplies too many carp but probably more game fish. Clams once abundant were present in scattered beds in 1956 but were far fewer than in the earlier parts of the century when their abundance supported a thriving button-making industry. There are even fewer now. Even so, the river was and is the source of much productivity for the park.
Living in this erosion-sculptured landscape, with its remarkably varied array of terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals, and their communities, would awaken a love of nature from the most jaded of city dwellers. Barney Code remarked to Jackie May, “This ought to be a park. Don’t you think?” Or words to that effect. Jackie, no more a jaded philistine than Barney and also a lover of nature, agreed that this elegant river valley should be preserved and soon felt impelled to write (1966) to Planning Commissioner Lee Fullerton suggesting that the valley below her home become a county park. Barney and Jackie decided to take alternate turns at monthly meetings of the Rice County Park and Recreation Board to talk up the idea of a park. They became such pests (Jackie’s phrase) that they soon led an inspection tour of the potential park by the Park Board, consisting then of Bob Bjorgum, Clarence Berg, William Mann, Elmer Meschke and Lee Fullerton, nicely exhausting these tenderfeet. They also were talking to neighbors on both sides of the river. They encountered a set of lovers of the walks that the valley afforded. Jackie invited the owners to her east-side home to convince them that a park was a good idea. They easily assented and agreed to the low price of $100 per acre (later $200).
In the fall of 1966 May and Code met with the Rice County Park and Recreation Board to urge purchase of land along the river for the wilderness park. A committee with Aylmer (Barney) Code was formed which talked with the Rice County Board of Commissioners who, in turn, expressed great support for the idea and accepted wholeheartedly the recommendation of the Rice County Park and Recreation Board. They directed the Zoning Administrator to apply for state and federal funds for purchase of land for the park. Naturally opposition to the idea was expressed by some of the citizenry who were sure the money involved could be better used elsewhere. An application to the state of Minnesota Planning Agency for Parks and Recreation, grants section, was well received and the park was qualified for 100% funding. Obtaining funds, appraisals of land, acquisition of options, making of purchase agreements, and purchase of land took time and much effort. Jackie herself had a problem; at the time of purchase her finances were none too good. So she donated one piece of her land to Carleton which then donated it to the park. Thus she made sure she wouldn’t be tempted to sell the land for her own finances. Jackie also placed reverter clauses in both deeds insisting on the maintenance of the land in its natural state.
Henry Fiske story
Before, after, and while all these plans were proceeding, Henry Fiske lived his hermit’s life, beginning in the early nineteen forties, on his own 70 acres in a section of the east side of the proposed park area, alone for some 30 years. He had a one room shack and, opposite, a small stable (barn). Located strategically nearby was a burbling spring which in the memory of local people has never failed to run. Many people still drink this water, although some with trepidation because of the presence of Giardia, an amoebic parasite, in southeast Minnesota. A spring is an unlikely source of Giardia. Still, infection from drinking contaminated water can be very serious. Caveat bebedor! It is great for cooling one’s feet on a hot July day. Henry burned wood to keep warm in winter, used outside air for conditioning in summer and tried to exterminate mosquitoes with hand power. He added to his vittles and other supplies at times by walking into town, more often by getting rides from his always helpful neighbors (Janice Code, others). Clark Webster and Bill Gill both report that he was friendly to visitors, enjoying the opportunity to talk. Webster was invited in to dine but found that Henry was not the most fastidious of housekeepers. He did not want to repeat the experience. Why did Henry go to the woods? One likes to think that he perhaps followed Thoreau who said,
‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’
Or perhaps he felt with Wordsworth that
‘The world is too much with us, late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!’
Or perhaps the move was more mundane; the copiously flowing spring attracted him. Or fear drove him?
Fear! This is a story that has undergone many transformations. We spend time on Henry because anyone who visits the park is sure to get a garbled version of Henry’s story. Even so, we would skip his history except for one thing: he found his brother’s body behind a stump not far from his shack (foundation visible not far from the spring). The true story is our tale. It is based on newspaper stories, the proceedings of an inquest held in Northfield on May 15, 1917, and files in the Minnesota Historical Society Research Center, St Paul (see references). The story is convoluted, a delight to the mystery story reader; but we refrain; we restrict ourselves to the bare bones. Henry worked and lived as a farm laborer on the Charles Ross farm situated a mile and a half east of his shack.
Six miles to the north living in a shack on Old Dutch Road was the rest of the Fiske family consisting in 1914 of his brother August, and a sister, Josephine. When the father had died, 1911, the farm was in part willed to Henry Fiske and in part to his sister, Josephine, with the proviso that they take care of August Fiske the simple brother (note-he was older than his brother Henry, was a 175 pound, six-footer, sturdy if somewhat emaciated). Henry very likely also received some cash or sold his inherited land. He is listed as owner of his 70 acres in the future park in the year 1914. Into this world came a German immigrant, August Ruther who entered the US in 1907, wandered from job to job, worked on farms, on boats on Lake Michigan, and lived in Chicago doing all kinds of manual labor. He arrived in 1914 near Northfield where he worked on various farms, encountered, courted and wed Henry’s sister Josephine. Since much below is negative about Ruther, we note that he talked Josephine into mortgaging the property and then built a satisfactory house from timber on the farm for the three of them.
Ruther was a tyrant often brutally beating, kicking and striking August Fiske sufficiently to disturb neighbors. In earlier years August Fiske also had been beaten by his father. He was gentle, well-liked, and thirty-eight years old and was said to have the mind of a five year old. He was known to be afraid of his brother-in-law as were also Henry and Josephine. August had good cause, for Ruther was heard to say, “I will get rid of him some day.” and, “If he ever goes against me, I will fix him.” Note that these and other quotations below were made at a time when anti-German feelings were at their height.
On Thursday before August was allegedly murdered (Aug. 9, 1917), a drunken Ruther came back from Dundas with a sack of quart bottles of beer (another sack Friday). Ruther, his wife, and August each drank one bottle. August Fiske and Josephine went to their beds, but some time later Ruther demanded that August come down for more beer. He came down. August Fiske was last seen crossing the bridge in Dundas late Friday evening (10:30), presumably on his way to Henry Fiske’s shack three miles south of Dundas. He was not seen again until Henry found his body Sunday morning, Aug. 9, 1917.
Henry’s world changed forever on that morning. He hadn’t seen his brother in six months. He had come to his cabin 1 1/2 miles distant from the Ross farm the day before, found his brother’s coat and hat, which he had given him, hanging on a hook in the stable. Someone had also been in the shack. He searched without success for August in his barn by lantern light. Next morning he arose, started to the barn and found his brother’s body lying behind a stump. The body was autopsied and the green guts were so odd that authorities sent them to the University for examination. They turned out to be loaded with arsenate of copper (Paris Green), an insecticide used to kill potato beetles. (How swallowed? Five miles with a gut full of Paris Green?) There was also a dropping of green fecal matter in the barn. August Fiske’s body had been dragged from the barn, forcing his trousers down. His scrotum was torn sufficiently to permit a probe to be inserted. A similar wound was found in the scalp. The Paris Green was in the charge of Josephine Ruther, five miles to the north, who had one large package, kept in a cupboard, which she said her simple brother would not have entered. One portion was missing. Paris Green (copper arsenate) is not soluble in beer (none was found in the beer bottles), will produce extreme pain within hours, and would be impossible to retain in the gut for any length of time. The victim would be dead within 24 hours.
We have a quote from Ruther. “If Fiske is found to be killed or poisoned I’m the one who did it.” Either murder or accidental poisoning fits the words. He later recanted this remark. But the cupboard? Ruther was indicted on September 21, 1917. He was tried on February 8, 1918. Henry Fiske and his sister Josephine Ruther both testified, mainly hearsay or conclusions, against August Ruther. Ruther’s lawyer was nearly blind and suffering from a fatal disease. The jury found Ruther guilty of murder in fifteen minutes on the 15th of that month.
Six months elapsed before he was sent to Stillwater prison. During this time the presiding judge was seeking a retrial from the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Chief Justice and the presiding Judge both died without any ruling. Ruther never got a retrial. W.W. Pye, a Northfield attorney, wrote urging a pardon to the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court who referred the matter to a Parole Agent. Of the jurors who convicted Ruther, ten wrote letters supporting a full pardon citing pressures and prejudices that produced their verdict. He received a pardon (commutation of sentence) on May 25, 1936 and was released to W.W.Pye who took him to Chicago. Pye noted that he was enchanted by the birds along the way, was astounded by the radio, and by elevators with attendants. Ruther sought a complete pardon claiming that his conviction was due to the anti-German sentiments of the war-time. He made his living in Chicago selling flowers on the streets where he died of a heart attack in 1942.
Henry retreated to his shack in the 40’s, rumored to be driven by fear. But Ruther was in Chicago after 1936. Perhaps other demons were at work but W.W. Pye thought all three Fiskes were feebleminded. Henry lived his remaining days in a Faribault nursing home. He died in 1981, his shack long since burned by accident (for the second time; the first shack reconstructed by Barney Code after a first burning).
Official establishment of park
It is customary to revile bureaucrats, but notice in the following that they are and were indispensable in obtaining and establishing the park. The year 1970 saw many of their necessary if tedious negotiations begin to bring the park to fruition. The Rice County Park and Recreation Board decided to take options on 740 acres in sections 26, 27, 34 and 35 of Bridgewater and 3, 4 and 5 of Cannon City townships from 12 owners (12 parcels). The Board also met with the enthusiastic property owners who all agreed to sell their land for the final reasonable price of $200/acre to Rice County for a park with the proviso that the land remain in its natural state. Rice County Zoning Administrator William Gill and Parks Supervisor Dan Brinker sent a request for federal funds for 50% of the purchase price to the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, Land and Water Conservation Fund (LAWCON), Department of the Interior state liaison office, the other 50% of the purchase price to come from the state funds. In 1971 a $77,639 federal grant was approved for the purchase of the park land. In early 1972, the state, having received proof of ownership, sent a check for $77,639 to the County Parks and Recreation Board completing the financing for the acquisition of the park. At about the same time President Howard Swearer of Carleton College signed a warranty deed for 55 Carleton acres to Rice County, specifying that the land must be kept as wilderness. In May of that same year, just ten years after Jackie May had advocated a park in the valley in her letter to Planning Commissioner Lee Fullerton, all thirteen property owners had been paid and the park became a reality. But it still lacked a key component, Henry Fiske’s land.
Henry Fiske in his later years had become infirm, and was at last declared incompetent and placed in the St. Lucas Care Center in Faribault. To pay for his maintenance while at the Care Center, the County Welfare office moved to sell his property. Henry had earlier given a three year option on his property to the County for potential inclusion in the new park. Henry outlived the option and therefore a district judge ruled that the property could not be sold outright but must be put up for bids at public sale. A number of people expressed an interest in the property but backed off when they were unable to get a right of way, an access road to Fiske’s 70 acres, from property owners intervening between the highway (County 20) and Fiske’s land. There were finally no bidders and the estate was purchased by the County for inclusion in the park. Thus by conjunction of events did Fiske’s property, a very important biological core, became part of the park through action of the Rice County Probate Court in 1973.
We can remember poor Henry, a lonely man, unfortunate victim. His tribulations fade into time. But luckier than most, he leaves Fiske Spring and Fiske (Ruther?) Fen for our thirsty mouths and sensual eyes. Who of us will have better monuments? Each time we take a drink from Fiske spring or contemplate the Fiske fen, think of Henry. Sometimes the unfortunate can contribute mightily.
The Park was dedicated on August 26, 1976 (the US bicentennial year). William Gill of the Rice County Zoning and Planning Commission traced the history of the park at the park picnic site on the southwest corner. Also present and speaking were Merrill Jarchow, Master of Ceremonies, representing Carleton, and members of the Park Board including Rev Paul Monson who gave an invocation and benediction. Brief remarks were added by Burton Paulson, chairman of the Rice County Park and Recreation Board, and Martin Hachfeld, chairman of the Rice County Board of Commissioners. Especially recognized were Jackie May and Barney Code, both nominated for a Munsingwear Conservation-in-Action Award for their advocacy and efforts to establish the park. The first ever tour of the park was then conducted by Park and Recreation Supervisor Glenn Cramer.
Improvements to park
Much work remained. In 1973 and 1974 the road into the west side had been graveled and improved providing a better access on that side of the river. More trails were added and lengthened in both summers for hikers and skiers. In 1974 the picnic ground with trees and grass was in place. 1975 saw a well, a shelter, and toilet in the picnic area. In 1976 a contract was let for a foot bridge over the river, now a favorite spot for bird watching, clam watching and just relaxing. The two primitive campgrounds, one on each side of the river, both with fire rings and canoe portages have become favorites of canoeists and campers. The trail from the footbridge leading north on the east side was wisely closed in August of 1991 because of both the dangerous bluffs and the easy destructibility of the unique plant community of the bluff. Not so significant but of great value were the efforts of volunteers in clearing trails and the picking up of debris on the west side, a continuing problem due to the nearby landfill and people carelessness. On February 23, 1980 pine trees (4500) were planted at the north end of the park.
A request for permission to search in the park for oil (!) on May 24, 1984 was refused. By 1986 the river was seriously threatening to erode the road at the south end of the park which was then rip-rapped.
Thus 850 acres of unsurpassed beauty, 5 miles south of Northfield to 4 miles north of Faribault, had been preserved. The objective observer must admit that the process had been remarkably efficient if time consuming. The bureaucrats had done a good job. Bureaucrats can become cranky (not surprising considering some of the people they must deal with– not you, uh -other people) and sometimes megalomaniacal due to their powers over the innocent citizens. They also can do an unsung great job. Hail them!
The park is visited year round by naturalists (loafers) who are undaunted by the summer mosquito population. Anyone wishing to encounter a bird watcher (exotic creatures) can do so any time of the year in the park. The more botanically minded enthusiasts look at the flower population as soon as spring breaks. A few hardy souls even identify trees in the winter. Winter ski trails are in use after every good snowfall. There will be increasingly heavy use of the park at all seasons.
Most of the land surrounding the park is privately owned. This land will surely undergo transformation over time, a process requiring a watchful set of park enthusiasts. More residents will appear on the park edge. Even preceding the establishment of the park, two hundred acres of the contiguous land along the west side of the southern edge of the park was purchased by the county from Richard Stowe to be used as a dump, euphemistically a landfill. Subsequently test wells to detect drainage from the dump were constructed in the park. Information on the nature and quantity of leakage from the landfill is available for public inspection at the Recycling Center (across the road from the land fill). As of this writing there is no evidence of any problem.
The Friends of the Cannon River Wilderness Area, publisher of this booklet, is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the natural values of the Park and welcomes new members and all assistance, financial or working.
Land Owners contributing:
Anita Aldorfer (30)
John Dougherty (93)
Harvey Illsley (40)
Henry & Jos. Bongers (18)
Susie Dougherty (32)
Jackie May (120)
Pat & Dennis Brown (20)
Henry Fiske (70)
Walter Pleschourt (10)
Aylmer Code (150)
Lee & Merle Fossum (172)
Richard Stowe (40)
Carleton College (55)
County Commissioners at the time of the park founding
Martin Hachfeld, William Adamek, Charles Miller, Robert Bjork, and Elmer Meschke
Rice County Recreation and Park Committee members at time of dedication
Burton Paulson, chairman, Dr. Asa Graham, vice chair, Clarence Berg, Dewey Van Orsow
Martin Hachfeld, Rice County Commissioner, Glenn Cramer, Rice County Parks and Recreation Supervisor
Rice County Park and Recreation then
Francine Peterson, secy.
Glenn Cramer and the Park Board oversee the park. Michael Closser is the Park foreman.
Aerial photos of area are in Glenn Cramer’s files.
Table of dates of planning and accomplishment
1966 Jackie May writes to Lee Fullerton, Planning Commissioner
1966 Jackie May and Aylmer (Barney Code) meet with RCP&RB
Committee formed to meet with Commissioners
Application to Minnesota Planning Agency for Parks and Recreation well received, qualifying park for 100% funding.
1970 RCP&RB meets with property owners’ enthusiasm for park in its natural state
June 18, 1970 RCP&RB takes options on land
October 13, 1970 William Gill, Zoning Administrator, and Dan Brinker, Parks Supervisor apply to Bureau of Outdoor Recreation for funds for park
August 3, 1971 $77639 grant approved by Bureau of Outdoor Recreation
1972 state grant received
1972 all property owners paid; park a reality
February 13, 1972 Swearer deeds 55 acres to Rice County
December 21, 1972 Jackie May and Aylmer (Barney) Code Nominated for Munsingwear Award
August 13, 1973 Henry Fiske property added to park land
August 24 1973 RCP&RB requests Commissioners to improve access road west side.
1974 further development of hiking and ski trails, gravelling of west side road
May 1, 1975 $20,000 from Bureau of Outdoor Recreation for park bridge
1976-contract let for footbridge, bridge complete 1977. Total cost about $55,000.
August 29, 1976 dedication of park. Merrill Jarchow-master of ceremonies from Carleton, Rev. Paul Monson pastor First English Lutheran Church benediction and invocation, Burton Paulson remarks Chairman Park Board, Martin Hachfeld chair man Rice County Board of Commissioners 100 people present, scout troop #336 from Lonsdale
February 7, 1980 lease agreements for farming small acreages in park if one third saved for wildlife: Dwight Lindbloom-3.5 acres, Joe Conrad-4 acres and Jim Bull-Dundas -two acres
February 14, 1980 turkeys released in park
May 22, 1986 plan to rip-rap river at south end of park
References printed and word of mouth
Northfield Independent: February 14, 1918 page 1, column 5
Vol. 41 9/14/1917 page 1, column 5; page 2, column 3
Vol. 42 2/8/1918 trial of Ruther
Vol. 42 2/15/1918 verdict of guilty. Ruther sent to Stillwater Aug…
Vol. 64 2/8/1940 seeks pardon, released late 1940.
Transcript of Inquest in death of August Fiske, May 5, 1917. In MN Historical Society, St. Paul.
Criminal Records of Rice County Case of August Ruther are at MN Historical Society File Number 597, Inquest, Pardons
Bob Fitzsimons, Recycling Center, for information on test wells.
Dan Jaeger-consultant on test wells 612-559-1423 levels low, expected to stay that way.
Respondents: Many thanks to Lyle Myers, Clark Webster, Lyndon Code, Maynard Tralle, William Gill, C.P.Merrell, Hugh Drentlaw, Glenn Cramer all contributed word of mouth information.
Thanks to Dave Hvistendahl for picture of Henry Fiske and shack, to Marilyn Schuster for picture of Jackie, to Lyndon Code for picture of Barney Code. Thanks also to Jerry Mohrig for pushing.