Sunk in history

By Laura Gossman

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

CHERRY GROVE — For the last two years, University of Minnesota geology and geophysics professor E. Calvin Alexander has been bringing students to help clean a sinkhole in the Cherry Grove Blind Valley Scientific and Natural Area.

The sinkhole, which is located in a wooded area known as Jessie’s Grove, is believed to have been used as a garbage dump by a nearby homestead as far back as the late 19th century.

Alexander applied for a permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to start the dig, and he was granted the permit on the condition that the site be excavated by hand. He began making trips with students in 2006.


The Cherry Grove Blind Valley SNA consists of several sinkholes that have been filled with trees, but below ground is a large cave system known as Goliath Cave. The cave has at least four entrances, several disappearing streams and extremely rare formations carved from mineral deposits.

Because sinkholes often lead to groundwater, filling one with garbage can cause contamination.

Alexander said his group’s goal is to bring the sink hole back to its natural state.

On Saturday, he and his wife, Sheri, filled five-gallon pails of dirt from a hole they had previously dug and then carried the pails to the top, where students Lynn Khaikil, Jason Dally and Joe Koeller stood with wheelbarrows, sifting through the dirt.

The students were looking for glass, metal — anything that isn’t naturally found in the ground.

"We have no idea how deep the garbage goes," Calvin said. "The plan is to dig until we run out of garbage."

Since garbage bags hadn’t yet been invented in the 19th century, many of the items broke once they were dumped into the hole.

During past digs, Sheri said they found a Red Wing crock, parts of a penny-farthing (high-wheel) bicycle, a pie safe, several glass medicine bottles, a little girl’s hair clip with rhinestones and a few buttons made from shells.


Sheri said they believe one of the women on the original farm was a seamstress.

On Saturday, the students mostly found rusty, corroded nails and shards of glass, but there were a few old canning jars and medicine bottles found still intact.

Each item found is categorized and either saved, recycled or taken to a landfill.

The students recorded each bucket before dumping the contents into the wheelbarrow. When the wheelbarrow was filled with clean dirt, it was dumped into a separate pile.

"Some of the items are easy to recognize; some aren’t so easy," Sheri said.

Because Jessie’s Grove is public land, Calvin said they’ve decided to donate the items to the Fillmore County Historical Society.

Debra Richardson, the society’s assistant director, came later in the day to help sift through some of the dirt.

As the society acquires more objects, Richardson plans to compile an exhibit of the rescued treasures at its museum in Fountain.


"It’s amazing what they’ve found here," Richardson said. "They’re literally digging into Fillmore County’s roots."

What To Read Next
Get Local