Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Visit to the Source

The land west of Northfield has a much different character from the land east of the Cannon. Instead of former prairie dissected into fields for corn and soybeans, the land is former forest: it was once Big Woods that stretched from the Cannon River in the east to the Minnesota River in the west. The rivers formed two large firebrakes which prevented prairie fires from spreading into the woods in between. The land west of the Cannon River was also more recently glaciated, and hence more poorly drained. All but one of Rice County's lakes are in the western half of the county.

The largest of these lakes is General Shields Lake. The most direct route to the lake is probably on Minnesota Hwy 21, west from Faribault about twelve miles. The village of Shieldsville stands at one corner of the lake, and a little further down the highway is the public boat access and McCollough Park, where I stopped to take this photograph of a large flock of coots on the lake (click to enlarge for a little more detail). Further out in the lake, almost at the limit of my binoculars' range, I saw what I had come looking for: American white pelicans. There were at least two dozen of them.

The Cannon River.

Further along Irwin Trail, Heron Island comes into view. This island, which is a nature preserve, has long been a prime nesting site for great blue herons. Further along still, a bridge crosses the small marshy beginnings of the Cannon River, which flows from Shields Lake to its outlet into the Mississippi at Red Wing. Shields Lake is in Erin Township, which, as the name suggests, was settled primarily by Irish immigrants during the nineteenth century. The lake itself was named for General James Shields (1810-79), an immigrant from County Tyrone who became one of Minnesota's first U.S. senators (1858-60). He had previously been a senator from Illinois, and later became a senator from Missouri, thus becoming the only person to represent three different states in the U.S. Senate. He was also a Union general in the Civil War.

Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church (est. 1877).

The Irish were not the only ethnic group to gravitate to the lakes and woods of western Rice County. On a previous visit to Shields Lake about ten years ago, I got (as usual) hopelessly lost and found myself in front of a small church with a sign in front that was entirely in Czech. The graves, too, were all in Czech. It was like slipping into another country. A little further to the north, in the area around Millersburg and Circle Lake, a large number of Swedish immigrants settled in the 1870s. Among these was Nicolaus Gustafson, who hitched a ride into Northfield with another local Swede on the morning of September 7, 1876. That was the day that the James-Younger Gang decided to raid the First National Bank in Northfield. Gustafson was caught in the crossfire during the failed raid, and was killed. He was buried in Northfield because there was no Swedish church in the Millersburg area. That was remedied the following year, when the Christdala (Christ's Valley) Lutheran Church opened just west of Millersburg. Click to enlarge the photograph below and read the historical marker in front of the church.

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