Tidbits from the Archives: Castle Rocks!

By Jeff Sauve

This past fall my 11-year-old son, Holden, and I went on tidbit quest — to locate the ruins of the Castle Rock sandstone formation. More than a century earlier, locals, including the St. Olaf College community, made pilgrimages to see the sandstone obelisk that rose more than 40 feet in the air. It was capped with Platteville limestone, a material much less eroded than the St. Peter sandstone that comprised the main part of the rock.

Armed with an acid-free folder of notes, we headed north on Highway 3 to Castle Rock. Holden read aloud several notes as I drove: the Dakota called the Cannon River, “Inyan Bosndata” (Standing Rock River) in reference to formation; as far back as Joseph Nicollet’s 1844 survey map the location was noted as a landmark for Native Americans and early traders; unfortunately a terrible storm struck on September 28, 1895, and blew over the obelisk.

I was told the formation was visible from the road, a mile or so north of the local corner beer joint. We drove down a gravel road for several miles. Holden quietly said, “Dad, we’re gonna get lost. Please let’s go home.”

Undaunted I thought perhaps this one time I would ask for directions. At the gas station in town I asked the owner how to locate the ruins. He looked at me with a half-serious quizzical look, “Is that how this town got its name? I’m new here. Say, shouldn’t you know since you’re a historian and all?” Before long several people were standing next to me looking over my notes, but no one actually knew where to send me. Finally a fellow who was coming in to pay for gas was besieged on my behalf. Apparently I was on the right gravel road, but should have stopped at the sharp bend in the road. “Say, why do you want to go out there? That’s where all the kids partied.”

“Can we go home, Dad?” Holden pleaded.

Soon we found the sharp bend in the road and parked in a grove. Ancient photos illustrated a prairie, void of trees and shrubs. Now two massive homes and lush fields fronted a slight rise in the distance-the remains of Castle Rock. It was noted that most of the people who admired its sand years ago returned with their pockets and shoes filled with it. There was little chance of me filling my shoes with sand as Holden was now slightly unnerved as threatening weather approached. The sky had turned dark and the wind picked up. Mind you a farmer nearby eyed us cautiously from his tractor.

After I took a few photos, we headed back to Northfield. En route we discussed how erosion had obliterated what was once a regional marker. Janet Kringen Thompson ’70 had told me earlier in the day she recalled going there in 1958 on a Brownie troop field trip. At that time, the formation base was still somewhat intact (see photo below). Our history field trip concluded by visiting the Northfield Historical Society where Holden purchased a Jesse James bobblehead. Ah.history nods for everyone.

–Jeff Sauve
Assoc. College Archivist