A constant stream of water gushes cold and clear from a plain metal pipe just off Minnesota Highway 55 midway between Buffalo and Rockford.
Dickinson Spring has been flowing for almost a century since a farmer dug a well to water his cows, producing more than 3 million gallons a year by one estimate.
The narrow oasis between the highway and Canadian Pacific Railway tracks where the spring sits has become a landmark that attracts a steady trickle of visitors who stop to collect drinking water by the jugful or just one thirst-quenching cup at a time.
The site gets its name from a ghost town that used to thrive nearby and is best remembered as the scene of a Wright County sheriff’s tragic death more than 90 years ago.
On one summer afternoon, the running water lured seven travelers off the busy highway in a span of 90 minutes.
“This is really a unique thing here,” David Prine said as he topped off seven plastic one-gallon bottles to haul back to his home in Buffalo. “It’s really good water. You never have an aftertaste.”
Prine’s been filling up at the spring for the last decade, mainly because he and his wife, Nancy, want to avoid the fluoride in the city water supply. “This is our sole drinking water,” he said. “We never drink the tap water.”
“It tastes delicious, makes good coffee, everything,” Chris Martin, of Rockford, said as she held a variety of containers under the stream. It tastes better, she added, if you let the sediment settle for at least an hour.
She began using the chlorine-free water six years ago to wash her hair, she said, because the chemical is hard on the hair and skin. “Now I use it for everything.”
Chelsea Caye, of Greenfield, has been coming back to Dickinson Spring for many years since her mother first brought her there as a child. “It’s free,” she said, and “this just has a clearer taste” than the water at home.
Delight Wood, of rural Howard Lake, stops there to replenish her supply every week on her way home from work in Rockford. “It’s free, and it’s good water,” she said, and it tastes better than the well water from her tap.
Another visitor noted that the water’s cold, and it stays that way for two days in the five-gallon jugs he filled.
While most people spent some time filling a number of large containers, one man stopped only long enough to dip a cup under the spout, take a drink and quickly resume his journey.
A large wooden sign erected in the parking area a few feet from the running water by the Wright County Historical Society gives a thumbnail account of its history:
“Thomas Dixon had this well dug on his farm in 1916. It went dry during the drought in 1934. Minnesota Highway Department equipment struck the pipe while building Highway 55 in 1938. It started flowing again.”
And it hasn’t stopped since.
That’s because Dickinson Spring is actually a flowing artesian well, which doesn’t have to be pumped out of the ground. According to the Minnesota Department of Health website, when a groundwater aquifer is confined by a layer of clay or shale on top of it, pressure builds up. Then when a well taps into the aquifer, the water level rises to an elevation above the land surface, forcing the water to flow out of the well casing.
The water at Dickinson Spring is safe, MDH public health sanitarian Eric Freihammer said, citing health department tests every year since 1993 for bacteria and nitrates. The water was last tested in December, he said, and will be sampled again before the end of the year.
Of more concern than water quality is how people collect water there, he said, urging them to use containers that have been properly sanitized.
One Dickinson Spring visitor calculated the water flow and posted it on Facebook. About six gallons a minute pours out of the pipe, he figured, which amounts to 8,640 gallons a day and 3,153,600 gallons a year. In the 95 years the well’s been flowing, that’s just short of 300 million gallons.
Tom Dixon was a crop and cattle farmer who hired John C. Murphy and his horse-drawn rig to dig the well so he could water his beef cows, according to granddaughter Kathy Ernst, of Buffalo, and grandson Robert Gilbert, who lives across the highway on part of the old Dixon farm.
Dixon, who died in 1956 at age 96, also kept teams of horses, Ernst recalled. “Dad always talked about how he loved his horses,” she said, referring to her father, Glenn, one of Tom and Minnie Dixon’s six children.
The spring became a popular stopping place for travelers and tourists, who were welcome to drink the water, a Minnesota Department of Transportation report said, until it dried up in ’34. The state bought the site four years later to build Highway 55, and a construction crew accidently hit the well pipe, restoring the flow.
Ernst grew up on another part of Tom Dixon’s farm about a mile southwest of the well in the 1950s when she, her father, mother Lorraine, and sister Linda, sometimes visited the spring. “When we did go over it always seemed there were people stopping,” she said.
“We would make root beer in the summertime, and we’d always go over there for the water,” Ernst recalled. “The root beer always tasted good,” she said, and it was because of the water. “It was always a summer treat.”
The historical society sign, which was routered and painted by Ernst’s parents in 1989, includes a few words about the spring’s namesake: “The ghost town of Dickinson, which was located ¼ mile east of here, was a station on the Soo Line and had a population of 50 in 1915. It was named for pioneer settler Amos Dickinson on whose farm it was located.”
The town, which was also known as Dickinson Station, Dickinson Springs and Dixon’s Spur, appeared on county maps beginning in 1900, but by 1956 it no longer existed, according to a 1976 story in the Wright County Journal Press.
The railroad depot was just a converted boxcar, but by 1903 the town had a creamery and then a general store the next year. By 1915, Dickinson even had its own baseball team.
Robert Gilbert remembered a grocery store, stockyards and the depot where people got on and off the train. The Rockford Township Hall used to be located there, he said. “I don’t think there’s anything left.”
But what happened on July 22, 1922, insured that history wouldn’t soon forget the place.
John C. Nugent Jr., the county’s popular sheriff, and a deputy were staking out the creamery after a string of burglaries, according to various accounts. The lawmen didn’t know that owner Richard Crawford was guarding the store that night, and he didn’t realize they were there.
When Crawford left the building carrying a shotgun in the 1:30 a.m. darkness, the sheriff shone his flashlight on him and ordered him to put his hands up. Thinking Nugent was a burglar, Crawford opened fire and shot him in the chest.
The shooting was ruled an accident, and Crawford, one of the 47-year-old sheriff’s best friends, wasn’t charged.
Persons who visit the spring are invited to make a donation to Friends of Dickinson Spring to help defray the cost of lawn mowing and other expenses. These can be sent to 6375 85th Street NW, Maple Lake, MN 55358.