Dickinson Spring served the area for nearly a century 

Drivers cruising by a spot along Highway 55 near Buffalo these days can’t tell from the looks of it that for nearly a century a popular roadside well there supplied passersby with clear, cold, fresh and free drinking water.

A visitor filled a gallon jug with free drinking water at Dickinson Spring in this 2015 photo. The artesian well has been sealed, and the sign blew down in a wind storm a couple of years ago.

Dickinson Spring, a landmark oasis midway between Buffalo and Rockford, has been plugged and buried by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, a casualty of age and concerns about public health and traffic hazards.

About all that remained on an early-January visit to the site on the south side of the highway was a covering of snow and ice where the water once flowed continuously from a plain metal pipe, an Adopt A Rest Area sign and a lone vehicle in the parking area. 

A large wooden marker, that for years told visitors about the history of the place, was gone, blown down a couple of years ago by a wind storm. MnDOT plans to remove an access lane and restore the highway ditch later this year. 

Friends of Dickinson Spring, a group of volunteers who took care of the spring site for two decades, plan to explore the possibility of finding another location to tap into the underground pool of water, but that’s a longshot.

“In a few years when people are driving by there, nobody will even know there was an artesian well,” Friends president Gene Kovacs, of Mink Lake, lamented, adding he’s saddened for the estimated hundreds of people who used the spring.

Farmer Thomas Dixon had the well dug on his farm in 1916 so he could water his cows. It went dry during a drought in 1934, but when Minnesota Highway Department equipment struck the pipe during the construction of Highway 55 in 1938, it started flowing again and didn’t stop for another 79 years.

The spring – actually a flowing artesian well, which doesn’t have to be pumped out of the ground – got its name from a nearby ghost town and was a popular stopping place for travelers and tourists during its 97-year lifespan until about the end of 2017. 

The well stopped flowing when the pipe failed, causing the water to seep out at or below ground level, so the public could no longer collect any of it, Jamie Hukriede, MnDOT maintenance engineer for central Minnesota, explained.

Dickinson Spring was flowing at a good clip in this old photo believed to date back to 1922. It went dry during a drought in 1934 but started spewing water again in 1938 when a work crew struck the pipe during the construction of Highway 55. Tom Dixon, who had the well dug on his farm in 1916, stands at right while his wife, Minnie, is second from the left holding their son Glenn. Their daughter, Martha (Dixon) Gilbert, is third from the right. Photo courtesy of Linda (Dixon) Flynn.

A MnDOT contractor sealed the well in mid-December 2018 with heavy clay so no contamination can get into the groundwater, he said.

Hukriede said MnDOT decided not to repair the well because more failures were expected due to the age and condition of the pipe. A couple of repair estimates came in at $15,000 and $23,000, but that wouldn’t be cost effective since more fixes would be needed.

MnDOT considered building a new well, but “regretfully … determined that it is not in the state’s or public’s best interest,” according to a letter Hukriede wrote to Kovacs last December. A new well plus upgrades – sidewalks, well turn-off valves and signs — were estimated at $58,000. “Cost is one thing,” he said, “but what really drove the decision is safety of the public.”

The agency had many public health concerns about the uncontrolled water source, Hukriede’s letter said. “Our highest concerns are with any water or aquifer contamination that may occur at/near the well and impact the users of potable water supply (for example, backflows from tanker connections, foreign chemicals … spills, sabotage, and even dog licking/feces, etc.)

“Significant additional efforts would be required to properly update the site to modern standards, then monitor, inspect and operate the site (toilets, garbage disposal, security lighting, etc.).”

On top of that, traffic volumes and limitations were factors, Hukriede said. “Exiting the site safely remains a serious concern which cannot be mitigated,” the letter said, noting “poor site angles (and) heavy traffic volumes that do not allow many safe entry gaps.”

“Traffic volumes on Highway 55 are already very high … and …projected to increase in line with the area’s growing population,” the letter said. “It is truly fortunate that we have not yet experienced the quantity of serious accidents seen on similar corridors adjacent to the metro area.” 

And any future expansion of the highway to four lanes would abolish the site or its use, according to the letter. 

A person fills a gallon at the spring a few years ago. The sign pictured, which explains some of the history, has also been removed. Photo by Chuck Sterling

Kovacs said the pipe, or casing, which dated back more than 100 years, had developed a pinhole that worsened because of the action of the water until the pipe failed.

In the old days a new casing could have been placed over the bad spot, he said, but “that method of repair is no longer suitable for a public source of water.”

The Friends worked with MnDOT to try to save the spring, Kovacs said, but nothing could be done and “we can’t fight it any longer.”

Kovacs noted that hundreds of people had signed an online petition calling for the state to repair the well. At last count there were 1,247 signatures, 1,160 of them Minnesotans, according to the website.

“I am deeply saddened for all of those people that are being affected,” he said. “Some of those people I talked to there at the spring came as far as 40 miles. 

“My wife and I prefer the water from Dickinson Spring,” he said. Now it costs them about $8 a week to buy water at the store.

Kovacs said he plans to look into the possibility of finding another site to re-establish the spring. “That would be a really tall order” though because the group doesn’t have the money to buy land and build a well and parking lot. 

“If someone who believes their land was within the aquifer was willing to donate a site, we would pursue that,” he said.

MnDOT’s Hukriede liked the idea. “I think that’d be great if this aquifer could be captured at a safe location that was off a busy highway … and able to be monitored within a park system or in connection with a park system.”

Heather Jenks, a Buffalo resident and Dickinson Spring user who started the online petition, said she would support finding another place, but “I don’t know how optimistic I would be about the long-term outcome.” 

There isn’t much to see at Dickinson Spring along Highway 55 near Buffalo after the century-old well there was capped and covered over by a Minnesota Department of Transportation contractor in December. The well used to be located in the foreground, not far from the tree. Photo by Chuck Sterling

Linda Paumen, of Buffalo, organized Friends of Dickinson Spring in 1998 and got the state to declare the site a rest area they could maintain. She spent 17 years mowing grass, picking up cigarette butts and garbage there with the help of the late Robert Gilbert, grandson of Tom Dixon, and about 20 other members.

Paumen said she wouldn’t back an effort to relocate the well. She considers Dickinson Spring a historic site and said the state should too. “To me, the history is that spot – where they first came upon it and it started flowing.”

“We’ve got the Walmarts and Targets and all the new big box stores all over … but the history is just left by the wayside. There’s no one to take care of it.”

Hukriede said there are other places where people can get their fill of spring water. 

Eden Prairie, about 36 miles from Dickinson Spring, has the Fredrick-Miller Spring and the Richard T. Anderson Conservation Area Spring. Mineral Springs Park is in Owatonna, about 94 miles away, and Buffalo has a mineral spring in Sturges Park.

Kovacs said the Fredrick-Miller Spring has the most desirable water while most people wouldn’t like the taste of the Sturges Park mineral spring.