The Last Windrow: Rocks have always played a huge role in our northwoods communities; they still do

When I moved to northern Minnesota, I was introduced to rocks. In numbers. The rough trail to our deer hunting property harbored rocks so thick one could not avoid them.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

"You must have rocks in your head!"

Ever heard that? Well, I'm here to tell you that that saying has a totally different meaning around these northern Minnesota parts than the negative meaning you might have first thought.

I come from a place where there were very few, if any, rocks. The 12-foot deep topsoil of Plymouth County, northwest Iowa, produced very few rocks. As far as I know, there was only one rock on our small farm. It had somehow appeared when the new gravel road was constructed long before I was born.

Solitary glacial rock surrounded by golden prairie grasses and wildflowers. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.


In fact, that rock was looked on as kind of a novelty, and farmers would drive by it to show it off to their kids once in awhile when things got really boring. My granddad called it the "big rock," and in his later years he would drive his car down across the pasture, get out and just sit on that rock contemplating the countryside.

Often, we kids would join him there. If you couldn't find him near the buildings, that would be where he was.

I took my college classmate home during spring plowing season one year. He was from northern Wisconsin. I invited him to ride along with me as I plowed the east forty of our land. The tractor purred its way around the field pulling the three-bottom plow with nary a snort.

My roommate was amazed.

"Where are the rocks?" he yelled over the noise of the motor.

Assorted colorful rocks found on the shore of a northern Minnesota lake. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

"There aren't any," I replied.


He had a non-believing look on his face.

"You can't go two feet on our farm in Wisconsin without hitting a rock," he yelled.

I found that amazing. Afterward, I told him that my distant relatives had originally settled in Wisconsin but left for western Iowa because they had so many rocks on their Wisconsin land.

When I moved to northern Minnesota, I was introduced to rocks. In numbers. The rough trail to our deer hunting property harbored rocks so thick one could not avoid them. My father-in-law had a favorite saying about that trail.

Rock pile in a farm field. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

"You can't put a spade down anywhere out here without hitting a rock. Don't worry about sinking into the mud, you'll have plenty of rock foundation under you wherever you drive out here."

He was right.


There is an abandoned farmstead just off our deer property roadway. There are no buildings left on the farmyard, only foundations made out of rocks. Around the pasture's boundaries, a 2-foot high fence resides made out of rocks.

One can only venture a guess at how much time and back breaking labor went into making that fence border. Moving rocks was a part of that long departed family's way of life.

I've since heard countless stories of kids who grew up around here having to pick rocks every spring before planting or mowing. None of those stories are told with much relish. In fact, I think that rock picking exercise made the future life decisions of many of those kids to find jobs in rock-less parts of the country.

Rocks are continuing to play a role in our small community. A new "rock riffle" dam is being installed in the river that travels through our town of Pine River. Tons of rocks of various sizes from large boulders to smaller rocks will be deposited to make the dam.

Rock riffle dam on the Red River. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Those rocks are currently being gouged out of the countryside around town. No need to transport them from any far off place. They are here and have been here since the last glacier departed.

Having rocks around isn't all bad, at least in this case.


So, around here people have had rocks in their cumulative heads for as long as they tried to extract a living from this north country landscape. I'm sure they thought about them night and day and even on vacation!

Stone sculptures in the Ellsworth Rock Gardens in Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Rocks don't move themselves. And, they seem to grow to the surface over winter.

Rocks in your head? Around here it is kind of a natural thing to have.

See you next time. Okay?

Correction: One of my astute readers pointed out to me after last week's column that the board that was attached to long ago corn picking wagons was known as a "bang board" not a "backboard" as I had written. I stand corrected. I must have had the NBA Timberwolves on my mind. At least I know someone reads this stuff!


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