Aerial Vernacular: the Importance of Minnesota's Rural Water Towers

submitted by Eddie Krakhmalnikov
Master's of Landscape Architecture Graduate Student, University of Minnesota


Rural Minnesota is rife with belonging, its identity having as much to do with people as to the buildings they construct and the land they call home. When we drive the rural roads in Minnesota, we see the softly undulating topography of the West, the flat terrain of the South, the wooded, stream laden landscape of the North. Here and there, towns appear in the distance. Often, they first become visible high above the ground, with their disembodied names floating above the stores and residences: vertically marking perceived permanence. Names and symbols of the town are hoisted into the air on mast-like water towers, which, from a distance, let the casual visitor know that infrastructure exists, that there is industry, trade and commerce. These structures mark more than just a town's cartographic locale. If you listen to the rain flow down the side of the metal support beams or look at the shape of the rust on the bottom of the tank, you come to witness a counter solipsism, a reminder that you are not alone - that stories and experiences of the past still exist on the land.

Aged water towers may long ago have dried up as functioning containers of water, filling up with nostalgia as the water drains. Layers of memory stored in the old town water tank are often dispersed too late, after the wrecking crews have done their work. They exist somewhere between commodities and place makers: as both billboard and "you are here" markers. The towers are cues to the hidden memories of the land, a part of the experiential mystery of the palimpsest landscape. They serve as reminders of the duality of movement and stillness, migration and embeddedness. These water towers tend to be of the highly vernacular sort, individual in style, shape, wordage and certainly story told. They are local agents of folklore, setting the stage for the myths we use to create identity and reinforce belonging.

photo of Lindsrom Minnesota water tower
Lindstrom, MN water tower

Myths can be both whimsical and solid. They blow in the wind and exist in structures; as part of the bricks and mortar that support a building like nouns and adjectives piecing together a familiar greeting. The greatest sponges of local mythology tend to be the largest, most visible buildings. In rural Minnesota, communities have three types of significant vertical elements: the church and bell tower, the grain silo and the water tower and tank. Not everyone may go to the same church or work in agriculture, but everyone owns part of the protection stored in the communal water towers. If there is one single thread that spirals the entire identity of a town, then it must be the water supply. As such, water towers are inclusive, rather than exclusive symbols of a rural community's existence. Residents and businesses within the rural town rely on water towers to enable growth and vitality. The tower allowed greater industry and manufacturing, increase in jobs and populations and all the civic benefits, such as better schools, roads and public services that a larger non-agrarian population could afford. Important historical structures, especially of the vernacular sort, suggest a sense of "home" beyond physicality. Some of the most unique towers in Minnesota include Lindstrom's Swedish teapot, pointing to the town's cultural heritage and Pequot Lake's Paul Bunyan size fishing bobber, which suggests both mythology and fine fishing.

photo of Pequot Lakes Minnesota water tower - worlds largest fishing bobber
Pequot Lakes, MN water tower, World's Largest Fishing Bobber

Another such structure was the water tower in Bovey, Minnesota. Bovey's tower was built in 1907 of wood, replaced in 1937 with cast iron and, due to extensive corrosion, demolished in 1992. The water tower had a flat bottomed tank, one of the last of this type built and likely the last standing in Minnesota. The phrase "Home of the Picture 'Grace'" was painted on the tank and refers an event that captured the artistic attention of the state. As the story goes, "In the war year of 1918, a bearded, saintly old man with footscrapers to sell called on Eric Enstrom at his photography studio in the tiny mining town of Bovey, Minnesota. The man's name was Charles Wilden." Enstrom asked Wilden to sit with his hands folded in prayer and placed next to him a bowl of gruel, a loaf of bread, a knife and a pair of glasses. "He wanted to take a picture that would show people that that, even though they had to do without many things because of the war, they still had much to be thankful for."

photo of Bovey Minnesota water tower
Bovey MN water tower

At first, the picture was not widely noticed but gradually became a favorite in churches, restaurants and homes. The picture is now the official photograph of the State of Minnesota. The living monument to acceptance and gratitude - such Minnesotan qualities - still exists in the memory of the story, though lessened perhaps with the disappearance of the tower. However, the city of Bovey has, in showing how solidly attached the water tower was to the identity of the community, built a monument to the story constructed of the remains of the tower and tank.

photo of Cuyuna  Minnesota water tower
Cuyuna, MN water tower

Like the great movement under the Janus like calm of the prairie, Minnesota's rural towns are hosts to unperceived migrations. Children of farmers move to the city, people looking to escape or migrant workers turned permanent residents move in. Yet, people also stay for generations. They experience the passing of history first hand, remembering former neighbors and memorable moments in the town from decades ago. In this way, history is equal part stillness and movement; a town's past does not just belong to the people that live there, but to every person that has ever lived there before. The importance of water towers as obelisks of experience can be seen in the National Register of Historic Places listing of five Iron Range water towers in Cuyuna, Deerwood, Trommald, Ironton and Crosby. "These landmarks [are] material reminders of the town's once prosperous mining economies. Cuyuna, Ironton and Trommald are now almost ghost towns."

Old water towers represent not only what once was, but that history bleeds into the present and that life continues: in both permanent and spectral forms. Many of these old water works were built of wood and did not pass the test of time. The 50,000 gallon tank in Elysian, Minnesota was built in 1895 and provided residents with fire protection . The Elysian tower was the oldest working wooden tower in the state until it's decommission and razing in 1989. Many such towers were replaced by welded steel tanks, such as the one in Ironton, built in 1913. The water tower as a symbol fluctuates with change, newer ones representing movement, older ones static stillness.

photo of Ironton Minnesota water tower
Ironton, MN water tower

Often, urban America looks to rural areas for a sense of continuity, an important balance to the agents of change of technology and mobility. "We imbue the country side with a sense of the sacred and see in rural towns a stability that we do not attribute to big cities, which are more prone to rapid social change." Rural towns of the plains have a special place in the nation's history: the place of the original frontier, birthplace of manifest destiny and the threshold to westward expansion. The prairie landscape then is certainly tied securely to the historic evolution of the American story. Out of the largest, most recognizable buildings in the rural town, only the function of the water tower was shared by all residents, protecting the community from the hazards of fire and drought. Rural water towers are important markers of identity, reminders of belonging and, for many, absence and recollection. They are central agents in a web of memories that move us to remember a place and time that once was.

Footnotes:

  1. Vanderlinde, Paul Historic American Engineering Record: Bovey Water Tower (HAER No. MN-59) U.S. Department of Interior National Park Service: 1992 p. 1
  2. Vanderlinde, Paul Historic American Engineering Record: Bovey Water Tower (HAER No. MN-59) U.S. Department of Interior National Park Service: 1992 p. 10
  3. Vanderlinde, Paul Historic American Engineering Record: Bovey Water Tower (HAER No. MN-59) U.S. Department of Interior National Park Service: 1992 p. 10
  4. Vanderlinde, Paul Historic American Engineering Record: Bovey Water Tower (HAER No. MN-59) U.S. Department of Interior National Park Service: 1992 p. 11
  5. Ziebarth, Marilyn Minnesota Water Towers on the National Register of Historic Places Minnesota History Magazine: Winter 1992 p. 2
  6. Minnesota State Historical Society Historic American Engineering Record: Elysian Water Tower (HAER No. MN-19) U.S. Department of Interior National Park Service: 1986 p. 2
  7. Spreng, Ronald They Didn't Just Grow There: Building Water Towers in the Postwar Era Minnesota History Magazine: Winter 1992 p. 136
  8. Cordone, Michelle L. The Role of Vernacular Architecture in Small Town Identity and Economy: A Study of Mentone, Indiana [Thesis] Graduate College of Bowling Green State: 2007 p. 39

Image Citations:

  1. Lindstrom, Lindstrom Water Tower www.flickr.com user: altfelix11
  2. Pequot Lakes, World's Largest Fishing Bobber www.flickr.com user: jcarwash31
  3. Bovey, Close Up of East Side Vanderlinde, Paul Historic American Engineering Record: Bovey Water Tower (HAER No. MN-59) U.S. Department of Interior National Park Service
  4. Cuyuna, IMG_0821 www.flickr.com user: cageyj
  5. Ironton, Ironton Water Tower, www.flickr.com user: morganve