Painted Rock in Lester Prairie

Known as the “Painted Rock,” it can be found in Bergen Township in the Crow River.

It was long ago, a time when a paved road did not exist in Minnesota. The land was wild and a time when the means of survival could depend on one’s sharp wits. Traversing the land could be tough at best — wet, marshy lowland dotted much of the landscape, and winding through the tall grass prairie were tangles of underbrush, groves of hardwoods and lowland willow growth.

For the most part, travelers in the North Country found their way across the land by following the river. The mighty Mississippi cut through the heart of the land, and branching away from it were thousands of narrow cricks and rushing rivers that carved out natural travel routes across the region. For thousands of years, these were the highways of the North Country — traversed by way of flotation or on foot along the banks.

On the South Fork of the Crow River, near the eventual site of Lester Prairie, sits a relic of a time forgotten. To call it a rock is an understatement — it’s a boulder, and it’s 10 times the size of a man. It’s made of pink granite, some black lichen grows on it, and from a distance it resembles a seated buffalo.

According to legend, the rock once was a marker for travelers. It was a landmark letting them know that the spot was easily forded across. In addition, directions were carved in it to show travelers where they were and where to go. It also marked a summer camp for Native Americans.

As the centuries passed by, and as white Americans began moving into the region, the rock was likely used by settlers and explorers in much the same manner as it had been for years. It is said that during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, that the cavalry used the rock as a marker as well.

As time went on, the carvings in the rock eroded away, and today none remain. In addition, the rock was once part of a sand outcropping from the riverbank. Through the years, however, high floodwaters have eroded the bank away and today the rock sits in the middle of the river.

In 1999, the rock was visited by two anthropologists from the University of Minnesota. They found the rock where it was said to be. They searched for carvings but found none. They scoured the area around the boulder and came across a natural spring. Because of the rock’s makeup, its location in the river and being situated next to the spring, they deduced that the stories about the boulder were most likely true.

The rock still stands in the river today. It’s been there for thousands of years and likely will be for a thousand more. It may have once been an integral part of life, but today is little more than a piece of history that has nearly been forgotten. It is the perfect example of a piece of history hidden in plain sight.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. Do you have a historical anecdote to share? Haines can be reached at 320-587-2109 or by email at director@mcleodhistory.org.

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