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140 years ago, outer space met Estherville Friday marks 140th anniversary of meteorite landing

May 10, 2019
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

The crater is described as "indistinguishable," due to its location inside a cornfield three miles north of Estherville. But when it hit May 10, 1879, the largest meteorite known to have fallen in North America left a funnel-shaped hole that was 12 feet deep. It weighed 744 pounds. It broke into three pieces weighing 431 pounds, 151 pounds, and 106 pounds.

For 80 years, a center slice of the meteorite has been on loan from to the Estherville Chamber of Commerce, and on display at the Estherville Public Library in a case now located at the bottom of the stairs leading to its basement.

In 1986, Alabama writer Aileen Kilgore Henderson wrote a colorful story for The Iowan, piecing together oral history, information from the Emmet County Historical Society, and an article from Ben Hur Wilson that appeared in the September, 1928 issue of The Palimpsest.

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Estherville was then a town of 300 people, with little to distinguish itself from the other pioneer towns in Iowa and Minnesota that had attracted immigrants hoping to start a new life.

Henderson's story of what happened the day the meteorite landed paints a picture of rural people going about their business.

In the town square, Robert Pietz played in a baseball game that was about to end. Feelings among the participants were not friendly. Angry shouts and sweaty confrontations threatened to erupt in a brawl but there was nothing unusual about this.

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The Estherville Public Library's meteorite display is the center slice, a cut from the University of Minnesota Museum's 151 pound piece.

The corners of Highways 9 and 4 now boast the Meteorite Sculpture, purchased by the Estherville Area Arts Council after a 1980 competition brought Dubuque artist Tom Gibbs to town to create it. Just west of the intersection on Central Avenue is a Meteorite Center, which features another piece of the meteorite that the Estherville Chamber of Commerce purchased in 2010.

Two miles north, at the Pingrey farmstead, Mr. Pingrey was away. His wife bent over her sewing while their daughter, Maria, and the other children played. It was an ordinary scene, and one that would have been forgettable except for what was about to happen

East of the Pingrey farm, Mrs. Sever Lee also busied herself at home. She and her husband were recent immigrants, hard-working folk who were struggling to meet the payments on their farm, newly purchased from the railroad. Ahead of them loomed many years of having to pay off the mortgage on their property. As the household clock ticked slowly toward five, Mrs. Lee had no inkling that already events were in motion that would make the farm their own, free and clear, by harvest time.

The first note of the meteorite came from just west of Tracy, Minnesota, where civil engineer Charles Irish and the driver of his team of horses noticed a turbulent black cloud rising out of the northwest. Out of the black came a stripe of silver when the sunlight hit it. Then, the explosion of light. A sizzling, white-hot meteor burst through the cloud.

"It was as brilliantly white as the light of the sun, and dazzling in its appearance. It sputtered like an iron heated white-hot in a forge," Irish would later write.

A broad, glistening white band streamed straight behind it like a grand silk ribbon. As the meteor passed through and out of the cloud, it drew with it a long, trumpet-shaped mass of cloud vapor beyond the straight edge into the clear side of the sky. The awestruck men noted the object was descending, but it disappeared without landing. They listened intently, but could hear no sound of impact above the roar of the storm.

The brawl over the baseball game in Estherville continued until the explosion, "a sizzling, cracking roar," stunned the ballplayers.

The earth rocked, houses trembled on their foundations, dishes rattled, and windowpanes shattered. A second, less powerful explosion followed.

Someone gasped, "It's the end of the world."

Eight local farm boys labored on the Lee farm to unearth the first piece, but after sweating through Sunday, May 11 without making any progress, they enlisted the help of George Osborn, a professional well digger.

Once the eight farm boys hauled their find into the town square, they discovered Estherville was on the map as sight-seers flocked to view the meteorite. They had found their summer job, and charged a fee to whomever would want to view the treasure. With it hefted onto a wagon, they set out for Chicago by way of Minneapolis. Advertising was by lettered placard:

I am the Heavenly Meteor

I arrived May 10 at 5 o'clock

My weight is 431 pounds.

From whence I came, nobody knows,

But I am enroute for Chicago.

The farm boys' entrepreneurial vision was cut short when word reached them that there had been several legal challenges to the youths' ownership of the meteor. They returned to Iowa and hid the behemoth until the hubbub died down at which point they stored it at the farm of Chester Rewey, the father of one of the boys, and would display it gratis upon request.

An attorney, Charles Birge, discovered the Lees, on whose farm the meteorite landed, owed the railroad for the farm and the contract stated one late payment would return the land to the railroad immediately. Birge purchased the debt so he could claim the land and the stone, and left town with the largest chucnk, which he sold to the British museum in London. Afterward, Stone deeded the title to the farm property free and clear to the Lee family.

The second largest chunk was discovered May 14, and the third not until February 23, 1880.

Meteorite picnics became an Emmet County pastime. Smaller pieces ranging in size from marbles to baseballs were still around in the fields and on the hills throughout the area. People fashioned them into jewelry and other keepsakes or sold them to out-of-towners as souvenirs. Pieces can be found in London, Paris, Viena, Prague and Budapest. Yale, Harvard, and the University of Minnesota also got a piece of the prize, and Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History boasts a fragment.



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