Minnesota News

Sinkhole tourism? Fountain, Minn., sees an opening

An aerial view of a highway and sinkholes dotting a field
Sinkholes dot the landscape near Fountain, Minn., on Friday, May 5, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The sinkholes that pockmark the fields and forests of around Fountain are not obvious — unless you know what to look for.

“It seems like just a grove of trees,” said Sara Sturgis, executive director of the Fillmore County Historical Society. “Something that could cause that big of a concern should look a little scarier.”

It’s true. The 20-foot deep sinkhole she’s standing in is more miniature woodland than gaping hole. It’s surrounded by trees and held together with a tangle of brush, roots and a few beer cans thrown in for good measure. 

Farmers mow around the depressions because the land is useless. Just how many there are is hard to say, but several geological estimates peg the number at roughly 10,000 in Fillmore County. That number changes all the time as more sinkholes form.

An aerial view of a sinkhole next to a bike path
A sinkhole is pictured beside the Root River State Trail near Fountain, Minn. on Friday, May 5, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

But where farmers see lost cropland, Sturgis sees tourism potential.

Years ago, Fountain changed its welcome sign to declare itself the Sinkhole Capital of the United States. But Sturgis says the town of 400 in southeastern Minnesota could do a whole lot more with that self-styled claim to fame. 

At the history center in town, she gets questions all the time about the sinkholes, a hallmark of the karst landscape in the Driftless Area where Fountain is located. 

“People are in love with the scenery and the geography,” said Sturgis. “And they want to know why we're so different from the rest of the state. I think there's definitely this market and this interest, and we have an opportunity to capitalize on that and really do some great education.”

Windows to the world below

Right now, Sturgis is thinking through the details. She's seeking grants and working to build support in the community. 

And she has an ally in City Council member Colleen Foehrenbacher. 

“You could do a tour of the karst geology of the Driftless,” said Foehrenbacher. “You go to Fountain to learn about the sinkholes, maybe see a spring and go down to Harmony. They have a sinkhole demonstration site there as well.”

Sinkholes are like windows to the world beneath our feet, Foehrenbacher said. 

“What's going on below is what's interesting. As the water moves through, it interacts with CO2 to create carbonic acid. And carbonic acid is what actually eats away the limestone, creating holes under the ground,” she said. 

Then when the bedrock on top of these holes cannot hold anymore, it sinks down. 

Water emerges from a bluffside
Groundwater emerges from a bluff near Fountain.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Sinkhole lore

And where there's one sinkhole, there's usually more — and lots of stories about them. 

Standing on a grassy low-lying area in the center of town, Tom Tienter shared a local sinkhole tale that’s become urban legend around here.

“Somewhere in one of these sinkholes the old timers say in order to fill it up, they pushed an old steam engine in the bottom of it,” he said. 

He couldn’t confirm that train story, but it is true that people tend to use sinkholes as dump pits.

A man turns the key in a golf cart
Tom Tienter parks his golf cart near a sinkhole on his in-laws’ property in Fountain.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Some are just filled over and over with dirt and rock. But pointing to depressions in the grass — spots that have been filled only to reopen — Tienter said it’s a temporary fix.

Tienter is especially concerned about this spot, which connects to his in-law’s property, because kids play in these sinkholes after a big rain. 

He’s worried someone will drown. 

Economic opportunity

The front of a brewery and its logo
The facade of Karst Brewing in Fountain, Minn.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The pitfalls of living in this pockmarked region are many: You need sinkhole insurance. People throw old appliances in them. 

But as he sat down for a beer on Cinco de Mayo — or ‘Sinkhole de Mayo’ as the locals call it — Karst Brewing owner Eric Luoma said he sees economic opportunity for the whole community. 

Bringing more attention to the sinkholes could mean more visitors from other parts of the region, spending money in the town's restaurants and shops, said Luoma.

A man points to framed posters on a brewery wall
Eric Luoma, co-owner and head brewer at Karst Brewing, shows off the geology-related posters hanging in the taproom.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“You have to work with what you have,” he said. “So it would be cool if we had a wonderful beach. But we don't. We have sinkholes.”

After all, celebrating the lowly sinkhole, he said, is really a celebration of all that makes his community special.

Got a suggestion for a Minnesota road trip? Sinkholes, giant Paul Bunyan statues or a pit stop at the best small town bakery? Send us a message at tell@mpr.org