Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2014 (March 18, 2014)

Chamberlin Springs Stages a Comeback

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March 13, 2014
By John Morgan'96

Chamberlin gazebo
Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS 27290

It was the 1870s and modern medicine was a confluence of folksy remedies and newfangled science. Joseph Lister had only recently discovered the need for clean hands and instruments in surgery via the use of antiseptics. At the same time it wasn’t inconsistent for people to believe that spring water could also cure what ailed them.

“Dear Sir: I had Diabetes all last summer, and by fall it was very bad. I then began to drink water from your Iodo-Magnesian Springs. I began to mend immediately and continued to grow better steadily, and I am now almost entirely free from any trouble of that kind. Yours respectfully, Simon Ruble.” (April 13, 1875)

Sound remarkable? Even more so is that the Iodo-Magnesian Spring Company was in Beloit of all places. Yep, believe it or not, a bustling convergence of convalescents in tea gowns and top hats converged on a frontier farm just west of town in a scene reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon painting.

Mineral water from a natural spring on the farm was declared the remedy for myriad diseases beyond diabetes, like kidney stones, back pain, and nervousness. The water was bottled, kegged and barreled, and shipped all over the Midwest.

The “Sir” referred to above was Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin (1866), a giant in the field of geology. T.C., as he is commonly referred, likely partnered in the enterprise with his brother John, who had stayed on the family farm while T.C. went to Beloit College first as a student, then as a professor.

The company’s brochure included testimonials and statements of support by notable townspeople like local physicians and first college president Aaron Lucius Chapin. Alas, the boom eventually subsided and things at the spring quieted dramatically. A huge gazebo that was once a hub was torn down and the place became a quiet and somewhat forgotten woods.

The property remained in the Chamberlin family until it was given to Beloit College by T.C.’s son, Rollin, in 1946. And now, after decades of deferment, the wonderful oasis is undergoing its own restoration as a natural laboratory for Beloit College. But in order to put the place in context today it’s important to understand the legacy of this famous alumnus.

TC cropped
Thomas C. Chamberlin, above, class of 1866, would become an
internationally renowned geologist and, through his son,
leave a tangible legacy to scientific fieldwork at Beloit.

T.C. was born in southern Illinois in 1843 near Mattoon. When he was 3, the family made the grueling 250-mile trek to Beloit aboard two prairie schooners—large ramshackle wagons commonly pulled by oxen. They settled 160-acres of prairie purchased from the government, which would later become the site of the spa. Today, the college owns 40 remaining acres containing the springs, five miles northwest of campus on West Spring Creek Road. 

The year they arrived, T.C.’s father, John, a Methodist minister and farmer, was present at the laying of the cornerstone of Middle College, and he encouraged his sons to pursue a college education.

But academics were a conundrum for T.C., as he experienced tension between religious faith and science. His son, Rollin, wrote about the struggle in a biography of T.C.: “Geology he faced with the attitude of a skeptic, for it did not at all agree with his theological beliefs. He determined to investigate the subject in order to show that his theology was right and that the geologists were wrong. So thorough were his investigations that, instead of convincing the geologists of their errors, he convinced himself of the truth of their contentions.”

After graduating from Beloit, T.C. first became a high school principal in Delavan, Wis., where he took students on field excursions to identify rocks, plants, and animals. This fieldwork further fanned his geology flame, and he left for graduate study at the University of Michigan. He eventually returned to Beloit College in 1873 as a professor, launching a storied career as a geologist. And while this was the time of the spring water company, it’s not a stretch to presume that those efforts were mainly his brother’s. A review of five Chamberlin biographies comprising hundreds of pages devoted to the man did not reveal a single mention of the spa or the company. Instead, there is much focus on T.C.’s scientific and teaching excellence and his influence on star students like Rollin Salisbury and George Collie, who adored T.C. and became noted geologists themselves.

“Many of us felt that we were near to a man who was doing things in the scientific world, even great things, and we felt an enthusiasm for our work which seldom prevails among undergraduates,” wrote Collie in 1932.

Those “great things” included completing a survey of Wisconsin as the state’s chief geologist, studying active glaciers in the Alps and Greenland, and serving on a humanitarian mission to China commissioned by J.D. Rockefeller. T.C. eventually left Beloit College and his career flourished, with appointments as chief of the Glacial Division of the U.S. Geological Survey, the presidency of the University of Wisconsin and, finally, an offer to build a department of geology at the University of Chicago, where he assembled with his former students (and son, Rollin), founded the Journal of Geology, and became one of the most prominent American scientists of his time.

But how does this alumnus’ masterful career relate to a quiet wooded property outside of Beloit today? The story resumes with geology professor Monta Wing, who arrived at Beloit College in 1923 from the University of Chicago.

“It was, in fact, Monta Wing, more than anyone, who convinced Rollin Chamberlin to donate the Chamberlin homestead,” recalls Allan Schneider’48, Wing’s student, who also went on to a long career as a geologist. “I remember [his] several trips to Chicago to visit the Chamberlins to accomplish this goal.”

Consequently, the treks into the woods continued, with countless classes visiting the property. Professors Hank Woodard and Dick Stenstrom from the geology department commonly used the property as an outdoor laboratory, as did Dick Newsome from biology. Newsome, now retired, notes that in the late 1960s a committee was convened to consider how best to manage the property. A “hands off” approach was decided. At that time, the property was healthy, botanically speaking, and had a good mixture of native trees and plants. Unfortunately, an unforeseen invasion of non-native species took hold.

“The site over the years became more and more overgrown,” notes Professor of Geology Sue Swanson, Weeks Chair in Physical and Human Geography at Beloit and faculty steward of the property.

“When I came in 2001, the property was nearly impassable,” says Swanson.  

Chamberlain springs students
Dingxi "Safari" Fang'14 (left) and Kelsey Rettke '15 rode their 
bicycles the five miles to Chamberlin Spring for eight weeks
last summer. They were the first Sustainability Fellows to
conduct research on the property. Photo by Chris Hankins.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          So Swanson was excited to receive a phone call from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012, inquiring whether the college had any possible properties for its Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which works with private landowners to improve habitat.

“I immediately thought of Chamberlin Springs,” recalls Swanson.

The program identifies land with inherent value as fish and wildlife habitat, partners with the landowners, and works on specific strategies to get the properties back on track. Seed money from the college matched the USFWS money, and some generous gifts from Beloit alumni tripled the original budget to nearly $25,000. The initial partnership funding went toward removing the invasive and undesirable vegetation and restoring the oak savanna near the springs. The additional funds reopened the wide path back to the springs—presumably the original path from the spa days—and added a much-needed parking area. There are plans in 2014 to build pillars and a new gate at the road. The funds also ensure an endowment that will fund the care of the property into the future.

“There’s still potential to do more,” Swanson says. “We need to make sure that we can manage what we’ve done so far. And in that sense, the funding that we have available will do that. But I kind of want to think big about this site, too.”  

Encouragingly, student work has already begun. Four student research projects have been conducted at the property in the last two years alone. One is serving as a senior thesis project for geology major Harry Kuttner’14, who is studying the hydrogeology of the springs. 

“Field-based class work has been some of the most important education I have received through the geology and biology departments at Beloit,” Kuttner stresses. “Without natural areas like Chamberlin Springs and Newark Road Prairie, I would have missed out on countless learning opportunities.”

Two other projects were part of the Sustainability Fellows Program, which was launched in 2010 by Yaffa Grossman, professor and chair of the biology department. Grossman is working for a more comprehensive consideration of sustainability practices by the college as well as student research into sustainability-related topics.

Indeed, this past summer’s cadre of Fellows reveals two very different projects that worked in tandem at Chamberlin Springs. Dingxi “Safari” Fang’14, an environmental biology major and anthropology minor from China, conducted a survey of the vegetation and studied stream flow. Kelsey Rettke’15, a history and creative writing double major minoring in journalism, did an immersion journalism project by conducting fieldwork with Fang while compiling a history of the property.

“I think it gave me a lot more appreciation for Beloit and the kind of things that you can do if you take the initiative,” Rettke recalls.

Her advisor, Associate Professor of English Chris Fink, encouraged Rettke to take her journalism tools into the woods and immerse herself in an experience that included wading through Spring Creek, which meanders through the property.

“It was important to me that she get her hands dirty and learn some fieldwork techniques,” Fink explains. “In my journalism class, Kelsey learned about personal reporting. I wanted her to report the story of Chamberlin Springs in such a way that she became a part of the story.”

On her end, Fang even learned how to ride a bike early in summer so that the two researchers could pedal out to the site to conduct fieldwork. Both students exude ownership, excitement, pride, and a level of insight that results from this type of experiential learning, the type that Chamberlin himself relished.

“This is not like taking classes. It’s so different from normal classroom learning. We really take responsibility for our projects,” Fang relays.

Chamberlain springs Bw
In 1946, Bradley Tyrrell (1906), college vice president, Professor Monta Wing,
and Alumni Secretary James Gage'28 tour the land given to the college by
Rollin Chamberlin to mark Beloit's centennial. The wooded tract was to be "used
as a forest preserve, bird sanctuary, recreation spot, and geology 'workshop,'"
according to notes on the back of the photograph. Photo courtesy of Beloit College Archives.

Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin was a gifted and creative thinker, and as a teacher who lamented the limits of textbooks and classrooms, he would delight in the use of his family’s property as a means of getting students into the field, testing hypotheses, and learning by doing.

“In the architecture of Science, every beam is to be tested, every joint is to be put to trial,” Chamberlin proclaimed at an 1893 University of Chicago convocation. “All phenomena are welcomed with equal cordiality. The mind opens itself on all sides to every avenue of truth with equal impartiality!”

Once again people are visiting Chamberlin Springs, yet this time around, it’s their minds that are being quenched through the magical tonic of fieldwork and scientific research. And thanks to a remarkable Beloiter, his family’s gift, and important restoration efforts, Chamberlin Springs will continue to welcome visitors from all over the world for generations to come. 

John Morgan’96 is a freelance writer living in Stoughton, Wis. He, too, conducted fieldwork at Chamberlin Springs as a student of Dick Newsome and is a proud Chamberlin Hall Rat alumnus. John thanks Fred Burwell’86, Beloit College Archivist, for significant assistance researching this article and for all his efforts preserving Beloit’s precious stories.


  • April 20 2014 at 1:01 pm
    Nancy Holder

    I've been transcribing my great-grandfather's diary (written 1876-1882, tracing the people he mentions and also trying to figure out where he was going when he said they were meeting at "The Springs".  I thought it might be near Manchester Township in Boone County, IL but feel the Chamberlin Springs near Beloit (where they grew up) is more likely the meeting place for a group of people in their late teens and early twenties in that time frame. I found this in a Google search. Thanks for making this informative article available online.  Nancy Holder, Hot Springs Village, Arkansas


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