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The Pioneer Squad

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The fifty hardy heroes I am going to tell you about differ from your modern movie heroes in at least one respect. Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Bond occasionally back down.

Not so, the Pioneer Squad who arrived in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in May of 1852, bound for Rolling Stone, Minnesota, a Utopian community planned by the Western Farm and Village Association in New York.

At LaCrosse, they boarded a steamboat heading upstream, and asked to be dropped off at the port of Rolling Stone just above Winona. When the captain informed them that he had never heard of such a port, they refused to take "no" for an answer. They had come over a thousand miles to get here, traveling night and day by railroad and stage, sleeping only every other night.

Besides, they had a map from the Association showing a great port city, with four parks, a three-hundred and twenty-acre university, and many other amenities. And Andrew Greely, the chief of the New York Herald Tribune, had personally endorsed the venture. They insisted on being put ashore at Rolling Stone. The captain eventually obliged and let them out at the edge of a swamp. They walked knee-deep through water to get to the town site—where there was nothing whatsoever. They refused to give up. With no knowledge of how to construct sturdy log homes, the pioneers built flimsy dwellings out of branches. Several lived in gopher pits they dug in the earth. No fancy Western Farm and Village Association was going to pull a hoax on them.

That winter, almost every pioneer became ill from the cholera and fevers from the mosquito-infested swamps. A few left, but many hung on. Even though they knew little about plowing the prairie and raising crops, and even less about selecting and raising cattle, they refused to say no. Even when it turned out that the Sioux Indians still owned the land and demanded yearly rent from the pioneers.

Eventually, other settlers arrived by twos and threes, and staked claims wherever there was land, and a small community of Rolling Stone slowly emerged on the prairie.

Which makes Rolling Stone a quintessential Minnesota community. After all, from Minneapolis on down, isn't everything in a Minnesota town at least part mirage?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.