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The Sand Box

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Most Americans know a Paul Bunyan story or two: how his footprints created Minnesota's ten thousand lakes, how he ate pancakes cooked on a griddle so large the cook had to grease it by using bacon as skates. But we Rock Islanders know the location of the sand box Paul played on as a kid. It's called the Upper Mississippi River Valley.

A river valley for the moment; under that thin surface of water called the Mississippi lies a far deeper layer of sand—and far older. Paul Bunyan's sand box began filling millions of years ago—2,700 million years, some geologists say, with sandstone from central Minnesota and the area around the Great Lakes. But the final layer of sand, good, clean quartz, feldspar, and mica, come from the bedrock of Ontario, Canada, ground up and brought here by the four great glaciers which deposited deep piles of sand across Minnesota and Wisconsin. It was the Mississippi River which carried this last sand down and topped off the sandbox over the past 10,000 years, giving the valley its present shape, and providing shelves for river towns beneath the bluffs. The wide stretch of the Mississippi known as Lake Pepin once reached all the way to St. Paul—until the sand began to fill in the channel all the way down to Red Wing.

Now and then, the Mississippi could not resist playing with the sand itself, building up piles of sand into island or stretching them across the river into sandbars, washing through sloughs and bends to try out new channels. I have no doubt that Paul Bunyan himself may have made some of the islands and sand dams in the way kids do in a sand box.

Paul Bunyan grew up some time back and left his sandbox to other kids. If you travel up along the Great River Road for any distance, you're likely to see kids at play, dredging up sand into huge piles along shore, or creating sand islands in the river itself. The kids call themselves the Corps of Engineers and would have you believe they are at work rather than play. Don't believe it. Forgive their little deception. You and I both know that sand, like water, is one of those things it's hard to let alone.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

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.