by Mark Bostick
Esterville, the fall of 1879
Now we picture Esterville, Iowa in the Spring of 1879. Early May is a busy time of the year for farming communities but it is considered a relaxed time. Spring meant it was now time to build farm structures, to prepare for summer and plant fields. This work however was light compared to the summer chores of sheep shearing, haying and threshing or the fall work, picking corn. Picking corn was by far the most hated job of all. 1879 was three years before the long-awaited rail materialized in Iowa. But in the last few years Estherville had grown into a town they could be proud of. Immigration from Germany and Ireland brought more money and labor into the town. Business shops and nice wooden structures slowly replaced the former log buildings. The town now even sported a row for stores complete with wooden sidewalks. Esterville's "Main Street". Main street became the supply center for the farmers in the surrounding area. The farmers, craftsmen and merchants formed a social and economical circle. Square dances and other folk recreations such as spelling-bees, and quilting formed friendships. Even one family's problem with another family was temporarily forgotten by common enemies, such as grass fires and grasshopper epidemics, both common and destructive. If you can picture in your head the life from the television series "Little House on the Prairie" you wouldn't be far off. The Wilders lived in Iowa during this time period. These Iowan pioneers slowly transformed the fertile prairies of the Midwest into the most productive farmland in the world.
Saturday, May 10th, 1879 was a typical calm day in Esterville life. Sunny with only the occasional cloud. The evening finds most of the towns men working their fields. When from the southwest came a rumbling sound. A civil engineer near Jackson, Minnesota, 15 miles northwest of Esterville, saw a "brilliantly white" object appear to leave a storm cloud hanging in the west. To him it appeared to draw portions of the cloud after it. The white ball of light was about 40 miles high and begin to change colors as it moved from the southwest to the northwest, towards Esterville and its citizens.
Less then a mile north of Esterville was Mr. S. Brown who saw a red spark darting in the sky. He was watching it attentively when it happened. When Esterville citizens where welcomed to a loud explosion, that was shortly followed by a second. The ground trembled under its shock wave and windows were left broken. Echos of the explosions mocked Esterville's residents. The "red spark", and soon to be meteorite, exploded in the air, six miles west of Esterville. Brown watched a cloud of smoke leave the head of the explosion and spread itself in several directions. Newspapers would later print the following testimony from Brown, "...when it burst there was a cloud of smoke at the head of the red streak, which rushing forth like the smoke from a cannon's mouth, and then spread in ever direction." Two farmers were crossing an open prairie as it exploded. They watched it break into three pieces, each taking a different direction, and each with its own smoke trials which "formed a cows foot" in the sky.
Stones fell near Superior and scared cattle to a stampede. At near by Four Mile Lake, puzzled boys watched the water get peppered with small pebbles. The largest meteorite from the fall, otherwise known as the main mass, had however a different target.
Two miles north of Esterville Mr. Charles Ega was planting corn. After hearing the explosion he looked in the direction of the sound, Ega could now hear a roaring sound. Staring almost into the sun he could not see much else. A few hundred yards from where he was working, he saw dirt thrown high into the air. John Barber also watched as the earth's surface became airborne. It had fallen on the Sever Lee farm. Its fall made a crater twelve feet wide and six feet deep. The hole was punched out of clay beside a ravine and water conquered it within minutes.
The next day 8 farm boys tried to raise the meteorite. The meteorite didn't even move. The Lee's didn't seem have any interest in the meteorite that had landed on their property, the young men however saw value in it. After all, its not every day you see a meteorite right? They hired a well digger, George Osborn who raised the meteorite from its water filled bed. The meteorite was an impressive 437 pounds. Two feet long by one and one-half wide, and one foot or so thick, and had a rough uneven surface. Newspapers would report "It is composed apparently of nearly pure metal of some kind, resembling silver somewhat but a trifle darker".
It did not take the farm boys long to realize the meteorite had a market value. Not here in Esterville, where small pieces could be found still on the ground, but in the big city. In Chicago. In Chicago, somebody would pay good money for this big heavy rock that fell. So the farm boys loaded the meteorite into a wagon and adorned it with a sign, "I am the Heavenly Meteor. I arrived May 10th at 5 o'clock. My weight is 437 pounds. From whence I came nobody knows, but I am enroute for Chicago!" And off they went across the state and on their way to Chicago. Large United State meteorite finds and falls usually have large stories and the Esterville is no exception. The story of the fall had now spread and ownership of the meteorite was being questioned. Fearing they might lose their treasure, the boys returned to home. The main mass was then wrapped in quilts and buried in a local cornfield. Only later, when news had died down and the boys were feeling secure in their ownership did they move it the home of one of the farm boys.
Court cases in 1904 and 1905 concerning ownership of the Williamette meteorite, set the ruling that a meteorites ownership is decided by the owner of the land it is found on. In the case of the Esterville, it belonged to the Sever Lee Farm. When Lee went temporary default on payment for his farm, an attorney Charles N. Birge purchased the land. Doing so he knowingly and cleverly purchased the meteorite as well. Birge sold the meteorite to the British Museum for a profit and deeded the farm back to the Lee's. The main mass was later divided between the London, Paris, and Vienna Museums.
The Esterville meteorite is a rare type known as a stony-iron, and more accurately a Mesosiderite. Richard Norton's Rocks from Space defines a mesosiderite as "a class of stony-iron meteorites composed of iron-nickel alloy and angular rock fragments of eucrite and diogenite material." One might think Norton was describing Esterville when he wrote that. This polymict breccia is a mixture of iron inclusions and silicates. Clasts of eucrite and diogenite material, many times very large, can be found in slices. The meteorite can rust easily if not kept dry, and will have occasional spots.
In 1980, for an Esterville sculpture competition with a theme of the Estherville Meteorite. Tom Gibbs created the winning piece of artwork above for the contest. Mr. Gibbs explained his art as follows, "The tension in the forms suggests the great speed and friction with air that characterized meteoric movement. The horizontal form is an abstract expression of the 'bright streak' or 'broad band' described in a number of eyewitness accounts of the event."
Mark Bostick, and Meteorite-Times.com would like to thank Esterville Major Lyle Hevern for use of the artwork photo and Rob Elliott of Fernlea Meteorites for the photos of the Esterville meteorite.