Hello all,

I don't believe this article has been posted to the list before.  It's an 
interesting article from the University of Minnesota's Alumni magazine, 
especially for those who like the stories that go along with the meteorites.
The link follows:

Romancing the Meteorite
11/5/2008   By Tim Brady

A yellow flash as big as the moon appeared in the late afternoon sky 
accompanied by an echoing boom. The thing mellowed to a burning light then 
arced west to east above the Iowa towns below, moving at the deliberate pace of 
a celestial freight train. It crackled like burning timber, according to 
accounts, leaving a smoking trail in the atmosphere and gaping mouths below. 
Across more than a dozen counties in northern Iowa and a half-dozen more in 
Minnesota, witnesses stared at the phenomenon with a wonder tempered by the 
fact that the same sort of alien force had visited Iowa just 11 years earlier, 
in Estherville. 

Most knew what they were seeing before it hit the ground. Which might explain 
why, when one of the biggest chunks of this aerolite settled on a farm near 
Forest City, about 15 miles south of the central Minnesota border, the tenant 
there, Peter Hoagland, had no qualms about racing toward the impact. What his 
mind’s eye envisioned, as he grabbed his spade and headed out toward the 
landing zone, were stacks of greenbacks, not armies of little green men.

It was just after 5 o’clock on May 2, 1890. Hundreds of small chunks of the 
meteorite (or aerolite, as they were known then) peppered the landscape for 
miles around, but one of the biggest rocks landed in prairie grass on the farm 
worked by Hoagland. It buried itself three feet deep but was neither smoking 
nor hot to the touch when he found it, despite the fact it had just burned 
through the atmosphere on its way to Earth.

Word spread quickly across the Upper Midwest that another meteorite had flashed 
across the Iowa sky, just like the famed Estherville Aerolite of 1879. In 
papers throughout the state and up into Minnesota, news went out announcing the 
event. But aside from Hoagland and the handful he told, no one knew for a 
couple of days precisely where the big rock had landed. 

That fact sent meteorite hunters from across the region out into the field in 
search of the stone. Included in this pack was Horace V. Winchell, the son of 
the esteemed chair of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Geology, 
Newton H. Winchell. Aside from heading the University’s geology studies, Newton 
was also director of the state’s Geological and Natural History Survey, first 
director of the Minnesota Natural History Museum, and the state’s highest 
authority on its many natural resources. There was hardly a rock in Minnesota 
that Newton hadn’t inspected. 

Horace V. Winchell was himself an accomplished student of geology and had a 
long, influential career as a practicing geologist. Sniffing for meteorites on 
behalf of the museum and his father, Horace headed south from Minneapolis, 
stopping first in Faribault to check out reports of sightings there before 
aiming toward Iowa, where already teams of scholars from the University of Iowa 
and Grinnell College were in the field. 

Meteorites have fallen from the heavens through all of recorded history. But 
despite the seeming frequency of falls in northern Iowa in the last quarter of 
the 1800s, in fact it is extremely rare to witness a meteor shower and then 
find the actual rocks that rained down from above. Even today, while the number 
of known meteorites collected on Earth is in the tens of thousands, the number 
of falls seen and subsequently collected by humans is a little over a thousand.

All of which meant there was a great deal of value attached to the meteorite 
that fell that May afternoon. Beyond the academic hunters, any numbers of 
enterprising meteorite hounds were also out searching in northern Iowa for the 
rock. The Estherville incident was a fresh memory, and it was well known that 
that meteorite was purchased by the British Museum for thousands of dollars. 

When Horace Winchell heard reports that perhaps the biggest chunk of rock had 
fallen in Winnebago County, bordering Minnesota, he raced in that direction. 
There he found Hoagland waiting with a 66-pound meteorite on the kitchen table, 
ready to entertain offers for the stone, as well as for about 30 smaller 
meteorite fragments that had fallen on the property. 

A team representing the University of Iowa was not far behind Winchell. In 
fact, they raced up in a wagon just as the bargaining session began. 
Apparently, the representative of the U of I had only $100 in his pocket, while 
Winchell came with at least $105. That higher bid was enough to ensure that the 
Minnesota Natural History Museum, through its representative Winchell, was soon 
trundling off toward Forest City with a wheelbarrow full of meteorites, 
including the prize 66-pounder. 

Winchell took his new possessions to the train station for shipment back to 
Minneapolis and then proceeded to get a bath and a shave. He returned to the 
depot in the morning to catch the train northward with his haul and was shocked 
to find a group of Iowans surrounding his meteorite as if they were Hawkeye 
gridders around a football. At their center was the local sheriff, who informed 
Winchell that the meteorite was being replevied—a fancy way of saying swiped by 
legal authority. 

Hoagland, it seemed, as a mere tenant on the property where the stone had 
fallen, was not necessarily its rightful owner. There was a serious legal 
question about whether or not Hoagland had any right to sell what had simply 
fallen on the land he rented. The deed to the property was held by a man named 
John Goodard who claimed the meteorite was his because the land was his. 
Further, Goodard wasn’t interested in selling it to the University of 
Minnesota’s Natural History Museum—which is why he went out and got a writ from 
a local bondsman, contacted the sheriff, and proceeded to do his replevying. 
Turns out a person could legally recover goods on a claim that they’ve been 
wrongfully taken if one pays a bond to the legal authorities and promises to 
show up in court to settle the matter. 

Until the case was settled in a local court of law, the Forest City meteorite 
was going to stay in Iowa.

The scientific study of meteorites was about a hundred years old at the time of 
the Forest City event, and until the 20th century only a few hundred meteorites 
had ever been found. Scientists were still uncertain about what exactly 
meteorites were, where they came from, and how they happened to land in places 
like northern Iowa. In other words, they had scientific value as well as the 
monetary kind. This fact helped the Winchells and the University of Minnesota 
decide they weren’t going to take this matter lying down. A member of the local 
bar, who also happened to have earned the first University of Minnesota Ph.D. 
ever granted, in 1888, Charles Burke Elliott was retained by the U of M to go 
to Forest City to represent the interests of the museum in the matter of the 

To Elliott, the question at hand “was absolutely new and highly novel.” As he 
wrote in a memoir years later, this was an action “to determine the ownership 
of celestial real estate” and “there were no precedents.” He prepared his 
argument for Iowa district court, planning to contend that the meteorite “was 
analogous to lost property and treasure trove, and belonged to the one who 
first reduced it to possession.” 

On the other hand, the plaintiff, John Goodard, claimed that the meteorite had 
become attached to the real estate the moment it plunked down in his field. 
“Whatever is affixed to the soil, belongs to the soil,”   read an ancient law 
from Blackstone’s. And if the court agreed, the rock would belong to Goodard. 

Down in Forest City where the case was to be tried, the townspeople clamored 
around the courthouse, anxious about the outcome of the trial. According to 
Elliott, they “seemed to think that to permit the stone to be taken to 
Minneapolis would be a reflection upon local patriotism.” The case seemed 
straightforward to the local judge, who made his decision quickly. He pleased 
local observers enormously by finding in favor of Goodard. The Forest City 
meteorite would stay in Iowa. At least for now.

Elliott was a man of wit and persistence. He’d also achieved some measure of 
fame a few years earlier when his doctoral thesis—a history of fishing rights 
disputes between Great Britain and the United States in the Atlantic Ocean—had 
been praised to the marbled ceilings in the Senate chambers of the nation’s 
capitol. It was even said to have helped avert a possible war between the two 
nations, and Elliott had received notes of thanks for his scholarship from a 
number of big shots in Washington (www.alumni.umn.edu/elliott). 

Back in Minneapolis, as he crafted the University’s appeal, Elliott noticed an 
advertisement in the Forest City newspaper announcing that the now-famous 
meteorite was being exhibited at the local fair under the auspices of the Iowa 
State Agricultural Society. Elliott reasoned that the U of M had a more 
compelling right to the stone than the Iowa Ag Society, and if Goodard was 
allowing the meteorite out of his possession while the matter was still being 
adjudicated, the University of Minnesota should consider a little replevying of 
its own.

Off he went to the office of former Governor John Pillsbury, chair of the U of 
M’s Board of Regents. There Elliott received Pillsbury’s blessing to head back 
to Iowa to pursue the stone. “I remembered the Governor chuckled and remarked 
that it would fall pretty flat if I got caught within the state,” wrote 
Elliott, “but he was finally a good sport and approved my plan.”

On a dark and rainy morning, Elliott set off for Iowa, arriving at Forest City 
at 4 o’clock afternoon. By chance, the agricultural fair was being conducted 
right beside the train station around a temporary structure known as the Flax 
Palace. There Elliott began sleuthing around for the meteorite and quickly 
bumped into one of the local attorneys representing Goodard. If the Iowa 
counsel’s suspicions were aroused by Elliott’s presence, he didn’t seem 
alarmed. Just before informing Elliott that the rock had been taken to the 
local bank for the night for safekeeping, the Iowa attorney reminded him 
(rather smugly, Elliott thought) of the old lawyerly adage that possession is 
nine points of the law. 

Elliott decided not to engage in an argument at the Flax Palace. Instead, he 
headed to a local bondsman who just happened to be a business acquaintance of 
John Pillsbury. There he asked for a writ that would allow him to confiscate 
the stone on the basis of the fact that it was not currently in the possession 
of John Goodard. The bondsman agreed, and early the next morning Charles 
Elliott took the order to the same Forest City sheriff who had grabbed the 
stone on behalf of Goodard just weeks earlier. The befuddled sheriff 
reluctantly agreed to escort Elliott to the local bank where the meteorite was 
dutifully hauled from the safe and given over to the hero of the aborted 
northeastern fishery wars.

Hotshot, big-city lawyers don’t go unnoticed for long at an Iowa county fair, 
especially when they’re snooping around after the local meteorite. By the time 
the stone had been fetched from the vault and placed in Elliott’s hands, a 
crowd had gathered in the bank and the sheriff, having handed the 66-pound 
meteorite over to Elliott, was suddenly huffing and puffing for the benefit of 
his neighbors. He claimed that the attorney had just taken the stone and 
scoffed at the fact that Elliott had a signed receipt for the rock from the 
sheriff in his pocket. 

Pillsbury’s chuckling warning that matters could “fall pretty flat” if Elliott 
were caught in Forest City was looking mighty prophetic. As muttered threats 
started to get physical and the crowd inched toward him, the lawyer decided to 
make a run for it—easier said than done when cradling a rock weighing as much 
as a weaned Iowa pig. Using the meteorite as a battering ram, Elliot charged 
out of the bank. Someone gave him a push and he wound up running “stiff-legged” 
into the street. Elliott was about to fall face first into the street when he 
ran headlong into the very carriage he’d hired an hour earlier to take the 
meteorite back to the state line. Elliott plunked the cargo in the back of the 
buggy, jumped aboard, and raced with his driver out of town, a handful of 
outraged Iowans hot on his tail. 

After losing the posse in the cornfields north of Forest City, yet fearing the 
Iowa law would be gathered in Lake Mills to apprehend him and the meteorite, 
Elliott decided to ditch his first ride in favor of another. He sent his Forest 
City driver home and hired a local farmer to take him and the meteorite on back 
roads to Minnesota. 

Elliott called a halt to the escape at the first train station they could find 
inside the North Star state. There he hailed a passing freight train and set 
the rock on a flatcar. Elliott climbed aboard and sat on the Forest City 
meteorite until the train reached Albert Lea, where he finally breathed easy. 
“The next morning,” Elliott wrote with satisfaction, “the stone was in the 
museum at the University of Minnesota.

What the Iowans thought of Elliott and the stone-snatching can well be 
imagined. There were, however, no known attempts to retrieve it from the 
Minnesota Natural History Museum. The case of Goodard v. Winchell wound its way 
to the Iowa Supreme Court, not arriving until a full two years after the 
scuffle, by which time Elliott had left the employ of the University. 

The U of M was represented in Des Moines by William Pattee, dean of the Law 
School. Unfortunately, the U lost the precedent-setting case. Though meteorites 
may fall from the heavens, said the court, they belong to person on whose 
property they fall. “Whence it came is not known, but, under the natural law of 
its government, it became part of the earth.”

This was not the last word on the Forest City meteorite. As Goodard’s counsel 
had so smugly pointed out earlier, possession is nine points of the law, and 
fact of the matter was that the University of Minnesota Natural History Museum 
retained ownership of the Forest City meteorite within its walls, even after 
the decision from the Iowa Supreme Court. The bond for the stone, issued in 
Forest City, was valued at $105, which the U of M proceeded to pay. There were 
gripes; Elliott was warned that if he ever returned to Forest City he would be 
prosecuted. But as he wrote: “I never learned what my offense was, as I had 
acted strictly within the laws of Iowa.” 

For the next seven decades, until the bulk of the Minnesota meteorite 
collection was loaned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1966, the famed 
Minnesota specimen of the Forest City meteorite stayed on the campus of the 
University of Minnesota. Its value is now estimated to be approximately 

Tim Brady is a St. Paul–based writer and regular contributor to Minnesota.
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