University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
The State of Wisconsin Collection

Page View

Town of Frankfort centennial

Township tidbits,   pp. 138-144 ff.

Page 140

Ice Age organic material
unearthed in Frankfort
January 1982. Tribune-Phonograph.
Not far below the surface of the Town of Frankfort fire pond
is a still-recognizable layer of vegetation that may have grown
several hundred thousand years ago.
That estimate comes from the Wisconsin Geological and
Natural History Survey in Madison, whose experts studied a
sample of material discovered during the pond's excavaton and
compared it to other similar material from the same glacier-de-
posited formation.
Robert Ballerstein, who lives just up the road from the site,
was interested in the pond's creation two years ago, and was a
frequent observer of the work. Excavation down to about 16 feet
did not yield the spring the township had counted on, so a
backhoe operator went down in that hole and dug about 25 feet
deeper yet.
Ballerstein noticed a black peaty-looking material coming
out of that deeper excavation, and went down to look at where
it was coming from.
"I had never seen such black dirt. It was black as coal, and
veryloose too. I got ahold of a big chunk ofit and pulled, and just
about fell over backwards," Ballerstein said.
The object he had yanked out of the excavation wall was abig
piece of organic material, and it opened up to reveal swamp
grass and cattails.
"At first I thought it was abigrock, but then I sawit was some
kind of plants. It wasn't alfalfa, I knew that, but I wanted to find
out exactly what it was," he continued.
Ballerstein, sensing a significant find, gave a sample of the
stuff to a Marathon County official, who sent it to the Geologi-
cal and Natural History Survey (GNHS) in Madison. The
material was scrutinized by the staff and found to be consistent
with material found in another neighboring glacial layer of con-
siderable age.
Radiocarbon dating of similar material, a GNHS official
said, has yielded dates "beyond the capability of carbon-14
dating methods, so the material is certainly greater than 40,000
- 45,000 years old."
The organic stuff, which is compressed and can be peeled off
layer by brown layer, is a component of a soil unit known as the
"Edgar Till" laid down during Ice Age times or earlier.
According to John Attig of the GNHS, the word "till" refers
to material deposited directly by glaciers. Geologists can deter-
mine the direction of a glacier's flow, and the distance it
traveled, by examining material laid down in tills.
The Edgar Till, Attig explained, is special. "What that
glacier laid down is different from most of the other deposits in
the area. Minerals and fossils in the layer make it clear the
glacier came from the Winnipeg lowlands in Canada, and came
from the northwest, whereas most ofthe other glaciations in this
area originated in the Superior or Michigan basins, and came
from the north or northeast,: he said.
The Ice Age, which the world is still experiencing, began two
million years ago. Ice sheets have been advancing from the
north and retreating back "as regular as clockwork," Attig said,
for most of that time. During that two million years, there have
been 15 to 20 continent-sized glacial events worldwide.
Later ice sheets tend to obliterate evidence of earlier gla-
ciers, making tougher work for scientists trying to identify
characters of each flow. Erosion also wears away formations
over time. Attig said the area around Abbotsford, now virtually
flat, probably looked more like the Chequamegon area near
Medford after the last glacier - very swampy, with bogs and
broken terrain. There is conjecture, Attig continued, that the
material in the Edgar Till is slightly younger than the stuff in
a layer it covered, the Medford Till. That layer is from 750,000
to 2.1 million years old. "So the Edgar Till is a very old unit in
Ice Age terms. It's beyond the reach of radiocarbon dating,* he
He said the age actually cannot be determined. It is also
possible that younger organic material became covered and
mixed with other layers.
Of the 100 or so samples of material from the Edgar Till,
fewer than half a dozen have yielded organic material like the
one from the Frankfort fire pond. Most are composed of various
proportions of three basic materials - sand, silt and clay.
"Evidence indicates that the ice came and went, and there
was time in between for organic material to accumulate," Attig
The theory is that the advancing glacier plowed up soil and
other debris and buried sections of swampland. Swiftly and
completely cut off from oxygen, the vegetation did not decom-
pose as it would have if exposed to air for any length of time. It
became compressed in layers under further deposits of soil and
is now located in the western and northwest areas of Marathon
County, even underlying another glacial deposit, the Merrill
Member, in the north.
The material Ballerstein emerged from the hole with is one
of 197 samples of the similar local samples identified by the
state. According to Attig's report, "it displays considerable
thickness for a glacial unit, ranging up to 25 meters (roughly 25
yards) on upland areas; more commonly the unit is 6 to 15 me-
ters thick. The greatest thickness occurs at the western edge of
the county and the unit thins and becomes patchy eastward."
Ballerstein prefers a Biblical interpretation of the presence
of the ancient vegetation. He feels it was inundated during the
time of the great flood described in the Bible, which only Noah
and his family survived. If ice was involved, he said, it was the
submerged masses of icebergs that plowed through the water
and leveled the vegetation, also pushing soil over it and sealing
it from oxygen.
Whatever the exact cause for the layer of organic stuff,
Ballerstein is excited about it. "This is special. Where else are
you going to find something that old? You can't go to Shopko and
buy something like that," he stated.
Ballerstein, somewhat of a student of natural history, said
he has heard stories of old farmers trying to drill wells in the
Frankfort area and hitting old logs and other material at around
28 feet - close to the depth at which he found the vegetation.
The letter from Tom Evans of the GNHS stated that the
material in the Edgar Till belongs to the early Pleistocene Age
or the late Pliocene, "so this material is likely to be much older
(than 45,000 years), possibly several hundred thousand years."
To geologists, however, that distant past is merely a tick of
the clock in the history of the earth. The Ice Age has occupied
the earth for the past two million years. Dinosaurs were
dominant, by contrast, 200 million years ago.
There is every reason to believe, Attig continued, that an-
other round of glaciation is coming. The past 700,000 years have
shown a regular cycle of about 90,000 years of ice and cold,
followed by 10,000 to 12,000 years of "interglacial" periods like
the one we are in now. If calculations are correct, in another
couple thousand years, glaciers will again be moving south.
"The glaciation is based on the geometric relationships
between the earth and the sun, and that is cyclical. Unless we

Go up to Top of Page