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Gnostic Grove


The Saturday after Hal Holt’s funeral, Howard continued his exploration of the spiritual landscape. The list had always included Gnostic Grove, but now he had a special reason to write about it. 

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Gnostic Grove

The scattering of Hal Holt’s ashes last week brought a number of letters and e-mails from friends around the world, most of them sharing stories about their varied encounters with Hal in every imaginable context. It also brought a number of inquiries about the history of Gnostic Grove itself. The irony is that Hal would have offered far more interesting and authoritative answers to that question.

Hal’s memorial boulder joined a ring of large stones that have intrigued us since the earliest European explorers visited this place. Fennimore County was carved from land that had previously been home to the Sac and Fox people, and it was always assumed that the ring had been theirs. Archaeologists from the University of Iowa confirm that the Grove had been used for hundreds of years by tribal councils. But the ring of stones at its center seems to pre-date any permanent habitation hereabouts. 

The boulders themselves are granite but of a type that is neither native to the area nor deposited by receding glaciers. That happened commonly in Illinois and Minnesota but not here. So, where’d they come from?

The first white settlers associated the ring’s imagined regularity with the Druids—Stonehenge and all that—and fancied an earlier unrecorded presence by blue-painted sun worshipers, gnarly Vikings or some other folks who had gone terribly off course. Whence the appellation “Gnostic Grove.”

The Gnostics were keepers of mystic wisdom at the birth of Christianity, but their hidden knowledge (gnosis in Greek means knowledge) transcended religious and cultural boundaries. Even the Sac and Fox must have sensed the Grove’s spiritual presence. From Agincourt’s founding in 1857, Gnostic Grove has been special, and the history of its use is a history of us.

Oral history suggests that our first arrivals in the 1850s used it just as the Sac and Fox had done: as a camp site. But with the ordering of town and farm, the unkempt Grove became a place of recreation, a sunny yet sheltering space along the north bank of Crispin Creek for picnics and such. The four quadrants of the original town site developed at different rates, but the southeast quad (the one nearest the Grove) developed last and helped maintain the Grove’s sense of isolation from urban life. That remoteness made the Grove popular for private matters, events meant to evade the prying public eye.

In the post-Civil War years of a growing American labor movement, for example, the Grove hosted meetings of men who sought the possibility of collective bargaining; meetings meant to subvert the standing socioeconomic order. No bad thing.

And at the other end of the spectrum of respectability, perhaps, the Grove also hosted legendary religious revivals with total-immersion baptisms, Crispin Creek standing in for the River Jordan. Apparently the Holy Spirit has been a regular at the Grove.

The burgeoning sexual revolution of the twentieth century brought another sort of activity to the Grove, when it became a favorite teenage make-out spot. One wonders how many of our citizens were conceived there. And how odd that both the cleansing of original sin and its enthusiastic practice would be conjoined at that one location. 

The Grove’s unspoiled natural beauty has drawn most of us at one time or another, alone and in small groups, for morning tai-chi, afternoon picnics and late-night bonfires. I’ve written about more personal associations with Gnostic Grove; of how Diane Stokes explored the creek and its surroundings as a budding biologist and how her beloved uncle Hal has become a permanent resident.

All these associations, harbored so close to our hearts, convinced the county fathers during the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 to make Gnostic Grove a public place. It will forever be a nature preserve set apart from the heavy hand of development, so that future generations can make their own associations and find a place for the Grove in their own spiritual landscapes.

The sound you hear is Hal…applauding.


  1. […] entry on Gnostic Grove includes our first mention of Original Sin. The Grove has, during its long and colorful history, […]

  2. […] Parsons farm just south of Crispin Creek near the Broad Street bridge. The creek had been a popular venue for total immersion baptism since Agincourt’s founding in 1853 and it was about to be visited again for a full ten days […]

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