MANSFIELD — Sites Lake is only a small body of water, but it has an interesting story behind it … or underneath it — a story that 120 years ago seemed to get only larger and larger, as did the lake itself.
The original tale was told simply, in a humble column of the Mansfield Herald in the 1850s, as a curiosity.
The story went that old Uncle Jonas was out plowing his field, and took a break to go back to the house and eat lunch. In the middle of his soup he felt a rumbling of spring thunder, and decided he needed to plow a little faster: but when he got back to the field the plow was gone, the horses were gone, and his field was gone too. Instead what he found was a whole new lake, and his plow, his horses and his field were all on the bottom of it.
For years it was known as the Sunken Lake.
The Next Version
The story was retold a few decades later, in one of the volumes of County History, and this time there were a few more details added of how it all happened.
Upon further inquiries made by an author/historian, it turned out that Uncle Jonas actually had a small pond on his property to begin with, about one acre in size, that was surrounded by several acres of swampland. Thinking he might drain the swamp in order to acquire more farmable acreage, Uncle Jonas dug a ditch through the marsh toward the Black Fork River in the summer of 1846.
During the night, six acres of that swampland sank out of sight, and in the morning Uncle Jonas found a sparkling lake, and the tops of some trees showing above the surface of the water was all that remained of his marsh.
At this point in the record the name of the place was noted in the annals as Uncle Jonas’ Lake.
With these new details added to the story, the whole miraculously-appearing lake scenario takes on a more logical and less mysterious probability — at least in the eyes of one who is familiar with the geological phenomenon of kettle lakes.
When observing the glacial history of Richland County one finds the fields and hills we see today were laid down in a series of layers, each of which came as the outwash of a sequence of glaciers.
Before the last glacier wrought its re-sculpting of the landscape, the terrain of Richland County was considerably lower than it is today — nearly a hundred feet closer to sea level. When the last glacier melted, all of the rocks and sand and gravel it was carrying settled out in a layer of wash upon the land, a blanket that was anywhere from 80 to 150 feet deep.
Here’s how Site’s Lake came to be: a big chunk of ice, the size of the lake, broke off the glacier and was surrounded by 80 to 150 feet of stone and sand and gravel. With time, the stony mix solidified into Richland County landscape, and when the chunk of ice melted it left a deep crater filled with water. It’s called a kettle hole.
It’s not uncommon, over the course of hundreds and thousands of years, for an undisturbed kettle hole to grow a mat of sod-like plant growth that can cover the surface of the lake — like a thick carpet rolled out over the lakebed.
Most likely when Uncle Jonas bought the land, what he had was one acre of water surface left in the middle of a seven-acre kettle hole that was mostly carpeted over. When he cut his draining trench and broke the continuity of the network of roots holding up the meadow, the weight of the trees and overgrowth took it all to the bottom.
The Embellished Version
After a few short years of reconsideration, the author/historian who reported the story of Uncle Jonas’ Lake in the County History apparently came to the conclusion that the tale was perhaps a bit pale and needed some anecdotal reinforcement.
In his next rendering of the legend, he said that the fabled marsh was known as the Black Swamp, and it took a team of six men to trench through it to the river. When the land sunk there was an earthquake so severe that pious folk in the surrounding hills, who had been awaiting the End of the World, fell to their knees thinking the Apocalypse was at hand.
The Revised Embellished Version
In his last published telling of the lake story, the author/historian decided that Uncle Jonas was a little too rustic to lend his name to a lake whose history was of such noble and remarkable proportions, so he undertook to rename the lake after a prominent neighbor of Uncle Jonas — one whose career and titles commanded more strength to carry the weight of the stories he was piling on. He named it after General Bentley, so for a brief while it was known as Bentley’s Lake.
If you search the archives for information about the place today you’ll find that Sites Lake is only one of a handful of names that it is listed under, and it is all due to the attentions of a man who loved the little lake and needed a story big enough to convey that depth of feeling.
In the summer of 1975 we set out in a sad little rowboat to find out if Sites Lake was bottomless. That’s what everybody said.
Our documentation is at the bottom of this story. The rowboat is at the bottom of Sites Lake.