Will, Jim, resident interns and stonemasonry apprentices pose in front of the new stone arch wall.

Will, Jim, resident interns and stonemasonry apprentices pose in front of the new stone arch wall.

Smoke billowed from old coffee cans, smudging the work site at the Steger Wilderness Center where seven apprentice stonemasons were deep into their training program. From a functional perspective, the smoke thwarted black flies and mosquitoes. Aesthetically, it offered a sensory complement to the projects at hand.

Smoke helps reduce black flies and other insects as work progressed on the stone wall that now supports the deck around the convention center. Photo by Scott Stowell

Smoke helps reduce black flies and other insects as work progressed on the stone wall that now supports the deck around the convention center. Photo by Scott Stowell

Instructor and master stonemason Ian McKiel explained that the stonemason apprentice program at the Center is specifically for job training. It’s an intensive, month-long seminar focused on stone, masonry and dry stone laying. Apprentices receive hands-on experience working with concrete and mortar to shape various types of structural and ornamental walls.

Master sone mason Ian McKiel working with Kayden Nordquist on the new stone wall under the deck of the center.

Master sone mason Ian McKiel working with Kayden Nordquist on the new stone wall under the deck of the center.

As a warm-up project, the apprentices constructed a random-rubble style sitting wall. They mixed and poured concrete, reinforced steel footing, then switched to mortar to build up the wall, capping the top with decorative bluestone. It’s a lot to learn in the first week.

The sitting wall at the end of the roman road.

The sitting wall at the end of the roman road.

“This type of work and this type of learning doesn’t really lend itself well to sitting in the lodge and going over things. So basically I get their hands moving and then talk as everybody’s moving,” McKiel said.

Assistant stonemason Mick Wirtz (right) offers a structural suggestion to apprentice Nick Sallen. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Assistant stonemason Mick Wirtz (right) offers a structural suggestion to apprentice Nick Sallen. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Their second project involved structural work under the deck that surrounds the Wilderness Center’s convention center. McKiel said apprentices constructed a stone wall beneath the outer edges of the deck that bear the deck’s weight. The wooden supports which previously held up the deck along that edge were removed. For an add-on project, the apprentices created an arch doorway at one of the storage locations within the stone wall.

Jake Potts, Morgan Durbin and Matt Wentz working together to build up the stone arch wall.

Jake Potts, Morgan Durbin and Matt Wentz working together to build up the stone arch wall.

According to McKiel, the early stages of learning how to look at stone is a matter of imagining it going into place. “When you’re setting a stone, think about the space above it… Think about the stone that’s going to go on top of the one you’re actually setting, because that stops you from creating problem spots that only a very specific stone can get you out of.”

That type of anticipation and thoughtfulness would appear to serve anyone well whether they’re stonemason apprentices or global leaders. Jess Nimmo, 23, said she participated in the program because masonry seemed like a good fit with the type of career she’s seeking. She’s worked in residential construction, done some welding and blacksmithing, and is currently employed in a custom finishing shop for products like furniture. The program increased her interest in stone masonry.

Masonry apprentices Morgan Durban (left) and Jess Nimmo enjoy some laughter while they work. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Masonry apprentices Morgan Durban (left) and Jess Nimmo enjoy some laughter while they work. Photo by Scott Stowell.

“I fully intend on going home and doing a little bit of it myself over at my mom’s place. I’m sure she would love it,” she said.

She also explained how the functional and aesthetic elements of masonry are similar to her number one passion.

“I’ll be a welder, for damn sure. That’s my dream job and I’m going to make it happen,” she stated. “I don’t just want it as a job. I would love to be able to use it as a hobby. I’ve got that blacksmithing experience…[the] more artsy form of welding, being able to form the metal any way you want.”

Milo Payne, 21, said he loved the masonry work and could do it for a lifetime. He has an interest in art and views stone masonry as art in another form.

Apprentice Milo Payne finesses mortar between stones. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Apprentice Milo Payne finesses mortar between stones. Photo by Scott Stowell.

“There are so many different stones you can choose from, so many designs and shapes,” he said.

He added that the convention center building inspires his dreams. “[It’s] phenomenal. I want to hopefully, down the road, with this experience that I have right now, build something from the ground up like this.”

Steger said the Wilderness Center is about hands-on learning and self-reliance. While apprentice programs are offered at a variety of locations in numerous fields around the world, he addressed how the Wilderness Center stands out.

“Learning to work with mortar, concrete and stone is a skill as important as learning the alphabet; it will be with them all of their lives. But the transformational power of the wilderness gives these young people opportunities to see possibilities they haven’t before,” he said.
end of june group

Payne called his time at the Wilderness Center a “fresh, exciting experience” and contrasted it to his life in Elk River, Minnesota. “Many people have to know this experience to know the difference from city life and a life of working to provide for somebody else, or provide for yourself, or just providing in general.”

Along with spending weeks in the wilderness, Nimmo said the best part of the program was being within a community of like-minded people who also accomplished basic chores such as gathering water and taking turns doing dishes. “It’s really great how everybody here works so well together. I feel like this setting definitely brings that out in people.”

The Steger Wilderness Center, Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services, Inc. (CMJTS) have formed a three-fold partnership to offer the stonemason apprentice program. CMJTS is dedicated to serving young and emerging adults, up to age 24, and preparing them for the workforce. They provide employment and training services that connect young people with careers and assist them in achieving success. For further information, visit online at cmjts.org or call or 800-284-7425.

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff

The success of the Apprenticeship Program of 2015 at the Steger Wilderness Center hinges on the Master Stone Masons, like Ian McKiel, who just finished his 3 week stint and returned home to family and more jobs awaiting him through Sullivan Stone Works, where he has worked as a stone mason for 8 years.

Ian’s task at the Steger Center was no easy one. In addition to making significant progress on three separate projects, he had to train a largely inexperienced crew in the fundamentals and fine points of stone masonry and bring them to a level of proficiency sufficient to the job site. Ian brought his years of experience and work ethic to bear on this task, and a crucial extra element: his natural ability to teach.

Master Mason Ian PortaitThrough the persistent exercise of patience, organization, and clear communication, Ian brought out the best in his novice stoneworkers. Under Ian’s tutelage, they saw in short order what they were capable of – the fruits of their skilled labor – and soon began to work more independently, even as Ian rotated them from one job to another in order to keep broadening those skills. Knowing when to ease up on the reins allowed the apprentices to take ownership of their work, and realize the pride that comes from a job well done that will be admired by visitors to the Steger Center for generations to come.

Because of his talent and discernment, his ability to lead, inspire, and treat his pupils with dignity, the Steger Wilderness Center has been greatly enhanced and would like to express its deep gratitude to Master Stone Mason and Teacher, Ian McKiel.

By Peter Wahlstrom

Apprentices Franz and Ben Cutting Rebar for the Foundation of the New Facilities Project

Franz and Ben Cutting Rebar for the Foundation of the New Facilities Project

In summers past, the Master Stone Mason Apprentice Program has been an integral part of the community life and hands-on education at the Steger Center. Master Masons dedicate four weeks out of their summer to teaching their trade to the a small group of qualified Apprentices. By the end of the program the Apprentices develop the skills and confidence necessary to be proficient in the fundamentals of stone work, technique, and construction. Working along side of the Apprentices are the summer Interns. Working, eating and camping together every day ensures a tight-knit community of Apprentices and Interns who motivate, learn from and teach one another.

Apprentice Josh Working on  the Wall

Apprentice Josh Working on the Wall

Apprentices Ben and John

Apprentices Ben and John

The Apprentice program has evolved over the last several years. This summer the Steger Wilderness Center has made a new partnership with Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services (CMJTS) to advance the Apprentice program. CMJTS is a nonprofit aiming to “match job seekers, youth, businesses, and those seeking training with resources available to them.” New partnerships such as this allow the program to develop greater opportunities and resources for a more diverse range of individuals.

Apprentice Home Base

Apprentice Home Base

Ryan Redfield, a Youth Employment Specialistfor CMJTS, recruited four young adults to come to the Steger Center for the month go June and join the Apprentice Program. These four participants will be completing a 160 hour paid internship, for which they earn a college credit through Anoka-Ramsey Community College. Prior to arriving at the Steger Wilderness Center they earned a forklift certification from Anoka Technical College. The Apprentices are paid for their labor and provided with a food stipend for the month. By partnering with CMJTS, the Steger Wilderness Center is able to provide beneficial opportunities to four Apprentices who each day are becoming more competent in the trade of stone masonry. When the Apprentices leave at the end of June, they will be job ready, taking their first steps on a new career path in a skill that has been passed down to them from former generations.

For the past two weeks the homestead has buzzed with the erratic churning of an ancient cement mixer, the wet smack of shovels on freshly mixed Portland cement, and the scraping of trowels across greenstone. The spontaneous symphony of mason work has since subsided, and the root cellar is now faced with a striking greenstone façade and has a new stone walkway.

 

For the past two weeks the homestead has buzzed with the erratic churning of an ancient cement mixer, the wet smack of shovels on freshly mixed Portland cement, and the scraping of trowels across greenstone. The spontaneous symphony of mason work has since subsided, and the root cellar is now faced with a striking greenstone façade and has a new stone walkway.

When it was first built in 1997, the ice house had a wood-pieced facing over the exposed cinder brick, however, having the doorsill directly meet the dirt pathway leading to it proved to be an issue in the winter. Gradually, dirt and melted snow tracked over the threshold would build up and freeze solid, until eventually the door would become stuck closed. The need for a stone walkway to the cellar became crucial for assured food access during winter months.

Ice House - BeforeThe project was led by stonemason Caitlin Sullivan, who’s been working in her family’s trade since she was old enough to walk. Working with her was Drew Vevea, whose first experience with masonry began last summer on a different Homestead project. Seth Eastwood, Chelsea Leusner, and Andrea Sandeen, all full-time interns, joined the project, and even the Homestead’s summer cook, Nicholas Anton, would pitch in when he wasn’t preparing meals. What they accomplished in so little time is truly incredible, and even more so since Caitlin and Drew were the only two on the team with any prior experience.

Ice House - Caitlin works on the delicate piecing of the stone façadeAt first the amount of work to be accomplished over the coming weeks seemed overwhelming. The ground needed to be dug down with just picks and shovels, then packed with pea gravel before countless batches of cement were to be mixed and hauled by the wheelbarrow full to the site. Granite for filler stone, and then the greenstone needed to be sorted into piles based on size and surface texture before they could be placed. All this seemed incredibly daunting the first day on the project, but after working together for some time, a rhythm to the tasks developed, and everyone fell into the flow of the work. There was little idle chatter, and the mood became almost meditative. More remarkable still was Caitlin’s method for teaching those who had no experience with masonry. “Find a stone you like,” she would say, “place it where you think it should go, and then come find me.” After she had approved the first stone placement for each person, she let him or her work independently. Caitlin’s method of instruction emphasized use of an intuitive sense rather than a calculating one. So in tune was she with her work, that often she hardly had to glance at the pile of stone to choose from before selecting the one she wanted and placing it so it fit perfectly. As the days passed, those who had never before done stonemason work were developing their own intuitive senses for the task and placing stones with confidence. The transformation that took place was as remarkable as the finished project. Over two weeks, a group of strangers became close friends and together created something that will last for countless lifetimes.

Ice House - (left to right) Andrea, Seth, Will, Caitlin, Drew, Chelsea, Nicholas

Sullivan Stoneworks of St. Paul, MN has been an integral part of the Steger Wilderness Center. Master stonemason, Jim Sullivan, comes from a long line of stone workers and has been a master mason himself for more than 30 years.

Stone MasonryLike Steger, Sullivan is an alum of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, majoring in Geology.

For the last five years, Sullivan has been leading the stone masonry apprenticeship program at the Steger Wilderness Center, teaching groups of 8-10 apprentices the craft of stonework for stone walls, foundations, and the incredibly impressive conservatory area of the Center.

The conservatory sits beneath 3000 square feet of glass and Douglas Fir timber-framing. The stonework includes the Center’s foundation, walkways, gardens, wading pools, and small waterfalls that will continually flow through the heart of the Center’s first floor.

All of the stone is locally harvested granite.

Stonework for Sullivan is a family affair. His brother Tim is also a Master stonemason and has been heavily involved in the construction of the Center.

Jim Sullivan has five daughters, some of which have followed in his steps. Caitlin, the youngest of the five and son-in-law Ian, have worked at the Center in recent years.

ice house 03Caitlin recently led a group of apprentices and completed a stone surround and apron for the entrance to the ice house.

Outcomes:

  • Apprentices in the various programs work at the Center for up to six weeks at a time, learning the craft and leaving their permanent signatures behind.
  • Participants learn skills in stone selection that best reflect the physical and aesthetic beauty of each rock placed, and how it fits into the larger picture.
  • They also learn mortared and mortar-less design for stonewalls and other structures.

Program Director:

Jim Sullivan, Sullivan Stoneworks, St. Paul, MN.
Email:

You can see more of Jim Sullivan’s work on his blog: Sullivan Stoneworks

 

An integral part of the hands-on education offered by the Center, the apprentice program relies on masters in each field providing mentorship for people interested in developing skills leading to self-sufficiency. This past summer, the Master Stone Mason apprentice program led by Will Steger and resident master stone masons took a major step forward with a six-week engagement of youth learning the trade.

In addition, leaders and instructors from Summit Academy OIC attended the Center this past year for a two-week onsite building project embedded in their curriculum, with the Steger Wilderness Center providing hands-on learning in vital life and trade skills.