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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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