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.