Dry Stone Masonry Hand-Built, Crafted to Last
Responsible, lasting construction skills draw from Ely’s natural surroundings. Greenstone areas around Ely make up some of the oldest known bedrock on Earth. This summer, a select group of craftspeople will learn stonemason skills that will continue the Steger Center’s legacy of using natural, local resources to blend exquisitely into its northern Minnesota surroundings.
Below is Will’s own account of the Dry Stone Construction program in 2023.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) contains four elements: sky, water, forest, and the Canadian Shield. The Steger Center, which borders the BWCA on three sides, is built on Ely Greenstone, some of the oldest exposed bedrock in the world. It was first formed 2.2 billion years ago as silt at the bottom of a warm shallow ocean. Through the process of plate tectonics this region was heaved up into a mountain range the size of the Rockies that over time was eroded down to its elevation of 1500 feet. In recent geological time numerous glacial epochs scoured the surface to form the numerous lakes of the boreal forests.
Stone has always been a mainstay in the construction at the Center and its surrounding campus. In 1965 I first mixed sand and cement (which I canoed and portaged in) to build a stone fireplace for my cabin. Later I built a stone root cellar from sand and cement that I dogsledded in. The simple process of stone-building is what drew me as much as the permanence of the final product. During the crossing of Antarctica I journaled about working silently under the hot sun, the feel of the rock in my hands, the smell of rock and water in the dry heat, the sweet sounds of birds conversing with each other. Stone-building is a Zen practice. It is the definition of being in the moment.
Decades ago I knew that I would need stonemasons to build the Center. All dreams start with intention, so I held that intention and waited year after year. Then I heard about a dry stonemason named Jim Sullivan. We met and had a lot at common. Like me, he graduated from the University of St Thomas majoring in geology and studied under Jack Brownstein. Jim and I both struggled with our grades, and it was Jack’s counsel that got us through to graduation. Like all the tradespeople who work at the Center, Jim is an excellent teacher. We started together on our first course 18 years ago. Jim’s brother Tim and his son-in-law Ian are also great masons and have joined us over over the years. The stonework that has been produced by masters and their apprentices is simply amazing. I am very proud that a number of our students are stonemasons today and many more have built their own walls and foundations.
Jim and I have always talked about doing a course called Zen and the Art of Dry Stone Walling. This summer, August 6–12, we will be offering our first pilot course. Enrollment will be very limited. Tuition is $1000.00, which includes food. Housing is limited, so if possible bring a tent. We do have a couple of scholarships if money is a serious issue. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.