Bemidji’s Fireplace of States – a symbol of togetherness in a difficult time
The States Chimney has stood on the lakeshore on Bemidji Avenue for 85 years. Originally housed in a log cabin that served as the tourist information center, the fireplace is now located in the now closed visitor center on the Bemidji lakefront, but the back of the fireplace (lake side) can be seen from the outside. Socially distant hikers can take a stroll along Lake Bemidji to see the exterior of the fireplace, which includes carved gophers on granite squares donated to the project by Minnesota Granite Works back in 1934.
Though Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox frequently represent Bemidji (since 1937), the States Fireplace, located within 100 feet of the iconic statues, predates the pair by nearly three years and receives far less recognition. However, the fireplace is a symbol of togetherness in a time of great need and difficulty – a symbol that is worth revisiting today.
In the early 1930s, Bemidji, like the rest of the nation and much of the world, went through a major depression. Before it was ever called “great,” it would lead to an unemployment rate of 23% nationwide. Farmers’ harvest prices fell 60%, the building site came to a standstill, and logging and mining followed. Millions of people were homeless and without work.
In Bemidji, Harry Roese, District Director of the State Bureau of Employment, came up with an idea: to build a fireplace that would represent the whole country. Building the fireplace wouldn’t solve the problems of the Great Depression, but it would give some local builders and craftsmen temporary work through the Civil Works Administration (CWA), a temporary employment program and part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It would bring together people, places, talent and stones from all over the country and around the world.
The States Chimney in its original building, which was demolished when the new Tourist Information Center was built in 1995. (Courtesy photo of Beltrami County Historical Society)
With the help of his secretary Kathleen Wilson, Roese invited several entities to send stones to Bemidji for the fireplace. A few years later, in a letter to the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce, Wilson described her then boss as “very active in developing projects to bring government money to the district, to get people to work, which was the agency’s goal for Time.” Roese’s fireplace would contain stones from all counties of Minnesota, all 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii were not states at the time), national parks, and monuments in the United States and all Canadian provinces.
On the direction of her boss, Wilson wrote letters to governors, county officials, and superintendents of the national park requesting stones from their locations for the state chimney. Wilson typed and mailed each letter. Answers soon came – and stones -.
“It was quite astonishing,” wrote Wilson, “to find that even in the midst of the Great Depression, people were willing to pay sizeable sums of money to send stones into the chimneys of the States.” When they arrived, she and Assistant Office Manager Bill Mitchell placed the rocks on the wall of their third-floor office on Third Street, numbering them, and retaining any information that came with them. Letters and descriptions of the rocks were given to the Chamber of Commerce when the stones were removed from the reemployment office.
The fireplace was designed and built by Mark Morse, a talented local bricklayer who completed a fireplace on the Bemidji State campus in 1932. (It’s still there, right on the bike path). Roese shared his concept of the States Chimney and a building to house it with with Charles Budge, a local architect, who drafted the plans for the chimney and the octagonal log cabin that was to house it.
Mark Morse, a local bricklayer in Bemidji, designed and built the States Chimney. (Courtesy photo of Beltrami County Historical Society)
Not all stones were stones
Morse had come to Bemidji in 1900 at the age of 23 and had built a reputation for his decorative stonework in Bemidji. It matched around 500 stones – and technically not all of them were stones. The fireplace contains fossils, coral from Miami, petrified wood from Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch in North Dakota, a dinosaur bone from Scott’s Bluff National Park in Nebraska, a lava formation from Glacier National Park, Mont., A meteorite from Beltrami County, and even copper and Iron ore from Michigan, gold ore from St. Francis, Ontario, silver ore from Idaho, and even something called “petrified flesh” from the North Dakota badlands.
Although he never met Morse (who died in 1947), Don Larsen, a 60-year-old veteran mason in Bemidji, studied his predecessor’s craftsmanship. In a Bemidji Pioneer story by Molly Miron dated March 18, 2007, Larsen described Morse’s stonemasonry and masonry skills: “He split the rocks really straight, and when he put them the faces of the rocks were nice and smooth and the joints were all even and the same width. He was a real artist with it. ”
The response to Roese’s invitation to send stones exceeded his expectations and Morse redesigned his original design to add “wings” to the sides of the fireplace. He used green mortar beads between the stones to highlight their colors and details. Metal pins with sticky heads embossed with numbers were inserted into the structure to act as keys to the sources of the rocks. However, over the years most of the pens have come loose and many have been lost.
The face of the States Chimney in the Tourist Information Center built in 1995. (Courtesy photo of Beltrami County Historical Society)
A Bemidji Pioneer story dated October 23, 1934 announced that the fireplace and its octagonal log cabin “would be ready to become the center of tourist interest here next summer”. The original log cabin, a CWA project, was still under construction, although the lower level of the building, which was to serve as a heat house for ice skaters, was completed.
The original log cabin was demolished in 1995 and the new tourist information center was built. The chimney was partially dismantled – the wings removed and part of the chimney – and all of the pieces were shrunk, moved to the new building with a crane, and reassembled within the new building where it still stands today, a reminder of days when People came together to help one another during a difficult time.
The States Chimney by the lakeshore with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in the background. (Courtesy photo of Beltrami County Historical Society)
Unique stones from all over the world
A recently reconstructed listing of the rocks in the States Chimney and their sources is incomplete, but gives an insight into the variety of stones contained and the wide range of sources: In addition to the lower 48 states and Alaska, all counties of Minnesota , Canada In the provinces and national parks, the fireplace also contains a brick from the Statue of Liberty, red Morocco marble from the Chrysler building in New York, a stone from the Empire State building, silver and lead ore from Australia, a stone from the Great Wall of China, coral from the island of Guam, a stone from the Mexican Temple of the Sun, copper ore from Peru, a stone donated by a member of one of Admiral Byrd’s first excursions to the South Pole, a stone from Norway that was originally on a “Leif Erickson boat” and a stone that Stanisleau Swapinski brought from Poland.
Sue Bruns is a local educator, writer, and current president of the Beltrami County Historical Society. BCHS thanks Jean Humeniuk for donating a Heritage Preservation Project folder containing information about Mark Morse and the States’ Fireplace.