By Darla Sathre (from The Depot Express newsletter, Fall 2014)
I love rocks. So no matter where I am or what I am doing, rocks can get me sidetracked. The nationally known Fireplace of States located in Bemidji’s Chamber of Commerce Tourist Information Center is made of over 900 rocks from all over the country. It all started in the early 1930s with an idea from Harry E. Roese, district manager of the Federal Reemployment Service, as well as president of the Civic and Commerce Association in Bemidji. His grand idea was of a fireplace containing rocks from every state in the union, from every Canadian province, from all 87 Minnesota counties, and from all the national parks. The building of the fireplace became one the New Deal projects designed to keep people working during the Depression.
A short sidetrack concerning Harry Roese: He was the owner of the classy Shorecrest Resort with the dance pavilion on Birchmont Drive.
He did not work alone. A secretary in Harry’s office, Miss Kathleen Wilson, was directed to write solicitation letters for the rocks. Fifty years later she still marveled at how willing people were to send their rocks to Bemidji, especially considering shipping costs of heavy rocks. As the rocks came tumbling in, each was numbered so an identification key could be compiled.
Mark Morse was the stone mason in charge of building and designing the fireplace. (If I were to go on a sidetrack now I would tell you about the Bemidji State University outdoor fireplace, the Greenwood Cemetery pillars, and Mark’s many other masonry projects in Bemidji).
By the end of 1935, the fireplace was completed as part of the octagonal Bunyan House on the shore of Lake Bemidji. For decades tourists admired the great fireplace and the many rocks.
As a sidetrack, I came across a 1939 newspaper article about Miss Elsie Mae Willsey acquiring some circa 1514 tiles in Puerto Rico, from the home of the Spanish Explorer Ponce de Leon, that she planned to bring back to Bemidji to be added to the fireplace. We are not sure about what happened to these. By the way (a sidetracked way), Elsie was a daughter of the well known Captain Willsey of early Bemidji renown, but that would be a whole ‘nother story.
By the mid-1990s, the building was in poor shape and needed to come down. But the great Fireplace of States was to be saved! It was segmented, shrink wrapped, and moved with a crane into the new Tourist Information Center next to the 1937 statues of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. Visitors still love the impressive Fireplace of States. Go see it. The only thing missing is the key. The only rocks that
we are certain of the origin are the ones that were engraved by the donors. But it is still worthwhile to check out!