Northern Bedrock crew works to learn new skills while preserving Duluth history

No sooner had members of the Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps wrapped up their work restoring a Civil War monument at the Duluth Civic Center than they were back on the job up the hill at the former St. Peter's Church on Friday afternoon.

Patrick Glander of Duluth uses a driver to fasten a sheet of cement board to the ceiling of the former St. Peter's Church in Duluth on Friday afternoon. Glander works with the Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps, a program that trains young people in restoration and conservation. (Clint Austin /

No sooner had members of the Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps wrapped up their work restoring a Civil War monument at the Duluth Civic Center than they were back on the job up the hill at the former St. Peter's Church on Friday afternoon.

There, the eight crew members, ranging in age from 19 to 27 years old, continued to repair damaged plaster in the sanctuary of the Observation Hill landmark, under the tutelage of Curtis Bellows, a Duluth craftsman who has been in the plaster and painting business for 40-plus years.

Bellows said he was apprehensive and didn't know what to expect when he was asked to train in the inexperienced crew, never having worked with "raw clay," as he put it. But he has been duly impressed by what quick studies they've been.

"They're so attentive, and they want to do a good job, so they're very meticulous," Bellows said, noting that the quality of the crew's work has exceeded his expectations.

As she troweled Durabond onto a wall at the former church, which is being converted into an art school, Jessica Fortney, a 23-year-old corps member from Spicer, Minn., said: "The things I'm learning are amazing. I knew we'd be doing a lot of hands-on work when I signed up. But seeing the progress we've made has been more satisfying than I ever would have thought."


Ashley Brey, another member of the preservation corps, said crew members have been splitting their time between St. Peter's and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, where a conservator from Omaha, Neb., supervised the work.

"Everyone got a chance to to try every aspect, because we want them all to have a learning experience," she said.

The crew also spent a day cutting glass and reglazing broken windows at the Duluth Armory.

"We have a very hard-working crew," Fortney said. A typical work day for corps members starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 6:30 p.m.

Rolf Hagberg, executive director of the the Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps, said the organization is dedicated to tackling a huge backlog of historic preservation projects across the state while teaching young people new skills and helping them develop positive work habits. He said the group was founded in 2011 in the spirit of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

"We're always looking for and finding the technical specialists that know how to do this work and hope to pass their knowledge on to our young people," Hagberg said.

On Friday morning, Hagberg, corps members and a slew of local dignitaries assembled to celebrate the completed restoration of Duluth's Soldiers and Sailors monument.

The project was funded by a $70,000 Minnesota Legacy grant and began with removing and replacing crumbling old caulk and mortar. Crews then scrubbed and power-washed the granite base, blasted portions of the monument with silica beads to remove old paint and tarnish without damaging intricate details, applied a high-endurance paint to the flagpole and tuned the patina of its bronze components, using a chemical treatment and heat, under the careful direction of the conservator. Finally, crew members applied a wax coating to protect the 97-year-old monument from the elements.


"Seeing the transformation of this monument has been exciting, and it's been incredible to be a part of that," said corps member Edward Harthorn of St. Paul. As he prepares to begin work on a master's degree in history at Arkansas State University, Harthorn said he also takes satisfaction in helping to extend the life of a significant historical marker.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson gives the preservation corps high marks.

"I think that one of the brilliant components of this is that it is a jobs program. In addition to preserving our history and telling our story, it's creating opportunity," she said.

Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, praised Hagberg for his tireless efforts to win state funding for the preservation corps.

"His persistence paid off in that every year since 2011, the Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps has received funding from the Minnesota Historical Society, so that new people could be trained in the craftsmanship and expertise of the past, and new projects could be adopted across the state that preserve history. More important than that, it preserves our communities and preserves the skills that people had 200 years ago, 100 years ago or even 50 years ago," Murphy said.

Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, also lauded the program, saying: "We have a disappearing skills set, and we have people who want to learn. What a great intersection for the public to be involved in, especially when it preserves great historical assets, like the one we are here to recognize today."

Jeffrey Larson, who owns the former St. Peter's church building, which he aims to reopen as an art school by September, said the corps has provided him with invaluable help.

"There was so much damage from all the water that had been coming in," he said. "I didn't even have a clue just how much work was needed."


But Larson said he's now confident the building will be ready to welcome its first students, come September.

"They really helped us turn the corner," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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