It was the 1920s, the heyday of lake-side dance pavilions, when Harry E. Roese–resort owner and manager of the Bemidji District State Employment office–decided to build a one-of-a-kind fireplace for his hometown. It started with him collecting rocks in the area of Lake Bemidji, but his idea soon expanded: what if he could get donations from every county in the state? And every state in the union? And every province in Canada?
With the help of his secretary, Kathleen Wilson, Roese wrote to government officials throughout the U.S. and Canada, with his idea to create an attraction for Bemidji. It caught on, and rocks and stones from far and wide were shipped to Minnesota to become part of the grand plan. Wilson and Roese worked tirelessly, eventually catching the interest of the Works Progress Administration (the New Deal program that put skilled workers into suitable jobs), who provided masons to complete the fireplace. It was finished in 1935, built inside an octagonal log welcome center on the lake called the Bunyan House.
In 1995, when the old log house was to be torn down, the fireplace was preserved and moved to its present home at the Bemidji Tourist Information Center (also home to the town’s colossal Paul Bunyan and Babe statues). While many of the stones were etched or decorated with messages indicating their sender, others have no trace of origin on their surface. While the local Chamber of Commerce has Wilson’s inventory of stones (a remarkably detailed list), originally there was a key to the layout as well, with each of the contributions mapped. Although the sections were reassembled in perfect order, and Wilson’s list is meticulous, sadly the key itself has been lost to time. Some of the stones may be orphaned, but all of them are equally cared for.
Know Before You Go
The Fireplace is inside the Bemidji Tourist Information Center on the Lake.