WPA’s impact very visible in most area cities

Pine Grove Park in Little Falls has a heart (above), club, spade and diamond hidden in its rocks. It was built in 1932. Photo by Nancy Leasman

If you drive around some of the counties of Central Minnesota with an eye toward finding stone structures, you’ll be rewarded with everything from stone chimneys to full-size churches. The sturdy structures, many of them made during the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program between 1935 and 1943, stand as straight as the day they were made.

The WPA was enacted under President Franklin Roosevelt in April 1935. Its goals were to make community improvements while providing jobs at a time when the unemployment rate was as high as 25 percent. Under the program, the WPA hired workers for projects in conjunction with county governments. In some cases, such as the stone projects, an experienced artisan supervised and directed the work.

Some of the buildings constructed during those years are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though listed, information about the individual sites and those who worked on them are difficult to find.

Grey Eagle’s Village Hall, made of mortared field stone and cast concrete, was a project of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) which preceded the WPA. Completed in 1934, the Village Hall took form during the heyday of FERA. From May 1933 to December 1935, it gave state and local efforts $3.1 million for local work projects. Though this much is known, other details are harder to uncover. Local historian Harry Grammond said the space was well used by the community. “It had a gymnasium, a fireplace and a kitchen. One end could hold a fire vehicle.” Grammond says he thinks Brandon, Minn. has a similar structure. Grammond doesn’t know, however, who the stone mason was.

Susan Lorentz, granddaughter of stone mason Frank Scharnoski, said that though her grandfather had a hand in making many of the stone structures in the area, he did not work on the Grey Eagle Village Hall. “My grandfather was born in Prussia and came to Michigan when he was small. He picked up his stone mason skills on his own. He made a school in Michigan, a church, many houses, house fronts, barns and silos. He moved to Minnesota in his early 30s and became a citizen when he was about 37 years old.”

Lorentz says her grandfather, who was 5-feet 7-inches tall, usually worked by himself. Hired to build the stone wall which currently fronts Pine Grove Park in Little Falls, Scharnoski placed the date of 1932 in one of the pillars. He also showed his sense of humor, placing stones shaped like card suits – clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades – in the walls. This work came before any of the government programs and may have proved his ability when FERA came along.

Scharnoski also built the many structures that composed the grotto at the Browerville Catholic Church: pillars, water fountains, a stone couch, tables, chairs and a wishing well. He placed a large agate in a tower. The tower still stands on the site, though the agate disappeared along with many of the structures during a remodeling project in the 1970s, according to Lorentz.

Hartford Stone Bridge

The first stone bridge over Turtle Creek in Hartford Township was built in the early 1930s by Scharnoski, according to his granddaughter. Mike Stine, who lives within sight of the triple arch bridge, named his farm operation Stonebridge Beef. He’s a bit of a bridge buff. “The original bridge washed away, was rebuilt, and washed away again,” he said. Lorentz said the bridge was one of her grandfather’s WPA projects, and he was involved in the rebuilding each time it washed away.

Another WPA stone project was heavily affected by water. Riverside Park, adjacent to the Long Prairie River in Long Prairie, flooded before the structures inside could be completed. Stone walls, a fireplace and chimney, tower and entrance gates were finished, but the roof intended to cover the structure never was. With the appearance of a stone relic or folly, the walls and tower stand straight and tall though the land under them is marshy and often underwater, proof that a good foundation was provided for construction.

“I remember grandpa placing the rocks,” said Lorentz. “We visited the park every summer when I was a child.” Lorentz marveled at the stone work but is saddened by the graffiti and intentional damage to parts of the structure. Now more frequently referred to as Mosquito Park, the entrance still displays the original name and completion date of 1936.

The retaining wall, façade and stairway on the front of the Todd County Courthouse in Long Prairie was completed by Frank Scharnoski in 1938 as part of the WPA program. Photo by Nancy Leasman

In 1938, Scharnoski completed the retaining wall, façade and stairway on the front of the Todd County Courthouse in Long Prairie. Lorentz remembered a large stone face her grandfather made in one of the courthouse square’s walls. “They took it out when they redid that section of the wall,” she said.

Lorentz also recalled her grandfather’s involvement in the stone structures of Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. According to An Overview of the Histories of MPRB (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board) Properties by David C. Smith, “Major improvements were made in the park from 1932 to 1940 by federal work relief crews. With the aid of federal money, stairs were built into the lower glen, as well as retaining walls along the banks of the creek and new bridges over it.” With Scharnoski’s experience in building the Hartford Bridge, the Little Falls stone wall, and the stone work at the Todd County Courthouse, it’s likely that he was the man for the project, though his name is not listed with the park’s history.

The WPA reached a peak of employing 68,000 workers in 1938 and ended with the start of World War II. Scharnoski continued to build stone structures throughout the area, often aided by his son William (Tom) Scharnoski.

This church steeple in Henning was crafted of field stones. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Frank built the Henning stone church, and when an addition was required, Tom handled that.

In 1952, Tom was hired to complete the stone work on St. Michael’s church in Motley. Lorentz pointed out that in As Living Stones, The History of St. Michael’s Parish, the photo on page 45 incorrectly identifies the person securing the last stone as Frank “Charnowski.” Lorentz corrected both the spelling of the name and the fact that Frank did not work on the church. Tom did and is in the photograph.

Tom went on to do stone work at Sylvan Shores, Enchanted Lakes near Cushing, the stone fireplace in the Long Prairie Country Club, the façade of the Browerville Liquor Store, fireplaces in many homes (52 fireplaces in Long Prairie), as well as jobs at the Ponsford boys’ camp, Lake Alexander and Fish Trap Lake.

Lorentz noted that Peter Kotula was responsible for stone silos in the area. Lorentz’s husband, Joe, continues to do the work he learned from his father-in-law. Their son-in-law, Corey Hunter, lives in Fergus Falls and does stone work in his spare time.

Other notable stone structures:

• Episcopal Church of Our Savior, Little Falls. Completed in 1904 (Louis Triplett, of Little Falls, builder)

• Picnic shelter and tower at Lindbergh State Park, Little Falls (WPA project, builder unknown)

• Wedner stone house, Eagle Bend (Frank Scharnoski, builder)

• Fawn Lake lodge fieldstone fireplace. (Completed in 1970 -Tom Scharnoski, builder)

Tom Scharnoski at work on a stone structure. Contributed photo

God’s Waste and Man

By P.L. Ostrom, 1973, for whom

Tom Scharnoski built a stone structure

We call him an artist; this stone laying man

He creates from God’s waste; of rock and of sand

He makes an honest living by the sweat of his brow

His tools are his hands, his hammers and trowel

His trade he knows well, it is easy to see

As he places each rock so carefully

He says each rock has at least one face

He picks it up…takes a look…and puts it in place.

He says there are some that just don’t fit

So he takes up his hammer and gives it a hit.

When his work is done and his tools laid aside

He can look at his work with a feeling of pride.

But tell me this Tom; Do you understand

That the Lord made you a special man?

Most people think it a waste;

God’s rock and sand

But You, create something beautiful

with the work of your hands.

#CentralMinnesota #StoneStructures #WPA

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