Solomon Swanson, was a Swedish stenhuggare (stonecutter), who was born in Sweden in 1875.  In 1903, while Solomon and his wife, Ida, were living in Fjällbacka, Sweden, he received a letter from a Swedish emigrant stonecutter in St. Cloud who had worked with Solomon in the quarries above Fjällbacka.  He told Solomon he had heard that Hilder Granite Co. was looking for a chief blacksmith.  In April, 1903, Solomon emigrated from Sweden to go to work for Hilder Granite Company in Saint Cloud, Minnesota as their chief blacksmith.  His wife, Ida, and their three children emigrated a year later.  They soon found a home for their family in Swede Hollow, a small neighborhood of stonecutters, located off the East end of Michigan Avenue, close to the Hilder Quarry, and close to the St. Cloud State Reformatory(Note: The neighborhood was named after the original Swede Hollow which was located in St. Paul, MN.) It was here in Swede Hollow that Solomon & Ida had four more children, the last of which was my father, Arthur Ernest Swanson, who was born in 1917.  My name is Ross Swanson.  I was the first born of Art & Marion Swanson, in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Solomon Swanson

Blacksmith & Stonecutter

1875—1958

Granite

Granite is often called the signature rock of planet Earth, because the other rocky planets Mercury, Venus and Mars are all covered with basalt rock, (as is the Ocean floor on Earth), but only Earth contains granite rock in abundance. Granite contains large mineral “grains”, (“granum” in Latin), thus the word “Granite”.  All granite contains quartz and feldspar, in addition to other minerals which contribute to the various colors, including black, gray, red, pink and white.  Granite is an igneous rock, which means it started out as hot, fluid magma which began cooling, very slowly, over millions of years.  And, it cooled while being deeply buried in the Earth, (as opposed to volcanic lava which cools and solidifies after it comes out of the Earth).

Over millions of years, seismic activity changed the crust of our planet, forcing huge veins of solid granite to the surface. Glaciers have scraped off layers of dirt, sand and rock to expose huge granite formations.  Typically revealed by outcroppings, granite deposits have been discovered on all 5 continents.

In the Spring of 1868, the first quarry to be established in St. Cloud was the Breen & Young Quarry, located in East St. Cloud, in Sherburne County, just over the Stearns County line.

Breen & Young operated the quarry for about twenty years.  In 1889 the Minnesota legislature approved the purchase of 240-acres of land in East St. Cloud for the construction of the Saint Cloud State Reformatory.  The key element in this purchase was the Breen & Young Quarry, which was located on the North end of the 240-acres.  The legislature wanted the quarry so they could use inmates to mine the granite.  The State would then use inmate labor to build the new prison. 

The Prison

In this aerial view of the prison today, (which is now called the Minnesota Correctional Facility at St. Cloud), you can see the original quarry which is filled with water on the left side of the photo, with a wall behind it.  The Hilder Quarry was on the other side of that prison wall.  On the East side of the property, (top of the photo), is U.S. Highway 10.

 

Historical Note:  In 1889, seventy-five prisoners from the State Prison in Stillwater were transferred to the new prison site in Saint Cloud to begin quarrying granite.  Left behind in Stillwater was Cole & Bob Younger of the James-Younger gang.  Bob died of tuberculosis later that same year.

The Prison Wall

 

A prison is not a prison without a wall to enclose it. So one of the first tasks for the prisoners was to build a wall around most of the 240-acre property.  The granite wall is four  feet wide at the base; three feet wide at the top; and about a mile and a half long!  All of the granite was quarried, dressed and laid up by the prisoners.

 

   The wall claims title to...

¨ The largest granite wall in the United States

¨ The longest granite wall in the world to be built entirely by prison labor.

 

Stearns History Museum Archives

Granite workers did not have electrical power available to them down in the quarries.  Beginning in 1880 they used steam to run the drill motors.  In this photo, the men are inserting steel wedges and steel stakes into the drilled holes.  They then hammered the wedges with sledge hammers until the granite split along the drill line.

This was back-breaking work!

Once the block was split away, they would drill a “dog” hole into opposing sides with the steam drill in order to  attach the hooks from an enormous overhead derrick which would lift the block up to the topside of the  quarry.  The rough block would then go to the  finishing sheds.

This is a photo of the Rockville Granite Works in 1903.  Henry Alexander, a stonecutter who emigrated from Scotland in 1880, was the founder.  The company moved to Cold Spring, MN in the early 1920’s and incorporated as Cold Spring Granite Co.

 

The cutting and polishing of the rough stone was a long and laborious process.  Special saws were used to cut the rough stone to size.  Rough polishing included the use of sand, chilled shot and steel shot.  Finish polishing included the use of varying grades of carborundum, scouring blocks, and a polishing substance called ‘whitening’.

 

Editor’s Note:  Cold Spring Granite Co. is over 110-years old and is still in business today.

Minnesota Historical Society Archives

Granite lathe turning a 22-ft long column

Cutting decorative reliefs with a cross-cut saw

Property of Ross A. Swanson

Line Callout 2:  Julius Hilder
Line Callout 2: Solomon Swanson
Line Callout 2:  Ernest Hilder

Hilder Granite Company was located close to the Saint Cloud State Reformatory and next to the residential area known as Swede Hollow.  Julius Hilder was President, and he had four silent investors:  Daniel, Guy, Murray and Frank McGregor.  The McGregor brothers were railroad contractors.  Ernest Hilder, (Julius’ son), worked for my grandfather, Solomon Swanson, in the blacksmith shop.  The men with the aprons were finishers who worked in the large building in the background.  The men on the elevated platform were some of the stonecutters who worked in the quarry.  The company started out in business by producing granite for the commercial building industry, but by the early 1900’s, cemetery monuments had become the bread and butter of the granite industry.

1909

This was the blacksmith shop at Hilder Granite Co.  Solomon Swanson, the Chief Blacksmith, is on the far right.  Ernest Hilder is the large man standing between two helpers.

1909

Property of Ross A. Swanson

1909

Property of Ross A. Swanson

Hilder granite finishers in the Rough Finishing shed.  From here the stones went to the Machine Finishing shed.

(These three Hilder Granite photos were taken by H. Beissel, Commercial Photographer, Minneapolis)

Minnesota Historical Society Archives

Minnesota Historical Society Archives

Where did the Stonecutters come from? 

 

When the immigrants reached Ellis Island, one of the things they had to disclose was whether or not they had a trade.  From these records we know that the immigrant stonecutters came from many different European countries.  The majority of the stonecutters came from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Scotland, Great Britain, Italy, France, Spain and Germany.

 

The Minnesota quarries around Saint Cloud had a particularly large number of Swedish, Norwegian and Finish stonecutters.  The reasons for this vary, but one reason may have been the Homestead Act.  In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the original Homestead Act, which offered 160-acres of Federal land to anyone who would live on the land and improve it for five years.  The homesteader could then file for a free and clear deed to the property.  This was a huge drawing card for immigrants from Sweden, Norway and Finland, because those three countries did not have very good farm land.  Minnesota had good farm land, and scores of immigrant farmers from Sweden, Norway and Finland came to Minnesota to claim a homestead and build their farms.

 

The stonecutters were not homesteaders, but many of their farmer friends from the old country were homesteaders.  The stonecutters had a wide selection of quarries to choose between, including, but not limited to Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  And many of them went to work in the Northeast quarries.  But a large contingent of Scandinavian stonecutters immigrated directly to St. Cloud, perhaps because many of their farmer friends had homesteaded in that area.

Property of Ross A. Swanson

My grandmother, Ida (Johansson) Swanson, washing clothes in the back yard of their Swede Hollow property.

1909

Solomon Swanson and Ernest Hilder

(Ernest became president when his father died in 1921)

Property of Ross A. Swanson

1922

Epilog

 

The granite industry was hard work in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Stonecutters received an average wage of fifty cents per hour.  The wages were actually pretty good for the times, but there was a heavy price to pay in terms of their health.  Whether you were in the quarries or in the sheds, the air was always filled with a fine silica dust.  It just went with the territory and no one took it seriously, until some of the stonecutters started having shortness of breath due to Silicosis of the Lungs.  Silica dust would collect in the lungs of the stonecutters.  Inflammation is the body’s signal to the immune system to remove a foreign substance.  But cells in the lungs are unable to expel the silica particles.  So the particles will accumulate until a cell is so full of silica that it no longer functions, and then it dies.  When the cell dies, the silica particles are re-released within the lungs and the process starts all over again!    It was not until 1960 that the Federal Government recognized the problem and started requiring granite workers to wear respirators.  For many stonecutters from the early 1900’s, the respirators were too late.  Two of Solomon’s sons, Carl and Peary Swanson, both died of complications due to Silicosis.  Solomon Swanson escaped the curse because he spent all of his time in the blacksmith shop.  My father, the youngest of Solomon and Ida’s seven children, stayed out of the quarries and became a tool & die maker, and later a machine shop manager for Hughes Aircraft Company in California.

 

Ross A. Swanson

Redding, CA - USA

Minnesota Dept. of Corrections

Minnesota Dept. of Corrections

This is a tribute to my grandfather, Solomon Swanson, and to all stonecutters

who immigrated in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to help build America

Minnesota Historical Society Archives

Saint Cloud, Minnesota

“The Granite City”

Line Callout 2:  Blacksmith Shop

The Stock Market Crash of  October 29, 1929, triggered “The Great Depression”, which lasted for over ten years.  Within a short time, the demand for granite construction materials and monuments had fallen off dramatically.  Ernest Hilder was forced to close the company.

Solomon Swanson was 55-years old when the company closed in 1930, so he decided to retire.  His wife, Ida, had been saving coins in Mason jars in the cellar for twenty- six years to buy a new house, so Solomon purchased a lot on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Eighth Avenue S.E., (about 1-mile West of the quarry), and built this house and a detached garage on the lot.  The family called it “The Stucco House”.

Editor’s note:  In 2011, the house & the detached garage were still standing, and in good condition.

Arthur E. Swanson

Tool & Die Maker

1917—1996

Ross A. Swanson

Building Contractor

1943—XXXX

Property of Ross A. Swanson

State of Minnesota

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