Stone structures, Group documents historic buildings

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Four of the 250 historic stone buildings in Clayton County can be found along this segment of South River Park Drive in Guttenberg.

By Jean Marie Hall

Freelance Writer

In 2012, the Clayton County Historic Preservation Commission conducted a stone structure survey of the county and found more than 200 different structures. Volunteers traveled the highways and back roads, photographing and logging what was found. The variety of structures ranged from a large stone outdoor fireplace to bridges, water retention walls, commercial buildings, mills, churches, barns, houses, outbuildings, grottoes, cream storage structures and storage caves. Some of those who volunteered to work on this project were John Nicolai, Joe Ihm, Gary Goyette, Lee Lenth, Terry Thein, Ellen and Bruce Collins, Kent and Cindy Werges, Betty Buchholz, Mary Lammers and Harold and Deanna Krambeer. Mary Fran Nicolai, John’s wife, also helped immensely with computer issues that arose.

The group chose to do the survey in the early spring so that the structures would be more visible to the naked eye, most often while driving down a road.

“The commission decided not to include structures in ruins and foundations since there were just too many foundations,” says Ellen Collins, Elkader, current chairperson of the commission, “We also narrowed the search to structures that were 50 years and older.”

As might be expected though, once the survey was underway, there were exceptions to the rules.

“We did include some structures that were in ruins and we also included Freedom Bank in Elkader because of its ‘presence’”, explains Ellen. “It will be officially one in about 45 years!”

“We found pillars, bridges, bridge abutments, churches, an outdoor fireplace, barns, outbuildings that include smoke houses, ice houses, storage houses, commercial buildings, mills, public bathrooms, picnic shelters, even a mailbox, public buildings and retaining walls,” continues Ellen. “Some buildings and houses included were found to have a siding added over the stone and these were included since they are stone structures underneath. We had cooperation from various sources including the owners of all of these structures, for sure.”

Help also came from the Clayton County Supervisors as well as the Auditor’s Office, which supplied the volunteers with the 9ll map books of the county. These were an invaluable tool in finding all the roads in each township. Darla Kelchen of the Clayton County Development Group Office offered her services and encouragement while Joleen Jansen of Jansen Products helped with the establishment of a website.

The Clayton County Historical Preservation Commission has been around for quite a while. No one can remember the exact beginning but Bob Griffith, Elkader, remembers being involved with it back as far as 1970. He remembers some prominent names in the community that were members around that time, such as Don Menken, Tom Manson and Ed Olson.

“I became interested because I had discovered an old stone bridge,” says Bob.” I then realized that there were quite a few of them and I decided I was going to photograph all of them.”

Bob had become an accomplished photographer as a result of being owner and editor of the Clayton County Register at the time.

“I went to the County Engineer’s Office and they gave me a map showing where the bridges were located.”

Bob still has copies of those pictures and believes those photos may have been the impetus that drove the recent stone structure survey.

In 1985, the Clayton County Historical Preservation Commission became a Certified Local Government which is a designation given by the State of Iowa. This gives the commission an advantage when applying for grants and gives it guidance along with the requirements that need to be followed when doing preservation work on historic structures.

Rob Medberry, whose Highland Township rock home is featured in the stone structure survey and website, tells the history of that house.

“It was built in 1864 of limestone rock quarried right on the farm,” says Rob, a fifth-generation owner of the house, “I don’t know who the builder was but it’s my opinion that there were traveling stonemasons who came around to build houses. Just as they did for barn building.”

Rob’s great-great-grandfather was a cook on a barge in the Erie Canal. He decided he wanted to move west. He met and married a woman from Illinois that the family believes may have had the money needed to buy land. He contacted a land company in Dubuque and was able to buy 600 acres in Clayton County. Rob guesses the cost was only about $2 or $3an acre at that time. The farm no longer totals 600 acres as some has been sold and other pieces bought as years passed.

“You know, they talk about homesteading property but that didn’t start until after the Civil War,” says Rob. “It was the land companies that were around at the time of my ancestors that helped settlers find property.”

“Those builders had to know more than just how to lay stone,” continues Rob, “In our house, 2-by-6 inch boards are laid horizontally into the layers of rock so that the studs had something to be nailed to. They also would have to have known how to put in wooden window frames.”

It’s clear that having lived in a historic house, Rob appreciates the workmanship that created it.

The first two families of Rob’s ancestors that lived in the house were Kerrs; the following three, including Rob’s family, are the Medberrys. Rob and his wife, Dawn, have lived in the house for 27 years along with their children, Max, Madeline, Maria and Mayleigh.

While Rob’s theory that the stone masons may have been itinerant builders is very likely true, it is also possible that some of the immigrants who were in the stonemason trade may have been searching for an area that would have an abundance of exposed limestone. The Western Settlement Society headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, offered building lots in Guttenberg, Iowa, during that time period. Because the majority of immigrants to Clayton County in those years were Germans, the exposed limestone and steep bluffs may have reminded them of the areas in their native Germany and afforded them an opportunity to practice their crafts as stonemasons. Northeast Iowa would certainly have had a great appeal to them. Based on the census of 1856, there were 76 stone masons living in Clayton County and of these, 49 lived in Jefferson Township, the site of the city of Guttenberg along the Mississippi.

The city of Guttenberg is a gold mine of stone structures. At one time, limestone buildings numbered in excess of a hundred. Some of the stonemasons that built those buildings are mentioned in history books of the town, one book entitled “Guttenberg, Iowa, The ‘Limestone City’ of Clayton County” written by James E. Jacobsen, in 2001.

One of the stonemasons mentioned in that book is Henry Buechel Sr. who contracted to build St. Mary’s School in 1894 and did the foundation for the William Miller brick house.

Another is Paul John Freidlein. Freidlein was a World War I veteran and had been “lamed” by a wartime wrestling match. He was known as a musician around the area but also as a skilled stonemason. He built his own house and a stone grotto on a hill south of town. He worked with Bill Becker and Rob Troester, building the Dickson house and “many houses” at Camp Hideaway. He built many of the stone foundations used in building area barns.

Dietrich Morarend is listed as having been contracted to cut and haul stones for the first St. John Church in 1894 and Tony Pauli is shown as having built the pearl button factory in 1899. Joseph Vogt did the stonework for the city jail in 1890 for $300 and one water reservoir in 1894 up on the hill that is now Acre St. He was elected an “officer of the city” in 1890. A Guttenberg Press story of June 1900 printed this news: “Jos. Vogt, Wm. Gussman and Wm. Behm started Saturday to construct two abutments and two wings for a bridge near John Poetsche’s on Miners Creek.”

This would affirm the history of one of the bridges to which Ellen Collins referred.

Henry Heitman, who lived from 1861-1928, was a local cement contractor but a quotation from his obituary stated that he was a “stone mason by trade which trade he followed for many years.”

Another rock building in Guttenberg, the three-story Albertus Building, is simply shown in the books as having being built by the husband and wife who owned it. It took three years to complete and was known to have had a marble front but, sadly, that has been plastered over.

“Since our 2012 survey, we have become aware of 4 structures that are no longer there. This is a good reason that this survey was done - to record and preserve the past in our county so that it is not forgotten,” explains Ellen. “We, as a commission, are impressed at the quality of these structures and the ability it took to build them. It was no small task to construct these.

“On a personal note, of all my volunteer work, this was the best and most fun thing I’ve done. It allowed me to travel the back roads and get a real look at this beautiful county and appreciate the hard work the early settlers put into their structures. Since at the time we did the survey, I was new to the county, this really helped me get to know my way around.”

“We received a $750 grant from the Upper Mississippi Gaming Corporation that allowed us to set up the website. Dave Beck, Elkader, took all the individual CDs with the photos and put them onto a master CD within the correct township. He spent many, many hours doing this and he also took several photos. The website is All the volunteers and people who helped in anyway were really appreciated,” Ellen concludes.

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