A simple question, “Who were the workers who built the Minnesota State Capitol?” was the catalyst for efforts leading to the dedication of a commemorative plaque during Sunday’s grand opening of the newly restored building. More than 300 people attended ceremonies to recognize the original builders of the statehouse and those involved in recent renovations.
In 2009, University of Minnesota Labor Education Service staff member Randy Croce, together with independent researchers Dan Ganley, Dave Riehle, John Sielaff and Victoria Woodcock, began looking through thousands of historical records and tracing family members to find the names and stories of more than 620 of the original Capitol builders.
Their work is showcased in a documentary video and website, “Who Built Our Capitol?” The team took special care to finally identify the six workers who died during the construction and are named on the bronze plaque dedicated Sunday: Felix Arthur, John Biersack, John Corrigan, Alfred Magnuson, Albert Swanson, and Florian Zauner.
Sixth grade teachers Jen Hansen in Owatonna, Missy Klapperich in Cannon Falls and later Kim Hill in Eagan, found a way to make these stories exciting and instructive for students through a curriculum they designed in collaboration with the project. The lessons inspired Hansen’s 2015 Willow Creek Middle School class to write letters, collect signatures on a petition and testify at the Legislature for a law that made the plaque possible.
“These people all came together to create this Minnesota treasure,” said Katie Ihrke, one of the Willow Creek students, the day she testified at a legislative committee hearing. “But they have remained nameless. We are here to right that wrong.”
Governor Mark Dayton and Lt. Governor Tina Smith opened Sunday’s ceremony by thanking the legislators who funded the $310-million renovation and relocated their offices to enable the complete restoration of the statehouse.
State Senator Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, thanked the workers involved in the recent restoration “for the tremendous effort, talent and care you have put in returning this building to the people of Minnesota … Of 1.4 million hours that went into this massive endeavor, one third were contributed by minority and female labor.”
Co-sponsors of the memorial plaque bill, State Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, and former State Senator Vickie Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, praised the spirit and perseverance of the middle schoolers.
Paul Mandell, executive secretary of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, noted, “I’ve never seen legislators, listening to people far younger than themselves, be so captivated.”
Mandell commended the two sixth graders whose designs were chosen for the memorial, Kalina Boubin of St. Mary’s School and Riley Kalbach of Willow Creek Intermediate School, both in Owatonna.
The events honoring workers motivated project researcher Sielaff to find and contact more descendants of the original builders. He located many additional family members whom the Labor Education Service invited to the ceremony; more than 200 attended. Many of those contacted provided stories and photographs of their ancestors, which have been posted on the website, enriching the project's online history.
The dedication served as an occasion for some family reunions. Jackie Sheehan, great granddaughter of Swiss-born stonecutter John Kuettel, organized 80 members of her family to come, many wearing t-shirts printed with their ancestor’s name and photograph.
“I am so grateful to the people who took the time to do the research” on the Capitol builders, said Sheehan.
Julie Kierstine, great granddaughter of Capitol head carpenter John Rachač, echoed the comments of many descendants at the ceremony.
“I think it was a wonderful experience for everyone there. The afternoon was a testament to the research team and the spectacular documentary. I feel so honored to have been a small part of it. This was an unforgettable experience, and I will carry it with me always.”