Local lime kiln helped build our history
Tuesday, October 01, 2013 3:09 AM
You have to be fairly "old" to remember the original lime kiln bridge shown here, about three miles north on #1. Well, maybe not that old, but surely before most of you readers were aware of the "new" road and present day bridge. In April of 1965, a photo appeared in the Tribune saying it would be replaced. The bridge was oriented east/west and soon climbed a steep hill to the north, sometimes requiring those early drivers to shift to a very low gear to make the hill. The road was somewhat leveled and widened, and a more gentle curve makes it an easier climb to the top of the hill.
The original lime kiln bridge and the remains of lime kiln as it appeared about 1940.
The story of the lime kiln is fascinating, one that tells of a most important industry in the 1800s. The industry refined limestone into powdered lime that was mixed with water, sand, and mostly horsehair to use as a mortar in rock foundations for houses, barns and other structures. The original lime kiln was built about 1868 by L.G. Odell, a "draw kiln" of limestone itself, which resembled a tall chimney. It was 20 feet high by 15 feet wide with three six-foot hearths fired by wood, which burned out the impurities.
Limestone was quarried by hard hand labor from cliffs along Bear Creek and piled into a dump cart pulled by a horse. Old timers remember the blind white horse that trekked back and forth on the bridge, then backing up the ramp to the top, where the rock was dumped into the kiln. The kiln was operated early spring until late fall, with four "draws" a day: 4 and 10a.m. and 1 and 4p.m. It was fueled by cordwood and usually two men worked noon to midnight, then were relieved by the second shift of two men who worked the rest of the time. It was strenuous work, firing the kiln, adding the limestone, and drawing out the lime. The winters were spent chopping and collecting wood for the coming season.
To quote a Mankato history: "Heat and smoke from the wood fire below passed through the limestone rock dumped from above. This constant high temperature expelled carbon dioxide and other volatile impurities from the limestone, reducing the rock to a coarse lime powder. After the lime passed through some iron grates, it collected at the bottom of the kiln, where it could be shoveled out." After the lime cooled, it was placed in wooden barrels and shipped by rail. Towns in the area that demanded this supply included Preston, Wykoff, Grand Meadow, Racine, Stewartville, Dexter, Chatfield, Lanesboro, Pleasant Grove and LeRoy. During the late 1800s, railroad construction created a tremendous demand for bridge and culvert stone and lime for the mortar.
In 1900, William Carey purchased the 160 acre farm on which the kiln stood. It was reported that Carey had the first rural telephone, which speeded orders that didn't have to wait for mail delivery, and he developed a flourishing business. It was said Carey handled his own distribution in southeastern Minnesota, covering a 30 to 50 mile radius, and hauled wagonloads to Rochester, where it was used in hundreds of private dwellings and public buildings, and even for the construction of the original Zumbro Hotel.
A fire destroyed the wooden portion of the kiln in 1911 and it was never used again. However, it played a significant role in the building of this community for over 50 years. Why was lime in demand? Before the advent of plaster, the powdered lime was mixed with sand and water, then animal hair was added to bind the grains of rock together. The hair was obtained from area meatpacking houses. The mortar was adequate when new, but after a few years, it began to crumble to powdered dust. Along came Portland cement, used in the making of concrete, which completely changed the art of construction since this product was far superior to the lime mortar. Local historian John H. Halbkat wrote: "The lime kiln was the only one of its kind (in the immediate area) furnishing lime for building hundreds of private dwellings and public buildings until the use of cement took its place and when cordwood became scarce." I do not know if the remains of the kiln still exist and perhaps a hike back into the brush would be worthwhile. A fine depiction of the kiln in operation, done by the late Lee Smith, local artist, is on display at the Spring Valley Historical Society's Methodist Church Museum. The museums remain open 10 to 4 on weekends through October.
Correction: I have often said I learn something new every day. How true - this email just came to the Tribune from Kirby Johnson, area resident, and here is what he had to say. "The picture of the (Conley) camera factory published in last week's paper was misidentified as "located on North Broadway." The building still exists and is located at 12 4th St. S.W. in Rochester. It was the home of the Masque Youth Theatre and School for seven years and I extensively rehabbed it to be a performance space. We knew it was a camera factory in an earlier incarnation and you can still see its similarity to the photo that was published."
Thanks, Kirby, that was a revelation to me, and good to know for the historical society records.