Carlton County archaeologist makes his living rediscovering the pastThe way archaeologist Steven Blondo looks at it, the 1918 fires in northern Minnesota aren’t only a part of this region’s history, they’re also a part of our soil. Ever dig in your garden and find bits of burned glass, or fragments of what looks like charcoal?
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
The way archaeologist Steven Blondo looks at it, the 1918 fires in northern Minnesota aren’t only a part of this region’s history, they’re also a part of our soil.
Ever dig in your garden and find bits of burned glass, or fragments of what looks like charcoal?
“There is a marker within the soil that does date to the 1918 fire,” Blondo said. “I thought it was crazy talk when I first moved here, but it’s there. Now, if I don’t find it, I wonder why.”
Blondo said the fire layer in the soil is “awesome” from an archaeological standpoint, “because everything you find below [that layer] is pre-1918, and everything above it is after 1918.”
For those whose only knowledge of archaeology comes from watching the Indiana Jones movies, Carlton County might seem a strange place for an archaeologist to locate his family and his business. However, Blondo gets enough work through his company, Blondo Consulting LLC, to pay the bills and there’s plenty of need for his skills as a historian/anthropologist as well.
When asked what exactly an archaeologist does, Blondo explained it’s not all avoiding 600-year-old booby traps and whisking away ancient golden artifacts.
First, he explained – in relation to the Indiana Jones adventure movies – what an archaeologist does NOT do.
“We never take stuff and move it without recording ad nauseum where it was,” Blondo said, admitting that he loves the Indiana Jones movies, despite the fairly unrealistic portrayal of modern day archaeology.
Then he chuckled and told about a T-shirt he’s seen (and plans to purchase someday). It reads: “Geologists make more money than archaeologists, but they don’t get cool movies made about them.”
When Blondo is consulting on a project, he explained, it’s less about high-speed chase scenes and more about “digging holes and finding stuff.”
The “stuff” is not usually made of precious metals in these parts, but he regards most of his discoveries as valuable in a historical sense.
On digs in Minnesota, Blondo has unearthed such items as American Indian projectiles from the distant past and a Boy Scout Camp “privy” from the 1960s. Both finds are significant, he said, explaining that a privy was used as kind of a garbage dump.
He talks with some excitement about “intact deposits” that he found in the privy.
“I found Chef Boyardee cans, a grated cheese can, acorns, fish and turtle bones, old pop cans,” he said, noting that the privy has been capped and left in place for future generations to analyze. “It’s the weirdest thing to explain to people, that I’m looking at a lot of trash, and what we can tell about people from that.”
Much of the work Blondo does as an archaeologist has to do with compliance with federal, state and local laws governing cultural resources.
“The laws are there to help us act as stewards of the cultural resources,” he said, explaining that the term cultural resources could refer to anything from an old building to a cultural group’s sacred ground to subsurface deposits, remnants of lives lived a hundred to a thousand years ago. “Just the same as we are stewards of environmental resources, these laws exist to make sure that if you have something really special from a historical standpoint, you’re not going to just blast through that, either.”
While Blondo’s work might slow down a project, it’s not often that a discovery leads to the project – be it a new bridge, building or business park – being terminated.
“If they identify a site [of cultural/ historical significance], we will often redesign to avoid it,” he said.
It may be Blondo’s job to dig and to evaluate the cultural significance of what he discovers, but it’s his passion to put that “stuff” into context, by learning more and more about the history of this part of the state.
“If all I did was dig holes all day, I’d be really bored,” Blondo said. “But anything associated with local history, cultural resources … that stuff is what I’m interested in and that’s what makes life interesting.”
Hence, his involvement in the Moose Lake Area Historical Society. Shortly after moving here with his family in 2009, he walked into the Moose Lake Depot, home of the historical society.
“And then I met Dean,” he said, referring to Dean Paulson, president of the MLAHS, “and life has changed.”
Both men laughed as they stood in the kitchen of the Depot Annex building recently, where an old rusty sauerkraut maker sits on the table and a coffin perches on top of a cabinet.
“I came in and asked (I think it was June and Natalie), ‘What are you doing and how can I work with you guys?’” Blondo explained. “‘I’ve gone through your archaeological collection, identified what you had on a couple exhibits, and then I got busy [with consulting work] – which is good, it pays the bills.’”
Blondo has also helped coordinate two events to mark archaeology month the past two Mays. The most recent event was May 19 when he talked about a study he’s done on fire properties, identifying different types and locations of properties associated with the fires of 1918 and then figuring out which ones still exist.
One example he listed were the fire shacks that the Red Cross gave to people who had lost their homes in the fires that converged on Oct. 12, 1918, to produce a massive firestorm which swept through an area from Sturgeon Lake to the northern fringes of Duluth, according to the MLAHS flyer.
“I figured we’d find about 50 properties, now we have a list of a few hundred,” he said, noting that a number of fire shacks still stand, many of them converted into garages and sheds.
Although Cloquet suffered tremendous loss of property in the fire, the Moose Lake-Kettle River area was the center of the death and destruction caused by that fire. Half of the 453 people who died in the fire died within a 10-mile radius of Kettle River, where Blondo now makes his home.
Blondo also identified areas where encampments – for the Home Guard and the Motor Corps – were set up after the fire.
Not every historical fire site was a building or a campground.
“Moosehead Lake was a very important site,” he said. “Folks took refuge in the lake. They drove cars right in or ran into the lake until the fire passed.”
Blondo said his work on identifying fire properties is ongoing.
“We will continue looking for people with fire properties that are still standing,” he said, noting that he had to limit his study to the Moose Lake area initially. “We’d love the opportunity to expand up to Cloquet, but it’s really a funding issue right now.”
Blondo also has a mystery he’s trying to solve. In several of the old photographs taken during and after the fire, there’s a gentleman with a motion picture camera recording the action. As far as Blondo knows, the contents of that reel have never been made public.
“I ask people all the time,” he said. “I figure it’s either sitting in someone’s basement or attic, or some county historical society has a box with fire footage written on top that no one’s looked at. If we could find that, I think we could find the funding to restore and preserve it.”
A few minutes later, MLAHS volunteer and museum docent Natalie Frohrip came in holding a stack of old country-school record books that date from around the time of the fires.
There’s no film, but the careful penmanship of the various teachers at Kalevala, Salo and Mansikka schools also tells the story of the fire.
“The reason I could not promote many was poor attendance, we having lost much time on account of the Forest Fire of Oct. 12 and sickness,” wrote one teacher, noting that three children were “lost in the fire” and others missed too much work afterward, either from rebuilding or illness.
Blondo was immediately engrossed in the pile of books, along with Frohrip.
“When you can start to tie what you’re doing, connecting it to people, that’s when it hits home,” he said. “It makes it more real.”
Blondo will talk and answer questions about his fire property project at the upcoming MLAHS quarterly meeting, set for 5 p.m. July 19 at the Depot. Anyone is welcome to attend this ice cream social, meeting and musical performance. Blondo also said he’d love to talk to anyone with a lead on the mystery fire film or collectors of local artifacts. Contact him at 218-485-1174 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A convoluted career path
Although Steven Blondo first declared that he wanted to be an archaeologist in second grade – and learned to spell it that same year, so he could make his own business card – his path to owning Blondo Consulting LLC was not a straight one. In high school, he thought he’d rather be an artist or lawyer. In college, he studied art before he fell in love with anthropology and archaeology. After getting his undergraduate degree, he got a job as a field technician and worked on sites all over the East Coast, from New York City to Washington D.C. and as far west as North Dakota. Then he decided he’d had enough digging and went to culinary school, lived in France and then the Twin Cities, working in a number of restaurants (including one three-star in Strasbourg, France). Then, with his wife, Beth, pregnant with twins, he decided a job with more regular hours would be nice. Blondo headed back to school for archaeology, and got a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in cultural heritage studies and anthropology. He started Blondo Consulting in 2008 and is one of about 100 people in Minnesota who are professional