HOYT LAKES — Shards of natural stone to 15-ton boulders blanket the landscape of the former LTV mine. The area is encased by forest and crisscrossed with make-shift roads. It remains as the miners left it, with many mounds of stones of varying size that border the primitive travel ways. Smaller pieces are thinly sprayed along the ground as if Paul Bunyan toppled a box of puzzle pieces. If not for the foresight of Biwabik native Mark Sutich, the millions of usable, unique stones may not have gotten a new life; a new purpose.
And if not for the mining process the taconite, animikian, jasper (a red Precambrian stone), Minnesota grunerite, iron pyrite (Fool’s Gold) and Virginia slate may not have been so readily discovered.
Sutich and his wife, Kandi, owners of Laurentian Monument Granite and Stone in Virginia, feature products fashioned from the band-iron formation stone gathered at the old mining site. Virginia slate is the biggest seller. It’s commonly used as flagstone or wall stone. Stones are used for fountains, columns, steps, walkways, patios, crushed landscape rock and landscape centerpieces — to name a few. Stones can also be used for erosion control. Much of the stone is used for veneer.
Sutich’s stone can be found at the wall at the new Vermilion State Park and as the bases for the pavilions. His company also had a hand in the Angel of Hope Park in Virginia.
“The stone represents at least a dozen different products. It has unlimited uses,” Sutich explained.
Some of the different things people have used the stone for include chimney caps, fireplaces and bars. A stone outhouse was even discussed with Sutich. It never happened, but it could have. Try tipping that over.
The big draw, he said, is the uniqueness of the stones’ colors like the jasper, which has a deeper red hue running through it.
“Business is very good. The market is growing,” Sutich said. He gets a lot of residential and architectural orders, and the commercial requests are increasing. The Twin Cities has provided a healthy market as well. He has rail shipments going to the Dakotas down to Oklahoma. Smaller chunks of stone are shipped in wooden watermelon crates. Customers in Western states are even showing interest. He’s also investigating tapping into the international market.
Every piece Sutich removes is waste rock left over from LTV, which was one of the first taconite (iron ore) mines on the Iron Range. It opened in 1957 as the Erie Mining Company. It produced iron ore pellets. The mine closed in 2000 after it succumbed to competition and technology.
The more than 5,000 acres Sutich has permitted or leased is surrounded by copper-nickel mining now.
“We’re a green company if you think about it,” Sutich said. “Harvesting the stones is putting the old mine back to work.”
Even the slurry from sawing the stone as it’s processed is saleable. The powder is mixed with water and dried into a grout product.
“It’s a dirty process, but everything produced is natural,” he added. “No chemicals are introduced. There’s no damage to the environment. We’re just extracting waste rock.”
Sutich knew the LTV layout well having been a mobile maintenance employee from 1973-1987.
“It was an impressive operation,” he commented.
And just like the mine work, the extracting of waste rock is labor intensive. Sutich and his crew remove rock with excavators, scraping off the surface. No chemicals or explosives are ever used or needed.
After excavating, some of the gathering work comes down to hand picking. You’ve got to know what you’re looking at to be successful. Because parcels of the land are owned by Cliffs Natural Resources, PolyMet Mining, individuals and groups, and the Minnesota DNR, geologists make visits to educate Sutich and his crew on the history of the earth through the rocks. They also learn how to identify the varying types of stone.
There are areas Sutich hasn’t tapped into yet. And every time they move a stone they discover new varieties and colorings that had been trapped underneath. If what they unearth isn’t flagstone, for example, Sutich will call in an expert.
“Sometimes you see things you’ve never seen before,” he said.
One day they came across stromatolite fossils, which are formed by layers of blue-green algae. And later he learned that the algae grew more uniquely there than anywhere else because of the iron in the earth. Most of the fossils they find get donated to museums and other organizations.
Sutich has been interested in stones since his childhood when he got his first piece of quartz and iron pyrite. That early interest drives him still as he’s always thinking of new ways to expand; new ways to use the interesting, uniquely Minnesota leftover stone.
Besides working at LTV, Sutich moved to Indiana where he was a steel fabricator for 17 years. He was involved in plant tear down and set-up work as well. When he heard about the mine closing, he knew it was a perfect fit for him to be a part of the old pellet plant’s demolition. In 2005, he saw the opportunity to return home: “Once a Ranger, always a Ranger.”
He later connected with some of the heavy-stone business people in the area because he had the equipment to handle large stones, which steered him into new avenues.
Since owning the store from 2011, Sutich has seen a new demand for taconite counter tops. It’s not easy to make, he explained, because the stone varies in hardness making it difficult to saw. But with a new plant in the works and a new saw blade being developed by an outside company in St. Paul, he’s sure he’ll overcome that obstacle. He also wants to make monuments out of taconite.
Furthermore, the plant he envisions will turn the stone into a thin veneer that would make it easier for people of all skill levels to work with, like a tile. He also has plans to start using Mary Ellen jasper to produce monuments.
He hopes his efforts give the Iron Range some well-deserved recognition: “There’s a misconception out there that the Iron Range is just one big mine pit. Those people are overlooking all of the natural beauty.”