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Stone business rocks and rolls

HOYT LAKES, Minn. -- Kim Snell reached down and picked up a chunk of taconite rock, a little bigger than a softball, speckled with flakes of silica that glistened like tiny diamonds in the mid-day sun.

Kim Snell
Kim Snell, owner of Stone By Design, looks at rocks that were hand-picked for a customer's order in the former LTV taconite mine.

HOYT LAKES, Minn. -- Kim Snell reached down and picked up a chunk of taconite rock, a little bigger than a softball, speckled with flakes of silica that glistened like tiny diamonds in the mid-day sun.

"See now, this rock just says happy to me," Snell said, admiring the find and showing others before dropping it back to the ground. "This is a labor of love, really. I just love being around rock and stone. There's no bad day out here."

She was in the former LTV Steel Mining Co. taconite pit where she now makes her living, culling cast-away chunks of rock left behind by miners decades ago. She likes to call it the ultimate green business because this is all mined material left behind as waste. There's no new energy used to blast it away from the mine walls -- that happened years ago.

The rock here wasn't rich enough in iron to be processed into taconite (and then into steel). But it's plenty rich enough in color, density and shape to become the backbone of a decorative stone business that Snell is trying to expand.

Stone by Design

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Snell, 54, owner of Duluth-based Stone by Design, has access to the 66,000-acre former taconite operation to look for rocks. She holds the rights to 38 acres in the mine where she fills crates of rock to be shipped across the country. She's a small operation dwarfed by the hulking former taconite processing plant nearby. The Mesabi Nugget iron plant and PolyMet Mining are her neighbors.

Snell walked and talked fast between stones, then stopped to run her hands across another, much larger rock, about the size of a Mini Cooper car.

"Some people see a big rock. I see a fountain" with water cascading over levels of the rock, Snell said. She sizes up rocks in seconds. Lamps. Jewelry. Tabletops. Steps. Sculptures. Benches. Signs. Objects d'art.

"A lot of these are being used as healing stones" by Asian and other cultures, she noted.

But Snell is also practical. Some rocks are destined to simply be fill, for jobs such as stopping the pounding waves of Lake Superior from bashing boats.

You want heavy and dense? Each cubic foot of taconite rock weighs 240 pounds, 45 percent heavier than granite at 165 pounds. That's why it was used as the final layer of boulders for the McQuade safe harbor near Duluth and the new breakwall at Port Wing on the South Shore. In recent weeks Stone by Design has sent more than 7,000 tons of giant boulders -- hundreds of truckloads with boulders all 6 to 9 tons each -- to the Port Wing breakwall being built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

You want pretty? There are colors and

Unique beauty

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designs in this rock that can take your breath away. The old taconite mine produces a potpourri of types and color of rock -- Virginia slate, Erie banded taconite, diopside, red and May Ellen jasper, Minnesota Brown, Minnesota Greenolite and more.

Much of the stone is unique to the Biwabik iron formation, geology experts say, and Stone by Design is one of the few companies with easy access to the stuff.

Snell also knows craftsmen who have the right diamond blade saws to cut the stuff, and others who have giant tumblers that can polish even big stones to perfection.

The banded taconite bar top in the Bulldog Lounge at Amsoil Arena came from here, as did the jasper marker at the Paul Wellstone memorial near Eveleth, Minn. There's a mansion on Burntside Lake near Ely, Minn., that has more than $500,000 worth of stone from here for landscaping, walls, outdoor kitchens, fireplaces and steps.

Many Twin Cities clinics and offices are landscaped with rock from here. And there's artwork on sale in Denver and California that was mined here before being tumbled and polished and garnished and displayed.

"The folks who had money still have money," Snell said. "There's still a good market out there, not necessarily in Minnesota as much as San Francisco; Colorado is big ... New York, Chicago."

Each order -- be it for stone for garden fountains, walls, fireplaces, steps, artwork and even breakwalls -- is hand-picked to match color, type and size wanted by the customer.

Company's history

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Snell bought the 12-year-old company last year from Brad Gerlach. The business -- previously called Mesabi Natural Stone and, before that, Cliffs Natural Stone -- struggled during the lingering recession. And Gerlach was ready to move out of the rock business.

Enter Snell, who brought a plan to diversify the company along with boundless energy and "passion" for stone and rock.

"I've already taken it from an $80,000 loss in 2010 to being able to pay off all my debt and turning a profit this year," she said. "I'm taking this more down the artistic road, blending inside-outside. ... This is my dream."

Snell's plan is to expand marketing toward high-end landscaping and decorative stone but also plunge into stone as artwork, industrial stone for fill and even crushed, bagged decorative landscaping rock for sale through home improvement stores.

Consultants' view

Curt Walczak, business consultant with the University of Minnesota Duluth's Center for Economic Development, toured the mine site earlier this month and liked what he saw. The center is working with Snell to develop a business plan and expansion ideas that won't break her bank or her back.

"She's got some great ideas, a great passion and a great resource here," Walczak said. "And no one else is really doing this. That puts her in a good position from the start."

Gerlach, a rockhound like Snell with a vast knowledge of geology, agreed to stay on as a consultant for a year or so. He says the stone from the Biwabik iron formation is the most beautiful in the world.

"We know we have a product here everyone wants once they see it," Gerlach said. Kim "has the connections with the artists and architects and big landscaping companies to get it out there."

Snell, a Twin Cities native who's been in Duluth 16 years, initially started toward a career as a dental hygienist. But she didn't like being boxed in an office. She's dabbled in tree farming, gardening, stained glass, ceramics and other artwork but has always has had an attraction to stone -- starting with hauling gravel years ago.

"I bought a John Deere and a Cat and started tinkering," she said. "I haven't stopped tinkering since."

Stone By Design
Kim Snell, owner of Stone By Design, sits atop a chunk of taconite weighing more than 10 tons.

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