Capitol grand opening honors workers who built it, restored it
ST. PAUL — The basement L’Etoile du Nord Vault Room at the Minnesota State Capitol was standing-room-only August 13, a day set aside to honor the workers who helped renovate the building and to also honor the capitol’s original builders, including six workers who died during the 1896-1907 construction.
Special buttons identified people in the crowd who were descendants of the capitol’s original builders.
The descendants had been tracked down in recent years by researchers from an initiative launched by the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service, which produced a multi-media project and school curriculum, “Who Built Our Capitol?”
“I’m looking at these bricks, I’m wondering, is my great-grandfather here?” said Penny Utecht, Victoria, descendant of bricklayer Michael Nickle.
“We were shocked,” said her sister, Sherry Ritten, also of Victoria, when researchers contacted them and said their great-grandfather had helped build the state capitol. “They went through payroll records and worked their way back to us.”
“It was such a great story, finding our great-grandfather,” Penny Utetcht said. “We didn’t even know his name.”
Another group of family members in attendance, descendants of stonecutter John Kuettel, included a grandson who knew him. “It was my grandfather who worked here,” said Norb Adelmann, Eagan. “He lived with us for a short time.”
“The family still has tools that have his name on them,” said Karen Dahl, who is Norb’s niece and who is John Kuettel’s great-granddaughter.
“He came from Switzerland,” Adelmann reported. “I know he worked on the capitol as a stonecutter but not much more than that.” He added, however, he believed that his grandfather was one of the original labor union organizers in St. Paul.
That’s significant to Adelmann, who is a retired member of Plumbers Local 15 and who worked 39 years in the trade.
Adelmann said several dozen descendants of John Koettel — all wearing t-shirts with Koettel’s likeness — came from as far away as Colorado and California to the August 13 event and a family gathering the day before. “It was great,” he said. “I met cousins I had never met.”
Descendants of stonemason and Swedish immigrant Axel Peterson shared stories, too. His great-great-granddaughter, Maria Benson of Lindstrom, said family members have stone hearts and pendants which Peterson fashioned from scrap marble from the capitol. She said Peterson, his wife and family “lived a few blocks from here. The kids would bring down lunch to him” — and, according to family lore, play amidst the construction.