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The kiln is essentially a massive chimney, said Herb Reckinger, head of the South Washington Heritage Society. Fueled by an ample supply of wood, it was used to reduce limestone from nearby bluffs or quarries to a powder form called quicklime that was used in fertilizer, plaster and mortar.
The timber was loaded at the bottom of the kiln through the three portals, Reckinger said.
The kiln, brick-lined with walls 3 to 4 feet thick, was built on a slope. Limestone was hauled in by horse and wagon, then brought by wheelbarrow on a wooden trestle to the top, where it was dumped in. Remnants of the timbers are still visible.
“It would burn for days,” Reckinger said. “Eventually, all that loose limestone would become powder.”
The quicklime was then put in barrels, the bulk of it likely destined for farms, he said. Lime was essential in correcting acidity in soil that resulted from farming, and having a ready source was important to the growth of the local economy, Reckinger said.
Because of that, and because the kiln is one of the last remnants of early industry in Minnesota, it was added to the National Register in 1978.
Status is in doubt
The kiln’s status on the register, which gives it certain protections, will now have to be re-evaluated.
“In order for a property to be considered historically significant, it can’t just be important — it also has to have historic integrity,” said Denis Gardner, the state’s National Register supervisor. “That’s the rub with this.”
Among the questions to be answered is whether the kiln is still recognizable enough to convey that sense of what made it important. Given the extent of destruction, that seems doubtful, Gardner said.
The kiln might be the first site on the register lost to a disaster.
“I don’t think we’ve had anything as bad as this, that’s just collapsed,” he said.
Several historic homes and buildings, including the Nicollet County Courthouse, were heavily damaged in a 1998 tornado that tore across St. Peter, Minn., but they were rehabilitated, Gardner said. In fact, the town’s commercial district became a National Register historic district after the tornado.
There is a chance, however, that the kiln’s official historic significance could be retained, but redefined as an archaeological site.
“The question we have to look at is, ‘Even though it’s collapsed, is there still enough information there to reveal history?’ ” Gardner said. “The short story is, it’s going to have to be reassessed.”
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson