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Schmitgen celebrates 50 years at Blue Earth Monument

By Staff | Jan 10, 2009

Harlan “Harley” Schmitgen has been working with stone for 50 years.

The Blue Earth businessman is celebrating 50 years of working at – and ownership of – Blue Earth Monument.

“I started right out of high school,” he says. “I was just 18.”

Fifty years is a long time, Schmitgen admits, but he has only been at Blue Earth Monument for half of the company’s history.

“It started in 1896,” he says. A new sign on the front lawn of the business, located along Highway 169, notes the year the business began.

“It was first located where Schwen’s Ice Cream was, where townhouses are now, downtown,” he says. Later it moved out on the east side of Highway 169, near Don’s Fleet Supply.

“In 1965 we moved it to this location,” Schmitgen recalls.

The business was started by Everett Bessinger. Later, Crohn Olson was a partner. Schmitgen and Steve Christianson were partners for a long time.

Christianson retired this past year, and Schmitgen is bringing his son-in-law and daughter, Mark and Lori Maher, into the business as partners with him and his wife, Midge.

To celebrate Schmitgen’s 50 years, the company is holding an open house on Jan. 16 and 17. The open house will also show off some recent building remodeling efforts.

“We started 10 days ago, and we have sheetrocked over paneling, removed carpet, and painted the place,” Harley says.

Midge has painted a large mural along one wall, which took her three days. It depicts an outdoor pastoral scene.

“We are going to have monuments placed in front of the mural, to give it an outdoor, park feel,” she says. They have also painted green areas on the floor, with a painted walkway throughout the display room.

Harley says it needed an upgrade from the dark paneling which had been in the rooms.

“People come here during some difficult times, and most don’t want to be here, so we need it to be a comforting feeling,” he says. “Although most of our customers admit it was a better experience (choosing a monument for themselves or a loved one) than they thought it was going to be.” he adds.

That could be because Harley and Midge are both artists, and create some beautiful monuments.

“We do a lot of the work ourselves,” Harley says. He is skilled at carving the granite blocks, creating a rough edged top of the marker, called a mountain top.

“Not many of the young people in the business know how to actually cut the stone like this,” Midge says. “He can do an outline on the top for an angel or flower.”

That is where Midge comes in. She has been an artist all of her life, and for the last eight years, has done a lot of the art etching on the stones at Blue Earth Monument.

“It takes a diamond tipped tool to cut the stone,” she says. “I can do any landscape scene, or item which the family wants on the monument.”

She has done many angels, wedding rings, barns, motorcycles and more. But she draws the line when it comes to portraits.

“We have a portrait artist who comes from Waseca, and he etches the actual pictures into the stone,” she says.

Harley says they have other employees besides the four owners. Dennis “Denny” Clay has been working there for 33 years.

“We have 12 salespeople around the area, and we hire seasonal workers, who help haul the stones and place the monuments,” Harley says. “I suppose we have seven employees during the year, plus contractual people.”

Blue Earth Monument sells up to 450 monuments a year, so they are kept busy preparing the artwork, doing the lettering, and placing the stones.

“We get the granite from many countries, besides the U.S.,” Harley says. “We get stone from China, India, Sweden, and others. The imported stone can take up to four months to get here. That is why we keep a lot of inventory on hand.”

The company covers a 100 mile radius around Blue Earth, but will sell monuments even further away.

“We have a lot of customers in Iowa,” Harley says. “Some local people are surprised to learn how large of an area we service – it is not just this area.”

They may also be surprised to learn how much of the work is done in the back room of the building.

“I guess some people think we order it in as a finished product,” Harley says. “They are surprised to learn we do all the etching, carving and lettering right here.”

The Schmitgens plan on having demonstrations of their work during the open house on Jan. 16 and 17.

“I am sometimes surprised when we get asked if we can change the artwork or the lettering on the monument,” Midge says. “I guess they don’t realize what ‘carved in stone’ actually means.”