A heart of gold lives in a house of stone in rural Wells
Turning down a gravel road I had never been down before, there was a fence made of wood with rock fence posts. I knew this was the destination I was looking for.
As I pulled up, the rock formations across the two-to-five-ish acre farmstead became more plentiful as my little car pulled up to a small stone house, with matching garage. An older gentleman was on the porch of the stone house, swinging in a swing waving and smiling. And that smile made me feel like home, as if I had been gone for many years and was finally returning.
But the truth of the matter was, I’d never been here, and it was Father Eugene Stenzel’s home that I was visiting. I had never met this man, but had heard a great many things about him and his stone house project.
A project 68 years in the making.
Grabbing my camera and usual journalism bounty of pens and notebooks, I opened my car door to be greeted by Tucker, the labradoodle, Fr. Stenzel’s neighbor’s dog. His neighbor also just happened to be his nephew. And that farm? It is the family farm.
The story of the farm, itself, starts back in 1884, when Paul and Julia Stenzel traversed as immigrants, from Poland, to the small patch of land just north and a little east of Wells. In 1887, the Stenzels were able to purchase that land, and begin building their home, which included welcoming eight of their own children into the world.
From there, one of Paul’s sons, named Simon, took over the farm and he and his wife, Loretta?(Kalis) raised five of their own children, one of which was Eugene, on the farm. Fr. Stenzel says though his father Simon and mother Loretta were caring for the farm, the Stenzel family was not too far apart from each other.
As I met Fr. Stenzel, we spoke of origin stories. I was originally from Blue Earth, my last name being Mullaly, and there were only five of us in the area. How did we get there? What was my origin story?
The longer we talked, the more connections we made. Not only through knowing the layout of familiar south-central Minnesota land, but familiar Catholic families and faces.
As we talked, Fr. Stenzel led the tour across his home which included the house, with a sunroom attachment, a garage, a garden with a rock tree, a full multi-arched walkway, and a pergola.
“What is a pergola,” I asked hesitantly.
“A pergola is a shelter with vines,” said Fr. Stenzel, pointing to a gorgeous four-cornered rock formation beautifully overgrown with vines. Attached were two swings, and upon closer inspection, held a small fireplace inside.
The rock and stone creations have all been hand-made by Fr. Stenzel since he was a young boy. Just 10 years of age, in 1950, he began building a small mountain of rocks.
“As a kid, I would rearrange the pile to look like a mountain, and at some point, I?think my brother was having his fun by pushing them over, so I finally decided to cement them together and that’s where it all began,” smiles Fr. Stenzel in the gargantuan garden of flora, fauna, and stone.
One project became another, and another, and another. From archways to trees, to topiaries, to fountains, to bell towers, young Eugene filled countless hours by building his rock formations.
As we slowly walked through all of his work in his yard, he showed me his great-grandparent’s summer kitchen where it still stood, and the grainery, which was turned into a cute little winter cabin. All still there, beautifully preserved. On the property, as well, is a little school house that Fr. Stenzel and his father, and his grandfather all attended.
“My dad repainted the schoolhouse exactly like he remembered it,” said Fr. Stenzel. “And that’s the way it will stay.”
So, now, this rock garden is no longer just a rock garden. It’s an entire preservation of a family, their culture, and their life together on this land. The heritage was as thick as the cottonwood seeds that fell from above us.
Now, the stone house and the surrounding grounds are toured by many folks, and Fr. Stenzel is still building his work as he goes along. He says he will be working until he is no longer able. I am thrilled to see what he will accomplish in the years to come.
It was then that Fr. Stenzel invited me into his home, which he built by himself beginning in 1984. On the outside, the stone house looks small, almost like a hobbit hole of sorts, but inside? It took on a whole different look.
Beautiful open cedar rafters adorned the roof and adjacent loft, while the living room was host to a tall stone fireplace. This fireplace is what Fr. Stenzel built his house around.
“There were no plans that I drew up, I just eyeballed it from the road,” says Fr. Stenzel. “I had my tools, my wheelbarrow, and my spade and just went to work.”
And it was so much work. He dug his own basement, laid his own concrete, built up his own walls with stone and cement…it all made me wonder. How, no…why would someone put so much work into a house when someone could do it for them?
“What is the fun in that?” was Fr. Stenzel’s response pock-marked with laughter. “The neighbors would always ask my father what I was doing, and he would tell them he didn’t know either. And there came a time when my dad was getting older that he wondered if he would ever see it finished. I gave myself 20 years to finish the entire house. I did it in 10.”
He told me he would separate the clay dirt from the soil so he could use the soil in his gardens and the clay for other uses. He told me he went from neighbor to neighbor taking truckloads of rocks off of their hands. Free building material. And he told me of so many stories of his family, his (which is where his house is now).
He told me of how the family 70 plus members strong would come for each holiday. And as the spacious living room just housed him and me along with our conversation that day, I?felt the joy in my heart of the true communion that took place there.
Not the wafer that you take during mass, but the fellowship, the strong, spiritual exchange between people that kind of communion. It’s prevalent at the Stone House.
What was meant to be a 20-minute interview, became an almost two-hour talk with a new friend. We discussed our families, where we grew up, how we grew up, Catholicism, current events, and such. We would go on tangents that took us into incredible conversations.
While Fr. Stenzel answered a phone call, I took the opportunity to gaze at the dozens of paintings on the walls of his home, and was in awe of such an incredible afternoon. Here was a man I had never met and before leaving, felt like a friend I had known for years.
As I packed up, I reached out my hand in professional courtesy to say thank you and shake hands, only to be pulled into a huge hug and an even greater thanks in return.
The Stone House is an incredible adventure and a site that must be seen by your own eyes to believe that one man spent his entire life dedicated not only to this project, but his family, his community and his faith.