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Debunking the Kensington Stone

Text below is taken from:

Fitzhugh, William W. and Elisabeth I. Ward, eds. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. 2000. (Available at

Whenever possible, I have expanded in-text references to Google Book links or other online resources to better allow readers to follow up on these sources. If I have not linked a reference in the text, it means I could not find an online version of the text: however, it will still be listed in the bibliography, with, whenever possible, purchase information. When I have inserted my own text, it will be included in [Square Brackets and Green Text].

Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga

p. 23 "Before the 1830s North Americans knew the Vikings only as the Europeans saw them--as raiders and pillagers of Europe. These views changed rapidly after 1837 when Carl Christian Rafn's Antiquitates Americanae (abstracted in English in 1838) published translations of the saga texts that indicated Leif Eriksson and others had explored and settled in northeastern North America. The discovery of literature describing Viking explorations that may have reached southern New England struck American antiquarians like a thunderclap. Rafn's case was greatly strengthened when American scholars like Thomas Webb, Secretary of the Rhode Island Historical Society, began providing him with information about mysterious rock engravings, a pagan burial containing "plate armor," and a conspicuous old stone tower in Newport, Rhode Island, that had baffled antiquarians for years. All became grist for a new Viking craze in North America (Rafn 1844). The early American romance with Vikings was sealed when Henry Wadsworth Longfelllow published his epic poem The Skeleton in Armor in Knickerbocker Magazine (1841)."

"One of the most vigorous promoters, Ebenezer N. Horsford of Boston, lectured and published scores of books on his theories of Viking contacts in New England throughout the 1890s. Although his and many other claims of Viking finds have been dismissed by scholars (Haven 1856; Babcock 1913; Wallace 1982), the allure of a "Viking America" lives on and continues to motivate a small circle of advocates whose steadfastness in promoting evidence of Viking and earlier European Neolithic or Bronze Age finds in America have been termed "fantastic archaeology" (Williams 1991). Most of these finds are the result of innocent mistakes, but a considerable number are pranks or hoaxes based on finds of real Scandinavian artifacts that came to America as heirlooms with Scandinavian immigrants. Even institutions like the Smithsonian (in the case of the Kensington Stone) or Yale University (in the case of the Vinland Map) have fallen prey to siren call [sic] of Viking America."

p. 69 "In the province of Dalarna in central Sweden the tradition of writing and carving runes survived without a break into the nineteenth century and may have a role in the history of the famous Kensington Stone found in Minnesota (Wallace and Fitzhugh, this volume)."


The best-known "Viking" artifact in North America is the Kensington Stone. A Swedish immigrant farmer named Olof Ohman found this stone slab near Kensington, Minnesota, in 1898. Its runic inscription, dated on the stone to 1362, tells of party of "8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland to the west ..."

These photographs of the inscription were taken in 1899 by John F. Steward in Evanston, Illinois, for Professor George Curme, a Nordic language expert at Northwestern University. Curme examined the stone soon after it was found and declared it to be modern. He sent these photos to Prof. L. D. A.Wimmer at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen in October 1899. They provide the best evidence for the condition of the stone and its carvings soon after its discovery in November 1898.

p. 367 "For Scandinavian-Americans, Leif Eriksson's voyage to North America is not just a fact of history; it is a point of pride related to their own migration. There is also, I would suggest, a complex, widely-held feeling of unease among Scandinavians about why the voyage did not have a more lasting impact. One expression of this unease has been the plethora of Viking finds--from mooring holes, halberds, and the Newport Tower, to, most famously, the Kensington Stone--during the nationalistic immigrant period (see Wallace and Fithugh, this volume). The Kensington Stone, found in 1898 near the Red River in Minnesota on the farm of a Swedish immigrant, Olof Ohman, is universally considered a hoax by scholars today, but it remains an important icon to Scandinavian-Americans. In Alexandria, Minnesota, the Runestone Museum has been built to house the stone, and nearby an enormous replica, a dozen times larger than the original stone, stands in Runestone Park (Gilman 1993 [See also Sprunger 2000]). Its text purports to describe an "exploratory journey from Vinland" (Nielsen 1999 [Fizthugh & Ward's bibliography does not include Nielsen 1999]) in 1362, which ventured deep into the heartland of North America but was attacked by Indians. To the ninteenth-century immigrants, the idea of subsequent voyages deep into North America made perfect sense; if Vikings could reach the shores of North America, then the descendants of Vikins naturally went even further. The text also explained why the various voyages did not have a lasting impact: aggressive Native Americans stood in their way. This must have seemed a fitting reversal of history for immigrants living on land that once belonged to Native Americans. Although scholars can easily debunk these various finds, many fail to realize that however dubious they are as historic artifacts, such finds have an important and persistent role in Scandinavian-American folk culture. For Scandinavian-Americans, forwarding the Vikings as heroic explorers is closely tied to nationalism and self-perception."

[Olof Ohman]

[Kensingston Stone Replica at Runestone Park]


pp. 380-382

Most so-called Viking finds from the Midwest have been linked to a single putative medieval Norwegian expedition by Paul Knutson who--according to a lost letter of 1354 known from a poor Danish translation of 1600--was instructed by King Magnus of Denmark to command an expedition to Greenland to preserve Christianity there.

Konning Magnus Breff. En Vdskrifft aff Konning Magni befallnings breff Powell knudszøn paa Anarm2 giffuitt att Seigle till Grønland. Magnus med gudsz naade Norgisz Suerigis oc Skone Konning Sender Alle mend som dette breff See eller høre gudsz hellsze oc sind, Wi ville Att i Wide Att i haffuer tagett alle de mend som i *kaaren Ville fare aff Alle huad heller de ere neffnde eller ey neffnde, mine handgange mend eller Andre mendsz Suendt och Aff Andre mendtz der j faa till osz att førre der med Som Powell knudszen som høffuitzmand skall Vere paa *kaaren, fuld befalling Att neffne de mend i *kaaren som hannom tycker best thillfallden Vere, baade thill Mestermend og Suenne, Bede wi Att de Annamme denne Vor befaling *rett god willie for Sagen, att Wi giøre dett i heder thill gud Och for Vor Siells och forelldre skyld Som Vdi grønland haffuer Christendom och Ophold thill denne dag oc Vill end ey lade nederfalle om Vore dage, Wider det i Sandingen, Att huilchen som denne Vor befaling bryder, skall faa Vor sande Wblyhed, oc der paa Suare os fuld breffue brodt. Giordt y Bergen Maendagen effter Simonis och Iudæ dag paa Siette Aar och XXX Wore Rigis herrer her Ormer Østernis wor drottsetter Vdi Norge Jnseylende.
King Magnus' letter of command given to Paul Knutsson at Anarm to sail to Greenland. Magnus, by the Grace of God, King of Norway, Sweden, and Skåne, sends to all men who see or hear this letter good health and happiness in God. We desire to make known to you that you are to take all the men who shall go in the knorr whether thy be named or not named, from my bodyguard or other men's attendants or of other men whom you may induce to go with you, and that Paul Knutsson, who is to be commandant on the knorr, shall have full authority to name the men whom he thinks are best, both as officers and men. We ask that you accept this our command with a right good will for the cause, as we do it for the honor of God and for the sake of our soul and our predecessors, who have introduced Christianity in Greenland and maintained it to this day, and we will not let it perish in our days. Let it be known that whoever breaks this our command shall feel our displeasure and pay us in full for the offense. Executed in Bergen on the Monday after the Feast Day of Simon and Jude in the 36th year of our rule. Herr Orm Eysteinsson, our Lord High Constable, set the seal.

This missionary zeal has been used (Holand 1940) to explain why the expedition continued beyond Greenland to Rhode Island in its search for the missing Norse from the Greenland Western Settlement. After searching here, the expedition traveled into Hudson Bay and up the Nelson River to Lake Winnipeg and then followed the Red River into Minnesota, where an attack by Indians left ten expedition members dead (Holand 1919, 1940, 1956, 1962; Pohl 1961, 1966, 1972 [For a good overview of Pohl's theories, see Wegner 2009. You can paste the text into Google translate if you don't read Danish]). The total distance covered from Greenland would have been 8,760 miles (13,900 kilometers) as the crow flies and much farther by ship. This elaborate theory has been used to link the finding of two runic inscriptions, nineteen axes, seven halberds, four swords, twelve spears, five steel fire-strikers, and thirty-eight "mooring-hole" sites (fig. 29.12). A recent study of the Knutson documents reveals that the expedition was not sent out for missionary purposes, if it indeed ever did take place; identifying such a role is a mistranslation in the Danish copy. Instead the letter simply identifies Knutson and confirms that he has the king's protection (Knirk 1997: 105). Rather than a holy mission to uphold Christianity, the expedition was in all likelihood a royal attempt to collect taxes from the Greenlanders.

From an archaeological point of view it is very unlikely--implausible, say the skeptics--that we would find such a multitude of sites and objects from a single expedition traveling across the landscape. Search for remains of Hernan DeSoto's 1541 march through the southeastern United States, for example, has produced few verifiable archaeological traces. Furthermore, with the exception of the fire-starters, all the metal objects recovered are weapons. If all these weapons were indeed from the fourteenth century and Norse, the chance recovery of so many scattered pieces would suggest the presence of an army. And why should we find only weapons? Even warriors use household objects for cooking and eating, personal items such as combs and knives, clothing articles, and other objects of daily life. Why were such items only found in Minnesota? It is striking that, with the exception of one mooring hole at Lake Winnipeg, not a single object has been found on the long way from Labrador to the Midwest, although many of these areas are as well surveyed archaeologically as interior Minnesota. In addition to the implausibility of the expedition itself, the provenance or authenticity of all the finds has been questioned.


The most famous piece of purported evidence from this 1354 mission is a runestone found on a farm near Kensington, Minnesota. The Kensington Stone provides a fascinating and complex example of a romanticized Viking past. Nordic fascination with Vikings and their explorations in North America began with the emigration from the Nordic countries that took place during the height of a period of romantic nationalism in the late 1850s and 1860s. The 1874 work America Not Discovered by Columbus, by Rasmus B. Anderson, Professor of Scandinavian languages at the University of Wisconsin, became exceedingly popular even outside academic circles. The Wineland Voyages, both in its Norwegian and English editions, were widely discussed in Midwestern Scandinavian newspapers. Interest in things Norse culminated in 1893 with the arrival in Chicago of captain Magnus Andersen's Viking, a replica of the Gokstad ship that had sailed across the Atlantic, proving for the first time that the Viking voyages were technically possible (Blegen 1968: 110-111).


Olaf Ohman reported he had found the stone while "grubbing out" tree stumps on his land. This photograph was taken at the find site twelve years later, in 1910. Shown, from left to right, are EdWin Bjerklund, Olaf Flaaten, and Olaf Ohman.

It was around this time, in 1879, that a Swedish emigrant named Olof Ohman, a stonemason from Forsa, Halsingland, arrived in Minnesota and in 1891 bought a farm just outside Kensington near Alexandria. According to affidavits he signed, in November 1898, while digging out stumps on his land (fig. 29.9), Ohman came across an unusual tabular stone clasped in the roots of a tree. On it he found a runic inscription reading (fig. 29.8):

8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland to the west. We had camp by 2 skerries one day's journey north from this stone. We were [out] to fish. One day after we came home [we] found 10 men red of blood and dead. AVM Save [us] from evil. [We] have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships 14 day's travel from this island [In the year] 1362.

Front: 8 goter ok 22 norrmen pa opdagelsefard fra winland of west wi hade lager wed 2 skjar en dags rise norr fra dena sten wi war ok fiske en dagh aptir wi kom hem fan 10 man rode af blod og ded AVM fraelse af ille

Side: har 10 mans we hawet at se aptir wore skip 14 dagh rise fram dena oh ahr 1362

The stone created a sensation. It was exhibited at a local bank in Alexandria, and newspaper articles publishing translations of the text appeared in local newspapers. A transcription said to have been made by Ohman was sent to Professor Olaf Breda at the Department of Scandinavian Languages at the University of Minnesota. Breda concluded that it was modern, because it contained numbers that were not proper runic numbers. Arrangements were then made to have the actual stone inspected for authentication at the Germanic Department of Northwestern University. The Chicago Daily Inter Ocean noted that "if authentic [the inscription] is destined to revolutionize previous researches of archaeologists" (21 February 1899), and the Chicago Tribune reported that it could be "the oldest record of "American history" (20 February 1899). One of the professors at Northwestern, George Curme, however, told the media that the text was clearly modern. Copies and photographs of the inscription were also sent to the leading runologists and philologists in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. All declared both the text and the runes modern. These results seem to have been accepted without protest by Ohman, and the stone was returned to him.

This might have been the end of the matter had it not been for a young Norwegian-born amateur historian named Hjalmar Holand who became interested in it while traveling through Minnesota giving lectures on Norwegian history. He obtained the stone from Olof Ohman on the condition that he deposit "it on Ohman's behalf in the Minnesota Historical Society". Instead, Holand kept the stone (even carving his own initials in it) and declared it authentic, dismissing Olaf Breda's and George Curme's analyses. Insisting it was a Nordic runestone from 1362, he skillfully linked the inscription to the Paul Knutson expedition and built it into an emotionally satisfying narrative.

[Hjalmar Holand]

Holand's vigorous campaigning led the Minnesota Historical Society to look further into the matter and in late 1909 and early 1910 they sent State Geologist Newton H. Winchell to investigate. Winchell's diary indicates that hostility existed between Holand and Ohman. His written report was heavily influenced by Holand, who was hired by Winchell to translate, because Ohman did not speak English and Winchell did not speak any Scandinavian language. The report indicates that Ohman denied having carved the inscription but established that he knew runic writing and had an interest in history. Winchell concluded that the inscription might be genuine but that the lack of patina on the runes on the otherwise well-patinated stone indicated that the runes were recent. The governors of the Minnesota Historical Society concluded that the inscription was in all probability a fake and that Ohman was probably the perpetrator.

Spurred by the investigation, Holand offered to sell the stone to the Minnesota Historical Society for $5,000, but the society declined because Ohman insisted that he was the rightful owner and was willing to part with it for $100. The society soon lost interest, and Holand kept the stone until he parted with it for $4,000 paid by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, which is still its current owner. Holand went on to write several books and numerous articles and gave many lectures, always insisting that the stone's inscription was authentic. Careful reading reveals numerous flaws in his analyses, as Nordic scholars have always maintained (Brønsted 1951, 1954; Glosecki 1998; Ingelsang 1993 [Fitzhugh & Ward's bibliography does not include Ingelsang 1993]; Jansson 1949; Knirk 1997; Liestøl 1966, 1968; Nielsen 1951, 1987 [See also Armstrong 1937]; Wahlgren 1993a, 1993b). Despite nearly universal scholarly disdain, the Kensington Stone continues to be promoted by a few defenders (Landsverk 1961; Hall 1994; Nielsen 1986, 1987, 1988: 1989; Nilsestuen 1995) whose most successful argument against these Scandinavian conclusions is that specialists on runes and Nordic languages are prejudiced against laymen and refuse to believe Vikings could have traveled to Minnesota. Another favorite argument is that the tree growing over the stone was at least seventy years old. On the contrary, contemporary descriptions noted that the tree was judged to be only five to twelve years old and that the root around it was small (Minneapolis Tidende, 3 October 1911; letter from Cleve Van Dyke, 19 April 1910, Minnesota Historical Society).

[Runes from Bergen vs. Runes from the Kensington Stone]

The Kensington Stone might have remained a matter of local interest and probably would never have gained national recognition had it not been for its display at the Smlthsornan Institution In Washington, D.C., between 1948 and 1953 (fig. 29.10). How the stone came to be put on display involved a convergence of influence applied by the Minnesota congressional delegation and the feeling of some Smithsonian curators that the stone--whether authentic or not--was important enough that it should be seen by the public. The display opened on March 12, 1948, accompanied by a Smithsonian Institution press release: "A stone carved with Norse runes, the authenticity of which now is widely accepted by archeologists... is now on exhibition in the foyer of the National Museum of Natural History.... Even if it cannot be indisputably authenticated, the confirming evidence that the stone constitutes a genuine record is so strong that this relic is regarded by Smithsonian archeologists as one of the most significant historical objects ever found in the New World." A disclaimer was, however, included in the same release: "Smithsonian archaeologists reserve judgment on the authenticity of the Kensington Stone," revealing perhaps the staff's divided opinions. The stone was exhibited from February 17, 1948, through February 25, 1949, when it was returned to its owners in Alexandria, Minnesota, and was replaced by a plaster cast, which remained on exhibition for several more years.


Early specialists dismissed the Kensington Stone as a fraud, but a campaign by its later owner, Hjalmar Holand, brought public support. With a push from the Wisconsin congressional delegation, the Smithsonian put the stone on exhibit from 1948 to 1953, describing it as possibly "one of the most significant historical objects ever found in the New World." Those present at the opening included (left to right) Waldo R. Wedel, Curator of Archaeology at the Smithsonian, Representative Andersen of Minnesota, Sidney Dean Sarff of the Minnesota State Society, and John E. Graf, Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian. Today the Smithsonian sides with the majority of Nordic language scholars who believe the stone is a modern creation.

As a result of the ensuing controversy in which many archaeologists and linguists criticized the Smithsonian for mounting a misleading display, the Institution commissioned a new study of the stone by the Danish ethnologist William Thalbitzer. Thalbitzer was a highly respected elderly scholar, but his specialty was Eskimo ethnology, not archaeology or runes. His study (1951) gave qualified support for the authenticity of the runes, but the Institution, by now somewhat gun-shy, failed to give it unqualified support and, in a news release of September 23, 1951, noted that "the Smithsonian has taken no position with regard to its authenticity, but felt that its presence in Washington would provide runic scholars a further opportunity to study it." Given this rather supportive stance and the fact that many viewers were unable to read runes or evaluate the age of the chisel work, it is not surprising that many people had the impression that the Smithsonian had in effect "authenticated" the stone a second time.

The Smithsonian's ambivalent position stimulated still more controversy in the academic community, which was by this time solidly against authenticity. The continuing controversy soon led to the appearance of a critical review (Brønsted 1954), published by the Smithsonian, and two books (Moltke 1953; Wahlgren 1958) all of which took decisive stands based on detailed studies of the history and circumstances of the find. Eric Wahlgren's (1958) analysis in particular makes a plausible case for the appearance in the late nineteenth century of a runestone in a Scandinavian-settled area of Minnesota, given a probable perpetrator (Ohman) with an interest in history, folk knowledge of runes, and a sense of humor.

Knowledge of runes was not an esoteric academic discipline in the nineteenth century. Runic script was alive and well, especially in remote rural areas of Norway and Sweden (Boëthius 1906; Jansson 1963). Ohman himself came from Orsa in Dalecarlia, a community where runes were still being used in the 1920s (Boëthius 1906). Ohman himself came from Forsa in the neighboring province of Halsingland, where runes were also still understood.

Although many rural people were illiterate in regular reading and writing, knowledge of runes was widespread. Runic forms changed from one generation to another, and it is revealing that some of the runes on the Kensington Stone are of an eighteenth- to nineteenth-century variety used in Dalecarlia, the province of Ohman's mother. Ohman admitted knowing runes and had been seen carving runes on sticks during his early years in Minnesota.

Among the articles found pasted into Ohman's scrapbook, now in the Minnesota Historical Society, is one from the Swedish newspaper Post och Inrikes Tidningar dated December 13, 1867. It describes a runestone of 1612 found in Vadstena, Sweden, clasped by the roots of an ash tree. The article mentions how the stone was shown to be one hundred and fifty years old by a count of the tree's growth rings. According to a neighbor of Ohman's, Jonas P. Gran, the runic inscription was planned long in advance of its finding and may have been inspired by this newspaper story. In tape recordings (also held by the Minnesota Historical Society), Gran said that the inscription had been composed by Ohman and his friend, Sven Fogelblad, a former Lutheran minister, and that Ohman and Gran did the actual chiseling. Ohman and Gran buried the stone under the roots of a small ash and then waited for a good opportunity to retrieve it. Both Gran and Ohman enjoyed pranks and, according to Gran, they enjoyed the commotion that resulted.

Today, the National Museum of Natural History continues to receive public inquiries about the Stone and the Smithsonian's current position. The Department of Anthropology answers these inquiries with a statement written in unambiguous terms saying that scholarly opinion has judged the Kensington Stone to be a nineteenth-century creation.

The Kensington Stone has been an intriguing and successful mystery. More than one hundred years after its finding, the inscription is still the subject of debate, one of whose most interesting arguments is that its "errors" result from purposeful "encryption" (Mongé and Landsverk 1967; Landsverk 1969). While cryptographic runes are known from Scandinavia, they adhere to consistent criteria, which the American examples do not (Wallace 1982). Such sidetracks divert attention from the real significance of the Kensington Stone, which is as a memorial to the creativity of Scandinavian immigrants and the living tradition of runic knowledge they brought with them to the New World. It is a remarkable example of early Nordic-American folk culture, but it is not a milestone in American archaeology.

In its aftermath the Kensington Stone prompted a rash of Scandinavian finds in Minnesota and nearby regions of the Upper Midwest. The "fortifications" on Mandan Indian sites on the Missouri River were thought to have been modeled after military structures typical of medieval Europe. It was even suggested that relict Vikings from past expeditions had joined native tribes to survive. A steady stream of purported Norse runestones, mooring holes (fig. 29.12), ring-bolts, and artifacts, including swords (fig. 29.11), halberds, spears, fire-strikers, and other materials began to surface as the indefatigable Hjalmar Holand continued to criss-cross the territory speaking about the ancient Norse who had once passed tbrough this region and inspecting and publishing finds people brought in for identification. The list is too long for detailed documentation here (see Wilford Anderson 1996, Pohl 1961; Wallace 1971 [Fizthugh & Ward's bibliography does not include Wallace 1971], 1982).


The Ulen sword is supposed to have been found in 1911 three miles west of Ulen, Minnesota. Although advanced as a Viking find by Hjalmar Holand, it bears no resemblance to Viking or medieval European swords, which are much larger and often have two-handed hilts. The prototype for this sword was designed by Louis David for the École de Mars in Paris in 1794, and its maker's mark indicates manufacture in Philadelphia in the early 1800s.


Many will be disappointed to hear that the Knutson expedition was driven not by missionary zeal or that the Kensington Stone is the product of living history and that the many axes, halberds, and other weapons found in and around Minnesota are mementos of fur traders and settlers who have been present in this area from the seventeenth century onward. On the other hand, many will refuse to believe this and will continue to cherish the thought that the Newport Tower was erected by the Vinland Norse; that the Beardmore relics from Ontario are an authentic Viking burial cache (Curran 1939, Currelly 1940) rather than an admitted hoax (Carpenter 1957, 1961); that the rock carvings from Heavener, Oklahoma, were made by wandering Vikings (Farley 1973) rather than being modern carvings made by a local Scandinavian enthusiast (Wykcoff 1973); that Viking explorers taught American Indians to smelt and work iron (Mallery 1951); or that the Ungava Bay "longhouses" of arctic; Quebec were built by Celts (Mowat 1998) or by Norse (Lee 1968, 1914) rather than by Dorset people several hundred years before Vikings reached North America (Dekin 1972; Plumet 1985; Odess et al., this volume). The idea of the presence of Vikings and other pre-Columbian Norsemen in many quarters of the New World continues to fascinate, as it has for almost two hundred years. Now that education and knowledge have advanced to the point that claims for antiquities can be investigated more conclusively, we may hope that reason will begin to take precedence over speculatiori and unsubstantiated claims. Even without embellishments, the established facts of Viking finds in the New World as recounted in this volume are exciting, even if they do not document pre-Colmbian Viking visits to New England, Minnesota, or Oklahoma.

On the other hand, history demonstrates that humans have a unique capacity for recreating and reshaping their past to suit social, political, or emotional needs. History suggests that new Norse "discoveries" will continue to be made by the ardent or the duplicitous. Despite the confusion such unwelcome "evidence" creates for professional linguists and archaeologists, credit must be given to the many committed amateur historians and archaeologists like Helge Ingstad, the discoverer of the L'Anse aux Meadows site, who have made important contributions to the history of Nordic peoples in the New World and probably will continue to do so in the future.


Small holes drilled into bedrock have often been advanced as evidence of mooring Viking ships and have been found in large numbers in New England and Minnesota. Vikings used mooring posts and a similar technique employing mooring rings anchored in rock, as illustrated in Olaus Magnus's Description of Northern Peoples (1555). Most "mooring holes" are associated with rock quarrying and home foundation building and are far from coasts and Minnesota waterways.


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