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Gems of the Iron Range: Mary Ellen Jasper

The Mary Ellen Jasper may be considered a mining "waste rock," but it sure is pretty.

BIWABIK, Minn. — The Iron Range is celebrated for being the back bone of mining and it even has been called the Mecca of mining. But what if we told you, there was something else in there that was just as lucrative?

A mine in the heart of the Iron Range may retire, but it never stops being valuable.

"It does not have iron units, there is a slight presence in this material but this would never be used for processing steel," Mark Sutich said, referring to Virginia Slate.

But that doesn't matter to Mark Sutich because Virginia slate to him is as good as silver.

"This is our best seller; everybody loves this stuff," he said. "Most of this goes for landscaping and structural, we'll make thin veneer out of it for interior structure or full-bed wall stone."

That best-selling rock at Sutiche's company though, is actually just the funding for a bigger prize. The money, used to mine for what's as good as gold, the Mary Ellen Jasper.

The lead rock collector for the Mary Ellen Jasper stone company is Kelly Jo Gentilini. She knows a stromatolite when she sees one.

"The Mary Ellen Jasper contains 1.88-billion-year-old stromatolite fossils," Gentilini explained. "It's fossilized algae, so the stromatolite is what makes the Mary Ellen unique because not all jasper has that."

At the Mary Ellen mine that Sutich owns, Gentilini picks out her favorite red-hued rocks to bring back and tumble.

Standing on a pile as old as time.

"So a lot of people are really shocked that we have something like that on the Iron Range that has that much history," she said. "Most of the fossils in the area go back millions of years whereas stromatolites are in the billions, almost two billion. And they're also credited with the oxygen we breathe today, so without these little guys we might not be here."

Turns out, a mine, was a gift that never stopped giving.

"Every time I cut into one, it's like holy--look at this," Sutich said. "It's kind of a passion. I've been working on this for 11 years and as I'm not getting any younger. I keep thinking I should back off, and then we pull the rough back off that saw and I go, oh my gosh, we need to go get another one, so yeah, I still find it exciting."

A rock before it is polished, may just be a rock. But in the right hands, the Mary Ellen Jasper has brought something more valuable than a diamond in the rough to the Iron Range and those in it.

"Working here opened my eyes I guess to the beauty and all the possibilities that our little towns in this area that nobody knows of," Gentilini said. "Just all of this treasures that are just kind of waiting beneath our feet."

The Mary Ellen Jasper is also currently in the running for the Science Museum of Minnesota's quest to help name an official Minnesota State Fossil. You can cast your vote for the stromatolite or any other candidate on the Science Museum's website.

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