Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mazeppa, not just another small Minnesota town, Part II March 29, 2018

A scene in downtown Mazeppa, photographed in October 2016.

 

SMALL TOWNS CONTINUE to hold my interest.

 

The former creamery in Mazeppa houses the city maintenance garage and also serves as a backdrop for historical art.

 

 

Therein I often find unexpected delights, but also decline. Most of these communities are not the places they once were with thriving businesses lining Main Street. You know the story.

 

Out for a walk in downtown Mazeppa, October 2016.

 

Still, these towns are home to life-long residents or kids who stuck around or newbies—folks looking for a quiet and affordable place to live within driving distance of jobs outside city boundaries.

 

 

People make a town. And if they’re lucky, locals still have places to gather for fish fries and beer and BINGO and a meal out. Gathering spots—restaurants, bars, schools, churches and more—provide that sense of community essential to small towns.

 

 

 

WD’s, destroyed by fire, was a community gathering spot.

 

I saw those communal places when I visited Mazeppa in October 2016 (although one—WD’s Bar & Grill recently burned to the ground).

 

 

 

 

Patriotism often runs strong in small towns. The presence of the well-kept American Legion Post 588 in the heart of downtown Mazeppa confirms that.

 

 

 

 

Mazeppa is a visual delight for a photographer. Signs crafted by local sign painter Mike Meyer give this southeastern Minnesota riverside community a signature artsy look. This is a town I remember.

 

A unique business in Mazeppa. The shop was closed when I was in town. Andy Denny builds banjos here.

 

That’s the thing, too, about small towns. They need an identity to draw visitors. A unique business or three. A historical site. A theater or other arts venue. A natural attraction.

 

The Maple Street Bridge crosses the north branch of the Zumbro River a block off Mazeppa’s Main Street.

 

How often have you sidetracked off a main highway or interstate, or even a county road, to drive through a small town, maybe even stop? Not that often, I expect. But you’re missing something by not doing so. You’re missing out on people and places and experiences that are grassroots America. Interesting. Yes, even that quintessential word “charming.” Perhaps vibrant or thriving. Maybe not. But still at their root essence, authentic.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

Propped by Mike Meyer’s sign shop.

 

 

 

 

When I was in town in October 2016, work was being done on the original 1909 bank building, now housing the Mazeppa Area Historical Society. The exterior covering of the beautiful brick building traces back to the 1970s when the former People’s State Bank was “updated.”

 

In 1912, an addition was made to the bank building to house the local newspaper.

 

Signage on the side of the historical society building.

 

TELL ME about a favorite small town and why you appreciate the community.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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The sign painter of Mazeppa, Part I March 28, 2018

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I love that Mazeppa restored this historic bridge spanning the Zumbro River and converted it into a pedestrian walkway. Noted W.S. Hewett Company designed the Walnut Street Bridge in 1904.

 

WHEN I VISITED MAZEPPA awhile back, I fell in love with this town of some 800 just north of Rochester and along the north branch of the Zumbro River.

 

Some of my favorite signage hangs on the City of Mazeppa maintenance garage housed in a former creamery.

 

This signage honors the butter crafted by the former Mazeppa Farmers’ Cooperative Dairy Association.

 

Another favorite of mine: this sign on Mike Meyer’s shop.

 

Or to be more specific, I fell for the hand-painted signs that grace buildings in this community. Most are the work of local sign painter, Mike Meyer.

 

 

 

Meyer’s corner sign shop was closed on the day I visited. So I knew nothing then of his notoriety. But he is world-renowned for his sign painting skills. This I learned while researching him online and watching the short film, “Man with a Brush.” He leads hand lettering workshops across the country and around the world from Amsterdam to Berlin to Dublin to Barcelona to Sweden and beyond.

 

 

 

 

Alright then. I’m impressed. But I’m even more impressed by the humbleness of this artist who grew up in Mazeppa and claims there’s no place he’d rather live than in his southeastern Minnesota hometown. His father barbered and painted signs in between cutting hair and Meyer learned from him. He left for three years to serve in the Army, but came right back home to follow his passion of painting signs. He went to sign school, too, and worked for a sign painter before being laid off.

 

Meyer’s shop anchors a corner of downtown Mazeppa.

 

That prompted him to take the bold step of opening his own sign shop. One quote in the “Man with a Brush” strikes me in particular: “Nobody really said, ‘Don’t run over the hill like the rest of the rats. Go the other way,’” Meyer says. He chose to make his future in his hometown doing what he loves. Away from the rat race. How many people can say they are doing what they love in a place they love as they go to work every day? Probably not many.

 

 

 

 

Now Meyer could have just stayed in Mazeppa, tucked away quietly painting signs for businesses and such. But he didn’t. He holds an innate desire to pass along his knowledge, his skills, his passion, to others. That theme of mentorship threads throughout the film on Meyer’s life as a sign painter. He teaches others the artistry of the trade.  Watch the film (click here) and you see the undeniable joy this long-time painter experiences in sharing his expertise while working side-by-side with novices and beyond. He’ll lead workshops locally during Mazeppa Daze in July.

 

 

Individuals like Meyer make our small towns unique places that exist outside the rat race. He proves that success and happiness come from within ourselves in following our passions. No matter where we live.

 

Please check back for another post from Mazeppa.

© Photos copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Sources: Mike Meyer’s Facebook page, Better Letters Co. and “Man with a Brush” (directed and produced by UK-based Dimension 2)

 

From Mazeppa: When fire destroys a community gathering place March 12, 2018

 

PERUSE THE FACEBOOK PAGE for WD’s Bar & Grill in Mazeppa and you get a strong sense of what this business means to the folks of this small southeastern Minnesota community north of Rochester.

 

 

Here locals gather to celebrate special occasions like Valentine’s Day with prime rib and jumbo shrimp dinners. Or birthdays with burgers and a beer. And during this season of Lent, a Friday Night Fish Fry draws crowds. This seems the place to be—to meet your family, your friends, your neighbors, to commune over good food and conversation.

 

 

But no more. Early Sunday morning this 1900 brick corner building in the heart of this town burned. I can only imagine how locals are reeling from the loss of a community gathering spot. When a town of around 800 loses a business, it loses part of its identity. I should note, though, that Mazeppa still has other bars/restaurants/gathering places.

 

 

I visited Mazeppa in October 2016 and found it an especially interesting community to photograph given the historic buildings and also the incredible building signage created by resident sign painter Mike Meyer. If only I’d stepped inside WD’s Bar & Grill during that brief visit. There’s a lesson to be learned in that. Although I documented this town with my camera, I didn’t really experience it. I didn’t walk into that long-time bar and grill and observe the locals, feel the heartbeat of this community. I regret that now.

Even if WD’s chooses to rebuild, something will have been lost. Not in the people. But in the setting of history, of a rooted sense of place.

 

The Crow Bar & Grill, Courtland, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

 

FYI: Click here to read a post from November 2015 about another small town bar and grill destroyed by fire. Last time I passed by nearly two weeks ago, a new building stood on the site in Courtland, presumably the rebuilt The Crow Bar & Grill.

Please check back soon for more photos from my October 2016 stop in Mazeppa, including the signage of Mike Meyer. It’s time I post those forgotten filed images.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling