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)