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One cool small town: Mazomanie, Wisconsin

It's a step back in time when walking through downtown's Brodhead Street — with its brick and stone storefronts, pillars and railings still intact from the mid-1800s.
Image: Two women walk past the Mazomanie library in Mazomanie, Wisconsin
The Mazomanie library in Mazomanie, Wis., used to be the town's train depot. The village has been rejuvenated after decades of empty and deteriorating storefronts — and tourists and the travel industry are noticing.Carrie Antlfinger / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's a step back in time when walking through downtown's Brodhead Street — with its brick and stone storefronts, pillars and railings still intact from the mid-1800s.

Nearby are the railroad tracks that spurred the founding of this village in 1855, and the flour mill and railroad depot built two years later.

But inside many doors of the two-block strip are attractions that make Mazomanie a happening place for the 21st century: art galleries, the Wall Street Gallery & Bistro, a bike shop and a resale shop. The mill is now a restaurant and the depot a library, although freight trains still pass through.

The village — with 33 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and a population of just 1,500 — has been rejuvenated after decades of empty and deteriorating storefronts. Tourists are starting to notice, and so is the travel industry. The September issue of Budget Travel named Mazomanie one of the "10 Coolest Small Towns," noting that the village is saturated with artists.

Mazomanie's comeback is partly due to historical society members who saw the potential of their hamlet nestled amid rolling hills, the Wisconsin River, Black Earth Creek (a Class A trout stream) and farm fields.

Its location is a tourism promoter's dream: on the road between the popular Taliesin — the home of Frank Lloyd Wright — and the state capital of Madison. It's also within an hour's drive of waterpark-filled Wisconsin Dells.

"It's really been an awakening in the last year or so," said David Friske. He and his wife Karisa own the Walking Iron Bed and Breakfast, a brick Victorian Italianate house built in 1865 just outside of downtown.

The area is also known for its one-time controversial nude beach on the Wisconsin River in the nearby Town of Mazomanie. It attracts naturists from other states and is the only public nude beach in Wisconsin, though not officially designated as such.

Business booms at the B&B from May through October with visitors from Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison, Friske said.

That can be attributed partly to Bob Brumley, a sculptor and Chamber of Commerce president who started Iron Horse Gallery Cooperative in July 2006. The original group of five artists has grown to 17, creating paintings, fused glasswork, photographs, jewelry and scarves, among other things.

Across the street is the Mazomanie Movement Arts Center. Its owner runs a circus arts camp for children, classes in low-flying trapeze, yoga and improvisational movement. Business at Brumley's gallery has more than doubled since last year, he said.

"Even with an economy that everybody says is not very good and the price of gas and even this 100 inches of snow that we had this last winter, we saw a tremendous increase in business," he said.

Visitors may have a hard time pronouncing Mazomanie — may-zoh-MAY-nee — but that makes no difference to Village President Scott Stokes.

"We're not too picky: Mazo, Mazo-maniacs, MAY-zah-may-nee," Stokes said with a laugh. "They will all do just fine."

The name was given by a Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad engineer. It comes from a Minnesota Wahpeton Sioux Indian chief whose name translates to "Walking Iron" or "Iron Horse," said historical society president Robert Dodsworth.

By 1855, the railroad designed the village and later built the mill partly to create a service center for its operations. Over the next two decades, money poured into the village and most of its buildings were erected.

In 1882, the Ringling Brothers Classic and Comic Concert Company from nearby Baraboo had its first public performance there. It later became the Ringling Brothers Circus. It was the same decade the rapid growth slowed, resulting in residents largely leaving many of the buildings alone for a century.

But in the early 1990s, the historical society raised funds to redevelop the depot into a library and obtained the historic distinction for the other buildings, Dodsworth said.

Dodsworth also credits Dan Viste, a hydrogeologist by training, and his wife Nancy. They started buying property in 1992 and have since bought and restored 11 more historic buildings. They sold some and now own eight.

They started with The Old Feed Mill — cleaning it up and turning it into the biggest restaurant in the village. Its pot roast recipe has been requested by Bon Appetit magazine, according to Nancy Viste.

History buff Dan Viste said nearly everyone doubted his vision.

"It's hard to get people to understand it because it takes a leap of faith and it takes a mobility to position yourself in the future, but if you have a depth in the past ... you are in a better position to say, 'If, we do this, this and this — that should happen, the thing that you would like to have happen.'"

He and others are also working to get a biking and hiking trail from Devil's Lake State Park, about 27 miles north, to Prairie du Sac, through Mazomanie east to Cross Plains. There is also an effort to get a scrap metal park moved nearby. The park, now in North Freedom, features the massive body of work of Tom Every, a prominent outsider artist.

Cheap housing and rent attract artists, Brumley said. Houses in the area are, on average, cheaper than elsewhere in Dane County, according to South Central Multiple Listing Service's Web site. The average price for a three-bedroom house in 2007 in the county was $236,000, compared to $160,000 to $200,000 for Mazomanie, said Bernie Harrop, who started Harrop Realty Inc. in 1979.

Kim Kinsley, 52, palliative medicine physician and hospice nurse Kim Condon, 40, live in Denver, but loved the area so much — with its farmland to ride horses — they may move there.

They had attended a conference in Chicago but made a stop at the Iron House Bed and Breakfast recently.

Condon, who went to college in Madison, said she's seen Mazomanie go from being a ghost town — with beautiful houses but no shops — to a booming tourist area.

"This is perfect for me because it's a half an hour from Madison yet doesn't feel like it at all," Condon said.