Repurposing the Past: How Historic Buildings Look to Spark Growth in Mellen, Merrill
The words “Mellen State Bank” are etched into the sandstone façade over which Jeff Peters ran his right hand on Tuesday.
“It feels like history,” he said. “It almost feels like the history of connecting this area.”
Those carved words and the one-story façade look just like they did when the Mellen State Bank opened in 1902.
The sandstone was quarried on Basswood Island in the Apostle Islands, the same sandstone used to build fashionable brownstone homes in East Coast cities.
But the building behind the beautiful rock has been vacant since 1959, a symbol of a town that’s changed over the decades.
On the same block as the bank building in Mellen, Peters pointed out where there used to be an Army/Navy store, a grocery store, and a drug store with a soda fountain, scenes from a childhood where his roots run deep.
“My great-grandparents went to school in Mellen. My parents went to school in Mellen, lived and worked in Mellen. My daughter went to school in Mellen. My wife and I went to school in Mellen,” he said.
It was near this very spot where, a few years ago, Peters was taking pictures of the bank building when he ran into a California couple he’d never met before.
“Just walking by. Just visiting Mellen from California,” Peters said.
At the time, Peters couldn’t know where his ensuing conversation with the Californian, Jake Sertich, would eventually lead. But it blossomed into the saving of the old bank, a visionary plan for its new place in an improving Mellen, and a spot among others in the Northwoods using historic structures to draw visitors and improve economies.
“Mellen always reminded me of the all-American town, that town you would see on It’s a Wonderful Life,” said Sertich, speaking from central California, where he still lives.
Sertich’s father grew up in Mellen, and Sertich would visit family in the town during many summers. His memories remain fond.
But the town’s bank building? It was now on the brink of being condemned and razed.
Soon, Sertich and Peters started talking about saving the “awesome building.”
In January, Sertich bought it.
“I laugh a bit because I know a lot of people in Mellen are probably thinking, ‘what a crazy California guy. He paid way too much for that,’” Sertich said.
The final sale was for $14,000.
“In California, you usually can’t buy a used car for $14,000.”
It seemed like a good investment to him, a way to show goodwill to a place that brings him so much nostalgia.
“You start looking back and saying, ‘how can I give back to the community?’ This just happened to pop in, so we thought this is really cool. Let’s get involved with this,” he said.
Jeff Peters will play a large part in the future of the building.
He’s envisioning a fix-up job, followed by the creation of a small interpretive and visitor center. It will will introduce people to the region, including nearby Copper Falls State Park, the Apostle Islands, and even the Upper Peninsula.
It’s about more than saving a historic building for Peters.
It’s about a gradual resurgence of Mellen’s economy, drawing off the town’s location at the crossing of three state highways.
“There’s a lot of traffic that goes through this town. We’d like to slow it down, give them a reason to stop, and maybe spend some money in town,” he said.
In using a historic building as a visitor draw, Mellen might look to Sawmill Brewing in Merrill for something of a blueprint.
“We have a beer for everyone,” owner/operator Zach Kubichek likes to say. “We have 16 taps. They’re all our beers.”
But at Sawmill, the building itself draws in as many people as the beer.
“This is an old DNR Ranger Station,” Kubichek said. “What our taproom is right now is what the garage was.”
Built in 1940, sixteen-inch-thick stone walls protect the brewery, which features tables made of of white pine salvaged from the 2011 Merrill tornado and historic logging equipment adorning the walls.
“We figure, once we get people in here, it’s such a cool space, that they’re going to talk about it,” Kubichek
said. “Whether they just want to check out the building and not even talk about the beer, regardless,
it’s going to get the word out there and get our name out there.”
Sawmill Brewing’s popularity has grown consistently from its opening in 2016, and Kubichek says that’s good for the Merrill community and economy.
“We wanted to be a community gathering place. Initially, we wanted to take care of the Merrill community. That’s kind of always been our goal, to take care of us first,” he said.
One hundred miles north in Mellen, Jeff Peters is not a brewer.
But he shares a passion for turning history into development.
Just maybe, with the right touch, the old bank can be the start of pulling off progress in this community.
“Don’t just drive through Mellen. There’s a story here. There’s a lot of stories from Mellen,” Peters said. “It’s just a little gem. With a little work, it can shine again.”