Although he never lived in the community, John Stilin of Redmond, Wash., was among the first to make a donation to help save the crumbling Mellen Bank Building.
Stilin's father, the son of Croatian immigrants who moved to Mellen in the early 1900s, was born in the then-booming Ashland County community.
As a boy, John Stilin made many trips to visit his father's relatives who still lived in the area — and his grandparents had eight children, so the name still looms large in the Mellen area.
"Going to Mellen as a young kid was as good as going to Disneyland, as far as I was concerned," he said. "My grandparents had a house right on the Bad River. We could play out on the river, there were places to hike to. There were a lots of good adventures for kids around Mellen."
"Some of my best childhood memories are in that town," he said.
So it is no wonder that Stilin was among the first to donate $500 to help restore the Lake Superior brownstone-faced Mellen State Bank building.
With the structure saved from demolition by Exeter, Cal., benefactor Jacob Sertich's timely purchase, the work of restoring the building and turning it into a community interpretive center has begun in earnest. That's where donations are greatly needed, one of the restoration effort's organizers, Jeff Peters, said.
"It's going to take a ton of money, especially in today's economy. A sheet of treated plywood costs $60, so we have to fund this like crazy." he said
Peters said an architectural consultant with C&S Design in Ashland told the group it could cost $225,000 to fully rehab the building, which has been standing empty and abandoned since the last business that operated there, a hairdressing salon, closed in 1959. When the effort began, a portion of the building's roof had collapsed, trees and weeds were growing in what once was the teller area and lobby, and the city was on the verge of ordering the structure torn down.
More recently, a crew of volunteers went through the building, ripping out plywood room dividers and removing old furniture and other debris so that repair and rebuilding work could take place.
"Now we can do the structural work that needs to be done," Peters said.
That structural work won't be easy. Peters said that one volunteer put his foot through a rotted piece of flooring. Fortunately, there is no basement under the bank and the victim's foot only went about six inches before hitting solid ground. But that accident speaks to the overall condition of the bank.
Still, Peters found reason for optimism.
"The roof under the original building is still in pretty fair shape, considering that it went on in 1902," he said.
Still, the project will require a lot of work, including lead paint removal and abatement, a job requiring specialists in hazardous material suits and breathing masks. Some work has already been done, such as removing loose and hazardous chimney bricks, carefully saving them for reuse. The roof on the rear addition has been temporarily repaired and the back entrance closed off to prevent invasions from animals.
Peters said a nonprofit organization called the Mellen Brownstone Center is being formed to allow donors to take a tax deduction for their contributions. One of the first fundraisers will sell paver bricks embossed with the name of donors, to be used in a patio planned for the interpretive center, on pathways and in the interior. The bricks are tentatively priced at $125 each, Peters said, with double-sized bricks at a higher price.
Peters said the organization would have to sell a lot of bricks to raise nearly a quarter of a million dollars, but he said the group would have other fundraisers, pursue grants and get more volunteers to help rehabilitate the historic bank building.
"We'll create an interpretation center for visitors and the Mellen Community alike," he said. "The center will display cultural, historical and natural beauty of Mellen, Copper Falls State Park and the surrounding area, including Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands. Peters said the center would not conflict with the existing Mellen Historical Museum.
"We are not going to replace the museum. We don't have enough room. Most of our stuff will be audio-visual, computer generated, old photos, and good things like that," he said.
The effort to repurpose the old bank building is being met with enthusiasm in Mellen. Nate Delegan, a member of the City Council that reluctantly agreed to demolish the structure not long before it was reprieved, said he and his fellow counselors were delighted when people organized to save the building.
"We were happy to see that people would step forward and commit the resources to salvage the building," he said. "We are interested in seeing what they can develop with the building. There were definitely a lot of people who wanted to save the building, and we want to work with people like that — those older buildings are iconic landmarks."
Peters said after years of working to save the building, it is gratifying to see actual work being done — though there remains a long road ahead.
"It's definitely a journey. There is no doubt about that," Peters said. "But like any journey, once you have started you can see things more clearly and you just go step by step."
Linford and Rhoda Miller brought their family of four boys and one girl to Ashland County in 2020 at the request of their Mennonite Church, moving from the Abbotsford area to start an outreach mission church.
"We were one of nine families asked to move here," Linford said.
They arrived in Ashland County on May 12 and by May 15, they started a small open-air market, selling hanging flower baskets and planters. As the season progressed they added fresh fruits and vegetables to their offerings, while Linford worked to remodel a two-car garage into a country store.
Almost a year later, the family has added a sixth child, a daughter, to their household, while the onetime garage has been transformed into the White River Country Market.
Located at 60238 Highway 118 near the Ashland-Bayfield county border, the family enterprise has expanded to include bulk baking ingredients, spices, candy, deli meats and fresh cheeses, discount snacks and cereals and fresh baked goods.
Farm-fresh eggs from the Miller's own flock of chickens and those of other farmers are also featured, and fruits and veggies will return in season.
Those farm-fresh eggs have been a particular success for the market.
"I don't know what happened. People found out we had eggs, and I heard Walmart was out of eggs, so they came our way," Lindford said.
The egg shortage gradually diminished, but people have continued to search out those fresh White River Country Market eggs.
"Our eggs are a day or two old. Some of the other eggs we get are a day or so older, but the eggs you get at Walmart are a lot older than that," he continued. "And these eggs come from family farms, Amish farms in central Wisconsin as well as our own."
"They are raised the same way we raise ours," Rhoda said. "So now we've added 100 more chicks and we will see if we can keep up when they start laying," Lindford said.
The commitment to quality isn't limited to eggs. The Millers take care to buy high-quality products for their store.
"Most of our stock comes from one of two distributers. The first has a warehouse in Wisconsin with the main warehouse in Ohio, the other is based in Pennsylvania," Linford said. "The name you will see most often is Walnut Creek; they are our main distributor, while Dutch Valley is our secondary distributor."
The Millers receive bulk commodities such as flour, sugar, spices, nuts, yeast, rice, beans and pasta. The products are then repackaged for retail sale. For those who need staples in larger amounts, 50-or 30-pound bags are possible.
"That's the cheapest way to buy, if you have the storage for it," Linford said.
"It's stuff you won't find at a regular grocery store," Rhoda said.
The couple said they started the store because they were interested in providing high-quality foods to the public.
"She worked in some bulk food stores, and I've helped and had friends who have," Lindford said. "We had a farm market with fruits and vegetables, and when it was time to move up, we decided to go with a store."
With sales increasing at the store, Linford is looking forward to a time when he can give up part-time work and work at the store exclusively. He is awaiting a consultant's visit with the goal of making the operation more productive.
"Our goals are to provide good food, to have good relationships with our neighbors, to spread the gospel and to supply the needs of our family," Lindford said.
The store is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. It can be reached from Ashland by taking Highway 112 (Sanborn Avenue) south to the intersection with Highway 118. Turn left and watch for the White River County Market sign on the right hand side, just before the county line.
Ashland public works officials say they have made "some progress" in the effort to stem sewage overflows into Lake Superior, but they warn that Ashland's decrepit sewer system won't be fixed overnight and the overflows likely will continue.
In a virtual presentation Thursday sponsored by several community organizations, Ashland Public Works Director John Butler and Water and Wastewater Utility Manager Chanz Green talked at length about the city's problems with sewer overflows into Lake Superior and sewage backups into structures.
The Ashland wastewater treatment facility released a total of 35.6 million gallons of diluted, untreated sewage into Lake Superior between June of 2018 and March of 2020, according to the city. Over that same time period, residents reported 244 sewer backups in homes and other buildings.
Green and Butler said experiments over the past year with a new technology offers promise for solving at least some of the problem leaky sewers in Ashland.
It's called cured-in-place pipe, a system that inserts a plastic fiber sleeve into leaky pipes then uses steam to cure them, resulting in a tough, durable pipe-withina-pipe that gives decades of new life for old sewers without having to rip up roads to replace them.
Green said the system was ideal for Ashland, where the wastewater system was plagued with 25 miles of failing clay pipe, much of which is more than 100 years old.
He said the new system and other work being done on in recent years, such as television inspection of pipes and a concerted effort to clean out sediment from them, has reduced sewer backups from a high of 64 in 2018 to 41 in 2020, with no untreated sewage releases in over a year.
"When that happens it means the presence of raw sewage in people's homes, their businesses and schools," Butler said of sewer backups. "We are really proud to see a reduction in those things, because whenever it happens, it's a bad day for everybody."
Although Green was quick to credit Mother Nature for lower rain and snowfall amounts that have, at least temporarily, halted backups and overflows, he noted that a storm that recently dumped 2 inches of rain on the city resulted in just one flooding event.
"We are gaining ground in that regard," he said. "When the pipes are cleaned, once they are full of water, at least the water is flowing to our treatment plant and it's not backing up."
Another advantage of the cured-in-place pipe system is cost. Butler said it costs roughly $20,000 a block, while replacing the pipe under the conventional system, runs about $60,000 a block.
Butler said the city plans to rehabilitate 4.3 miles of sewer line this year, covering about 66 blocks of the system, using cast-in-place pipes while refurbishing 40 manholes. Because the cast-in-place method does not require extensive excavation, it causes minimal disruption to neighborhoods.
In 2022, during the Sixth Street East reconstruction project, six blocks of sewers along the street will be completely rebuilt via excavation, with work to fix 10 manholes and other known leaks at a cost of $350,000.
Butler said that project is especially important because the area is a source of a lot of leaks.
"We are really looking forward to digging it up, sealing it up and getting it out of the ground," he said.
Butler also said the city not requires private sewer laterals leading from the main sewer line to the property served by the sewer to be replaced as sewers are repaired, at the property owner's expense.
"It doesn't feel good to us to be passing costs on to the property owners, but we need the help to address this problem," he said.
Butler said the city was also working with a firm to analyze user rates, and said rates could go up.
"The good news is that in the short term, the projects we have talked about — we will be able to complete them without looking at that," he said. "We have sufficient revenue coming in, we can use tools like the Wisconsin DNR Clean Water Loan Program to get this work done within the revenue we currently have."