Exploring Mount Vernon: Historic buildings and new businesses offer small town charm

Traffic turns onto First Street West from First Avenue South in Mount Vernon on Tuesday, Jun. 20, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic turns onto First Street West from First Avenue South in Mount Vernon on Tuesday, Jun. 20, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Two story brick buildings with subtle arches, notches and peaks line First Street West, Mount Vernon’s main drag.

The street feels a bit like taking a step back in time with historic-looking facades, flower baskets hanging from light posts and an assortment of local shops and eateries.

“It’s a destination,” said Mike Smith, owner of Bauman’s Clothing, which has been around since 1909 and occupies the corner of First Street and Second Avenue. “We have lots of people coming to the community to spend a day for shopping and restaurants.”

Mount Vernon focuses on its tourism, particularly keeping its main street vibrant, with the goal of inviting alumni to come back, welcoming parents of Cornell College students, enticing passers-by to stop for lunch and attracting those in the region to visit for a day or weekend.

It’s not hard to spend a day visiting the mix of more than 30 local businesses in a three-block radius, exploring the picturesque Cornell College campus, enjoying architecture in older neighborhoods or taking in a new 250 foot-long community-painted mural on a retaining wall on the southside of First Street.

HISTORY DEFINES DOWNTOWN

Bauman’s, at 124 First St. W., has been a downtown fixture downtown for generations.

Suits hang from an oval rack that rolls out from behind double glass French doors and spins around, a leftover from earlier decades. A crew of older gentlemen hold daily morning and afternoon coffee or pop-up meetings in the store’s basement and backroom. Alumni from the high school and Cornell often stop in.

“That’s one of the draws; people come back to the community, and they don’t want it to change,” said Smith, who has been with Bauman’s since 1969.

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That sounds about right, said Joe Jennison, director of Mount Vernon-Lisbon Community Development Group.

The town of about 4,500 people is home to Cornell College, with a student body of about 1,000 undergraduates, and has three historic districts: downtown, Cornell campus and the Ash Park district, full of Victorian homes.

The town was named in 1847 after George Washington’s estate and incorporated in 1869.

The Lincoln Highway, or Highway 30, the country’s original east-west highway, once came through the center of town and now bypasses to the south. The busy Highway 1 corridor still runs north-south through downtown.

“We are a town that believes in our history,” Jennison said. “All buildings downtown are original. The oldest was built in 1850.”

The community hosts 14 festivals each year, such as Heritage Days and Lincoln Highway Arts Festival, and rarely does a store front sit empty, Jennison said. There are always things happening.

NEW BUSINESSES INVEST IN DOWNTOWN

Phil Smith is pitmaster of a new barbecue joint, Big’s BBQ Brew Pub, 124 Second Ave. N., which offers ribs, pulled pork, whole and half chicken and barbecue pie. Located just off the main drag, Big’s is part of an extension of the business district onto side streets.

Jennison proposed the location — an old home — and was immediately met with a resistance. “How could they turn it into a restaurant?” Smith wondered.

But by the next morning he had a change of heart, deciding it was perfect.

“When people want to go out to eat they want to feel comfortable,” he said. “What’s more comfortable than a homey feeling?”

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A dining room and bar occupy much of the first floor, and a patio sits out front, with a smoking pit in the backyard and beer brewing station in the basement.

Homes aren’t the only buildings being re-imagined. Like many communities, Mount Vernon had to grapple with what to do with an old school building when a new one was built.

Rick Elliott, once the town’s mayor, led a repurposing of the old middle school into a business incubator called Old School Shops, at 221 First St. E. The building now hosts 17 businesses, including a florist, antique shops, a tea store, an artist gallery and a bakery. The school is located on the far southeast edge of the main street district, another destination stretching the business district’s boundaries.

Cornell students and other groups make use of the building’s 146-seat community theater, as well as a small lending library on the second floor.

“You can try what you want to do and see if it works,” Elliott said. “We have several dozen people enthusiastic about what they do and the building as a whole, working for the common good. It’s a fun place to be around.”

Elliott opened a fitness center in the former school, something he said the community had needed for at least 20 years, which garnered a community entrepreneurship award from Main Street Iowa.

Kevin Carpenter and Leland Turner have operated their quilting store — Helios Stitches N Stuff — in the incubator for six years. The shop has been a draw for the center and the town.

“Quilters are surprising,” Carpenter said. “They will travel a long way. Regularly, groups of women get in the car and travel several hours.”

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One of the newer additions to downtown Mount Vernon is a shop called One Mission, 108 First St. E., founded and owned by John and Amanda Rhomberg. Selling a variety of lotions, T-shirts, jewelry, cards and art, the business was inspired by a mission trip to Haiti, and initially was just on online social fundraising site. They donate 40 percent of proceeds to a charity of the customer’s choice.

“When I got involved in Haiti, I realized we needed a good fundraising platform, so we did it,” John said.

Since opening their store front, they said foot traffic has been steady.

Sean Tobin of True Wealth Stewardship often grabs lunch or dinner at places such as Palisades Cafe, Skillet Cafe or coffee at Fuel when doing business in Mount Vernon.

“I might have lunch, walk around, and stay for dinner,” Tobin said. “There’s enough going on to make a day of it.”

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