Fans organize to save The Mill and its storied legacy in Iowa City

"The greatest bar on Earth"

 

J. Knight has been here before. He remembers well when The Mill was slated to close in 2003.

The storied Iowa City bar and restaurant first opened in 1962 as the Coffee Mill, a folk music venue and coffee shop, and moved to its current Burlington Street location in 1972. Knight had been running weekly open mic nights there since 1981. When owners Keith and Pam Dempster announced they were retiring in 2003, he prepared for one last show. People who had been regulars but moved away traveled from other states to be there. He filled 22 performance slots, instead of the normal eight. It was a giant party.

“We just had the place packed. There was filming going on, people were putting up posters from over the years, it was just a great night,” he said.

Then, at literally the eleventh hour — around 11 p.m. — someone came and whispered in his ear that the bar had been saved. New owners Marty Christensen and Dan Ouverson stepped in to buy the business.

The bar only closed for about a month for some remodeling before reopening in July 2003. And open mic night continued, along with the other things that made the bar an Iowa City mainstay; namely, live music, community gatherings and fundraisers, and nostalgia-laced food and drinks.

 
 

Then, with 2020 came the coronavirus pandemic and related shutdowns. Though the business initially offered carryout food, the owners announced on Facebook on May 2 that they would close completely for the time being. That became permanent with an additional post June 18: “After 17 years of keeping the Mill going through its 58th year in business, it’s time for us to step away. We hope that someone else might want to take over the mission to preserve this institution. It’s a cool place and important to a lot of people in Iowa City. Thanks to everyone for their support!”

Christensen said in an email that it was time for him to move on.

“We’ve been considering passing the baton for a while. I’ve been the caretaker of the Mill for 17 years, and with a ‘day job,’ family, etc., it’s always been difficult for me to give The Mill the attention it deserves,” he said.

 
 
 

Immediately after the announcement, people started leaving comments expressing their love of the bar and expressing hopes it could be saved once again.

Supporters started two different Facebook groups dedicated to saving The Mill. One, “Save The Mill — A Living Landmark,” is focused on securing historic landmark status for the building, which is owned by Marc Moen. Members have been talking with Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission members and collecting research on the building’s history. The other, “Refounders of The Mill,” is a group of Mill staff and others hoping to come up with a plan to purchase the business.

“We loved that The Mill had become a safe haven for all backgrounds and most importantly self expression,” said Rich Le May, who has worked at The Mill since 2012, most recently booking shows and events. He also founded Run of the Mill Theatre Productions, which stages shows there.

He said they are hoping to create a worker-led co-op structure to purchase the business and run it, perhaps as a nonprofit, and are still working on their plans.

“We certainly do hope that someone buys The Mill and keeps it serving the role in the community that it has for decades. We’ve had a lot of interest and that’s exciting,” Christensen said.

The bar has been a spot where progressive politics, student groups, fundraisers and community organizers have gathered for decades.

“It’s the greatest bar on Earth, I’ve been saying that for years,” said Linn County supervisor Stacey Walker.

 

He recalled spending afternoons studying and reading there as a University of Iowa political science student before moving to Washington, D.C. When he moved back to Iowa to work on President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, he and a friend organized a watch party for the State of Union address in the bar’s backroom. They created a Facebook event and ordered a few pizzas, thinking just a small group of their friends would show up. Instead, the room was packed with not only political junkies but also the bar’s regular crowd.

“It was artists, teachers and writers, musicians, we just had this incredibly diverse backroom,” he said. “I walked up on the stage and said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do with this energy, but we need to do something with it.’”

He passed around a legal pad to collect names and email addresses, and that list became the basis for forming Political Party Live, a group that hosted live political events across the state and later a podcast.

“We just kind of put all these minds, this brain trust together, and The Mill became our spot. They had great food, a great vibe, we knew everyone, we knew the owners, and they trusted us, and it just kind of was our headquarters,” he said.

 
 
 

Along with campaign stops, watch parties, fundraisers and similar events, the bar has been a central part of Iowa City’s live music and performing arts scene. Theater companies have made it their home stage, festivals like Mission Creek and Witching Hour have hosted shows on its stage, and performers like Dave Zollo, Greg Brown and Dave Moore made its stage part of their regular rotations.

And of course, there was that open mic night, which was coming up on a 40 year legacy itself.

Knight recalled seeing people who were kids attending open mic night going on stage themselves as teens to starting their own bands and gaining success. A former traveling musician himself, he said whenever he performed in neighboring states, people would ask him about The Mill when they learned he was from Iowa City.

“I was just amazed, it seemed to be known everywhere I went. If they had a connection to Iowa City, they knew The Mill,” he said. “A lot of good musicians and writers came through there … There’s a real history to The Mill.”

Christensen said he’s enjoyed people sharing their memories over the last week.

“I could go on about different shows we had, great employees, celebrities that came in, etc. But the main thing is just those very rare times when I paused and saw The Mill being what it so uniquely is, and full of people having a great time ...,” he said. I’ve always felt that I was a caretaker of an institution. The emails, calls, texts, and Facebook comments I’ve seen make me feel even more that our move to keep The Mill open 17 years ago was worthwhile.”