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Friday, 15 July 2016 10:37

Downtown Darien offers small-town charm with big challenges

Written by  Lisa Schmelz
Darien Ice Cream Shoppe owner Alice Davis serves up a bowl of ice cream to former Alice in Dairyland Teyanna Loether during Loether’s visit to Darien earlier this summer. Davis said the village is making improvements downtown, but it’s hard to say what kind of businesses would thrive in the small community. Darien Ice Cream Shoppe owner Alice Davis serves up a bowl of ice cream to former Alice in Dairyland Teyanna Loether during Loether’s visit to Darien earlier this summer. Davis said the village is making improvements downtown, but it’s hard to say what kind of businesses would thrive in the small community. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Editor’s note: Saving Downtown is an award-winning series by freelance writer Lisa Schmelz exploring how Walworth County communities are breathing new life into their historic downtown districts. This is the seventh installment.

Visit other towns in the Saving Downtown series by going online to communityshoppers.com/tag/Saving-downtown.

David John Dietrich, a classically trained artist, recently purchased one of the 16 historic buildings that once served as the main artery of downtown Darien. He opened the doors to his gallery in March with an exhibition, bringing storefront occupancy on this lonely stretch of the past to 53 percent.

Dietrich, however, isn’t just creating what he terms “21st Century American objectivity, based loosely on degenerate art.” He is also on a mission to bring people back to Darien’s neglected Wisconsin Street.

“I want people to find an interest to turn. I want to get people in here like a vacuum,” Dietrich said, standing outside his gallery. “Where else in America do you have this?”

To get people to take notice, Dietrich fittingly has installed a time travel machine in front of his gallery. While some might call it an old grandfather clock without hands, it quietly makes a statement about the state of downtown Darien. On its side is the following message to those who ponder time:

“Wow! Where did another year go? We hear people ask this question a lot.”

That Dietrich was installing his time travel machine on a sunny Monday morning, as a writer was trying to find sources for this installment of “Saving Downtown,” was serendipity at its finest. With the “Where did another year go?” line, Dietrich has summed up what the “Saving Downtown” series is all about:

Where does time go? What will become of the buildings our great-grandparents conducted business in? Is there a way the past can meet the present to save what’s left of Main Street USA?

Though the strip malls off the interstate suggest doom for buildings and places such as these, Dietrich maintains time and opportunity are alive and well for those who can see something new while standing in something old.

How did Dietrich step into this vanishing slice of America, anchored by a grain elevator to the north and a shuttered grocery store to the south?

“What drew me here? I think it was many experiences, and living in Los Angeles. The thing about expression, and the way things happen, is there’s very little explaining for it,” Dietrich said. “I can explain to you why I got this building, but it wouldn’t make much sense.”

Dietrich isn’t always straightforward in replies to questions, but he is absolutely correct. Explaining how he landed in Darien -- a village of 1,641 -- by way of Los Angeles, or how century-old buildings came to be, got neglected and then, for the fortunate few, got saved isn’t about making sense. It’s about our collective journey as human beings, the spaces we build along the way and then abandon, the roads we travel and then ignore. 

Rescues to aging downtown districts, when they happen, and often they do not, occur over decades, with chance, kismet or whatever you want to call it sometimes playing a bigger role than historic preservation tax credits or the best efforts of municipal planners.

Time goes where it will, and some have followed it to downtown Darien.

Stop in for a bite

Downtown Darien varies in location depending on who you talk to. Some decree that only the buildings on Wisconsin Street are part of the historic downtown. Others argue that in a community this small, everything is downtown.

For many, downtown starts at the Darien Ice Cream Shoppe on Beloit Street. Alice Davis, a longtime Darien resident who operated a day care for 25 years, decided it was time for a cool change in 2014 and is now in her third season at this iconic landmark, a fixture here for decades. She says business is great but adds that it helps that her husband has a good job because she’s only open from March through mid-October.

What does she think downtown Darien needs to thrive?

“I guess I just don’t think about it. It would be nice to see the storefronts occupied, but you get used to seeing them vacant in a town like this,” she said. “They are trying to fix up the downtown, and the village has made a lot of improvements to the road and sidewalks, but I don’t know what would work well here.

“The world is different today.”

One thing that isn’t different is our need to eat. Next door to the Darien Ice Cream Shoppe is Deb’s Country Cafe. They don’t serve fried green tomatoes, but the place has a definite Whistlestop Cafe feel to it. Deb Schaab has owned the cafe for six years.

How’s business?

“Gosh,” said Schaab, serving a late-morning breakfast to a customer, “we don’t even have a stoplight here. It all depends.

“It’s hit or miss, but fish fry on Fridays is good and the head honchos from all these (factories) around here come for breakfast and sometimes meet people here.”

For really good customers, Schaab has been known to offer after-hours access. A local customer, she said, needs a place to hold home sales parties.

“I just give her a key, and she sets all her stuff up and leaves me a note on how much soda everyone had,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to do that.”

Around the corner from Deb’s on Wisconsin Street stands a building that was once this hamlet’s grocery store. Today, its second floor isn’t safe to enter, said Rebecca LeMire, who serves as village administrator, clerk and treasurer.

“It would be great to see something there, but the building has significant structural issues,” LeMire said.

Minus the village hall, all the buildings downtown are privately owned. Beyond the significant improvements to the street and sidewalks and the addition of old-fashioned street lamps, LeMire, who has worked here just over a year, said village staff and resources are limited.

“I’ve had some complaints about the state of downtown, and it is unfortunate, how it is right now,” she said. “I think some people think there’s a magic economic development wand and there’s not. Our job is to do infrastructure and encourage businesses to locate here.”

Joe Brickner, a tall man who some say bears a resemblance to wrestler Hulk Hogan, has been located here with his Farmer’s Inn for 35 years. The popular watering hole features a beer garden and a number of events throughout the year that draw people from outside of Darien.

Today, Brickner is standing in the village hall, squaring away paperwork for his recent purchase of two more buildings downtown.

“I’m opening a wine and cheese shop and a convenience store ... I’m trying to give us a reason to come to Darien,” he said. “The beauty salon, my place, the Beer Bank, Dietrich’s (gallery), that’s about all that’s here.”

To be fair, there is also a fencing studio that’s open a few days a week, what appears to be a crafters meeting place with sporadic hours and an upholstery shop. The grain elevator is also open.

Tom Farley works at the grain elevator and misses what used to be here when he arrived in 1994.

“It’s emptier than it was then,” he said, between calls with farmers. “The last 10 or 15 years, there hasn’t been much. There used to be a real busy restaurant across the street, a grocery store. It’s hard for them to compete, though.”

It was also hard for the town’s hardware store to compete. The Heyer Building, located on the east side of Wisconsin Street next to a busy one-chair beauty salon, has been owned by mother and daughter Karen and Lorie Wuttke for 22 years. However, the building has sat mostly vacant, minus an upstairs apartment tenant, since they moved their antique store, Remember When, to Delavan in 1998.

The duo say they’re open to selling or leasing. The building still features its original floors and a tin ceiling. Two years ago, they thought they’d found the perfect storefront tenant -- a potter who was looking for studio space large enough to teach in. The deal fell through, though.

What do they think could work in the space?

“It might make a cool microbrewery,” said daughter Lorie Wuttke.

“Yeah, but that’s a lot of equipment cost and Darien is small,” chimed in her mother, Karen.

Do they ever feel guilty about abandoning one old building for another?

“I enjoy this building so much more than that one,” said Karen of her downtown Delavan store that sits on a brick road listed on the National Historic Register. “Other than it’s just sitting there and my husband keeps saying ‘You gotta do something with it’ and I say ‘Who is gonna help?’ There’s not enough time in the day to do everything that’s got to get done.”

Back at Dietrich’s gallery a few hours after he installed the time travel machine, there was no new foot traffic on Wisconsin Street. But Dietrich is an artist, and he’s used to waiting for things to emerge.

“We’re creating, it’s OK. And Joe (Brickner) is creating and we’re having fun,” he said.

But can creativity be a strong enough force for downtown Darien to connect the past with the present in a way that is financially viable for those involved?

“I think it’s contagious,” Dietrich said, his eyes scanning the quiet street. “You get people excited about things and hope they don’t get choked along the way.”

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