For many in Mankato, the bar scene known as “downtown” is where the weekend nightlife thrives. Old Town Mankato—the original downtown—in contrast, is a much lesser known part of town, where niche shops are still channeling the energy of the area’s traditional beginnings.
A year after Mankato was founded in 1853, downtown had already begun to develop a flourishing selection of shops and services. It housed “a hotel, two stores, two lawyers, two tailors, a quarry, a saddler, a millwright, warehouse, and a school,” according to the Blue Earth County Historical Society. Since then, downtown has had a vast number of other businesses, such as saloons, restaurants and stores, continuing to be the local hub for shopping and leisure until the 1970s, when most stores and businesses “were altered or eliminated as a part of Urban Renewal.”
MNSU has also taken note of Old Town for its booming entrepreneurial spirit and energy in the last decade. The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship will be calling this pivotal location its home in the next couple of months. The CIE will be located on 424 N. Riverfront in the old Hubbard building. The space was donated by Curt Fisher. The organization is dedicated to entrepreneurs and innovators, with their main goal being “to facilitate the launch of the next generation of entrepreneurs, innovators and dynamic organizations through education, outreach and research,” according to their website.
“The Old Town tour is something I started doing because I’ve been teaching entrepreneurship now for a couple years as adjunct,” said the first director of CIE, Dr. Yvonne Cariveau.
“My entrepreneurship class is fantastic—just the coolest students. They are people who see problems and want to solve them. Old Town to me is a perfect example of what happens when those kinds of people go out into the world and start doing stuff, and I want my students to see that this is you in a couple years,” Dr. Cariveau continued. “The best place, the one single place that I could think of in Mankato that I can take students and show them multiple people who are doing what they want to do, is Old Town.”
With the expansion of MNSU’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, students can take a tour of their own and meet our neighbors. Old Town is also gaining the respect and attention that it deserves. Less than 10 years ago, more than 40 storefronts were vacant, and now only about six are available. More and more businesses have decided to call Old Town their home because of its vibrant history and nostalgic importance.
“We wanted it to be nostalgic,” says owner of Mary Lue’s Yarn & Ewe, Peggy Grey. “It’s cozy enough to be a yarn shop.”
Mary Lue’s Yarn & Ewe business, a classic shop with long and narrow floors and high ceilings, opened in 2007. The walls are filled with every type of yarn conceivable, along with examples of just about anything you could possibly create with yarn, like adorable baby sweaters. Even if you don’t know how to knit or crochet, Mary Lue’s offers classes that accommodate varying skillsets.
The Coffee Hag, situated kitty corner from CIE’s future location, has been a staple of the Mankato community since they opened their doors in 1997. Their specialty is—of course—coffee, but the Coffee Hag offers many other services, known for being the local hub to hang out, listen to music and support local artists. Owner Jenn Melby-Kelly often can be seen helping set up for shows or simply greeting customers with a warm welcome.
“We have one group of people we cater to here—human beings,” said Melby-Kelly. “We want people to feel good when they’re here. People have said it’s a second home. It’s community first, coffee shop second.”
Walking down North Riverfront, you will find other stores dedicated to sharing their owners’ hobbies, lives, and passions with others. Old Town is a community of its own, where each business supports the other.
Gallery 512 Boutique has a passion for bringing “unique and on-trend fashion at affordable prices to their rural Minnesota community.” The boutique is run by sisters Jessica and Danielle. They first started their business in October of 2013 in New Ulm and founded their second location in Mankato during October of 2015. The store also plays a Harper Bazaar-esque role downtown that many have been longing for since the early 1980s.
Salvage Sisters sits right next to the boutique. The store is full of trendy colors and homemade knick-knacks as well as beautifully remodeled and restored furniture. Owner Heather Fisher has turned her small store into a booming business. Even so, they help others do what they love, offering “Pinterest Parties” that allow you to learn a new skill. In addition, Fisher displays personally selected pieces and crafts in her store in order to support local businesses.
“Old Town is a hub of entrepreneurship,” said Fisher.
If you start to get thirsty or hungry strolling down Old Town, there are plenty of options to fill that void. Midtown Tavern, now owned by Angi and Nik Proehl, offers both great beer and food. Angi and Nik Proehl have been the new owners of Midtown Tavern for a little more than a month. It’s a classic bar feel with wood paneling and a high top bar. It’s a hidden gem of Mankato that has been neglected, and one that the Proehl’s have gathered to shine.
“We’re firm believers in doing things local,” says Proehl. “We all work together, so we source locally as much as possible.”
Curiousi-Tea House, Arizona Olive Oil, and Freisen’s partner with each other in order to provide their customers services and compliment their products. Gallery 512 Boutique also displays their products on furniture provided by Salvage Sisters. The beauty of Old Town is that its businesses and tenants all act together to maintain a close relationship with Mankato’s history and local community.