Preferring to do business in a mill, not a mall

Store owners looking for unique spaces in a historic building have for years found it in the Grafton Arts Mill

THE GRAFTON ARTS MILL on the banks of the Milwaukee River used to be a gristmill that was built in 1884. It’s home to a number of stores today. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
JOE POIRIER
Ozaukee Press staff

Resting along the banks of the Milwaukee River, the historic Grafton Arts Mill is a hidden gem where a variety of businesses offer visitors an escape from the hubbub of modern-day shopping centers.

“We could have easily moved into a strip mall but we were looking for a place that offers a unique destination.

The mill is such a rich piece of history,” Randy Ahl, owner of Grafton Arts Mill Coffee Roastery, said.

The coffee shop moved into the first level of the building at 1300 14th Avenue in 2014, when Ahl was seeking a second location close to his Cedarburg business.

“The building is a little off the beaten path, but it has withstood the test of time,” he said. “Going into the basement is kind of like a history lesson because you can trace a lot of stuff left behind by the previous tenants.”

The former gristmill was built in 1884 and produced cereal grain for White Lily Flour.

At its peak, the mill turned out more than 100 barrels of flour a day. In later years, the mill shifted gears and manufactured worsted wool, a process that continued into the early 1960s.

Hearkening back to that time, the most tenured business in the building is the Grafton Yarn Store, which opened in 1961.

In addition to selling fabric, original patterns and knitting implements, the store offers open knitting sessions and classes on crocheting and weaving.

“We get a lot of people who just want to come here and knit. It’s kind of like the old TV show ‘Cheers,’” Grafton Yarn Store owner Barb Bednarski said as a dozen patrons knitted in the store’s workshop.

The building is owned by Sheri Mabry, whose mother was the original owner of the Grafton Yarn Store.

The second and third levels of the mill are occupied by Mabry’s business, Arts Mill Gallery & Boutique, which rents studio space to working artists.

“The second floor is the biggest draw because people love to look at the artists working in their studios,” Arts Mill Director Paula DeStefanis said. “We really want to expose artists to public traffic.”

The studio is home to about 17 artists and artists in residence from throughout Southeastern Wisconsin who are juried by DeStefanis.

The goal of the studio is to create a community of artists, DeStefanis said.

Mixed-media artist and sculptor Tiernee Schatz began renting studio space last month.

“Working at the Arts Mill is an uplifting experience. I didn’t want to be isolated,” Schatz said. “There’s a different mind set when you work with other artists, and it’s helpful to hear their input and advice.”

DeStefanis and Mabry began offering art lessons at the mill 20 years ago, but then moved their center — North Shore Academy of the Arts — next to the Grafton Public Library. About nine years ago, they started the studio in the mill.

It’s an affordable option for artists, who pay $100 in rent and a portion of their sales each month.

“We want the artists to survive,” DeStefanis said.

The gallery also displays original works by Grafton and Cedarburg students.

During special events, beverages are provided by either the coffeehouse or the building’s newest tenant, 024 Taproom.

The taproom celebrated its second anniversary on Jan. 4, and owner Paul Alexander said he wants to draw more locals to the building by hosting events.

“I want to make the Arts Mill a destination,” Alexander said in an Ozaukee Press article last year.

A number of Arts Mill tenants said many local residents don’t realize what the building has to offer, noting most of the traffic comes from Milwaukee’s north shore and people travelling up north.

Alexander hopes to attract more local foot traffic by hosting monthly “Film and Froth” movie nights and an annual “Beer on the Bridge” tasting on Bridge Street overlooking the river.

“People from Grafton are the ones who don’t know about the Arts Mill the most,” DeStefanis said. “The mill has been here so long, people don’t even realize it.”

But a popular draw for the center is Balancing Arts Yoga Studio, which holds eight classes a week in the third-floor gallery.

Yoga sessions are directed by Mabry, who is in India studying the practice.

The studio also hosts guest speakers and holds health and wellness workshops.

While the Arts Mill continues to reinvent itself to remain relevant in these changing times, the Milwaukee River continues to provides a pastoral aesthetic for tenants and patrons.

“It feels like you’re in the country, even though you’re in the middle of downtown,” Ahl said. “It’s a nice, quaint getaway.”

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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