Mazomanie: One of the coolest small towns

Until this month, Mazomanie was best known for being near a sandy, isolated, nude beach along the Wisconsin River. The lazing and bronzing of uninhibited souls dates back to the 1960s, and sometimes canoeists will get an eyeful.

Now Mazo, population 1,500, earns another reputation: It is one of America’s 10 coolest small towns. We’re not talking temperature, or lack of clothing.

The distinction appears in the September issue of Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel because Erik Torkells, magazine editor, liked what he experienced during a Wisconsin road trip. He noted the migration of artists and galleries, “many of whom were drawn here by the historic downtown and cheap real estate.”

(The magazine earlier this year acknowledged the Mustard Museum of Mount Horeb, just 15 miles south of Mazomanie. “I just can’t resist buying a yellow ‘Squeeze me’ T-shirt,” the editor wrote.)

“When you get in a national magazine, people stand up and take notice,” says Bob Brumley, chamber of commerce president and instrumental in turning downtown Mazomanie into a place of creative enterprise. At least 10 businesses sell locally produced art; Bob calls it a miniature Mineral Point, a reference to the gallery-rich Cornish community that is 35 miles southwest.

He and glass artist Jennifer Mally since 2006 have operated Iron Horse Gallery, an arts cooperative that also is home to A Better Buzz coffee shop. So far 14 artists each pay $65 per month to rent space for their work, pay a 10 percent commission when their art sells and staff the operation as volunteers.

“It’s not a normal gallery,” says Bob, a sculptor. “It’s not looking to turn a profit,” just to pay the bills.

In the gallery’s back yard is an art park and seasonal Saturday farmers market, where baked goods to emu meat are sold.

“We see value in attracting artists to the area because we tend to fix stuff up,” says Bob, who describes the two-story arts co-op as a former “dingy bar” whose “back yard was a junk yard.”

Artists give credit to developer Dennis Halverson for investing in building rehab. “The artists wouldn’t be here if the buildings hadn’t gotten fixed up,” Bob says. “The type of buildings – big spaces, with big windows and high ceilings – are the kind of places that artists love.”

“That little town has a lot of potential,” says wildlife artist Suzanne Ellis of nearby Cross Plains, whose work is shown at Creative Edge Gallery, 25 Brodhead St. “People are trying hard to re-generate” business and interest tourists.

Example: the Whistle Stop Café, 18 Brodhead St., situated where the first Ringling Brothers circus appeared in 1882. The breakfast-lunch menu makes historic references, like the Conductor (similar to a Philly cheese steak, served on a grilled hoagie for $6.95).

Also available: hand-tossed pizzas, from-scratch soups and hearty breakfasts (like Trash Hash, which is hash browns with fresh veggies and Swiss, plus eggs, meat and toast).

Children can spend one week at circus camp – with trapeze, stiltwalking and juggling lessons – at Mazomanie Movement Arts Center, 2 Brodhead St.

A working stone mill inside the Old Feed Mill, 114 Cramer St., means visitors can see the grinding of grain.

And the beach? “That’s also an attraction for this area, one that brings consumers and revenue,” Bob observes. “The kind of people who feel liberated enough to go to a clothing-optional beach also will buy lattes and artwork.”

Live and let live, he believes.

For more about Mazomanie, which is on Hwy. 14, a half-hour west of Madison: www.mazomaniemills.com, 888-345-4909. The Wisconsin Historical Society’s annual Local History and Historic Preservation Conference this month includes a walking tour of the area; local businesses distribute similar routes that other visitors can follow.

Five rooms accommodate overnight guests in the 1865 brick Walking Iron Bed and Breakfast, 21 State St., the only lodging in Mazomanie. The business name is the meaning of “Mazomanie,” a native American word that acknowledges the area’s railroad history.

For more: www.walkingiron.com, 877-572-9877.

Mazo is a blink-and-miss-it Dane County town that we in Madison zip through when en route to outdoor American Players Theatre productions near Spring Green. These close-to-nature performances, featuring the works of Shakespeare to Shaw, continue until Oct. 5. For more: www.playinthewoods.org, 608-588-2361.

For more about the Mustard Museum, 100 W. Main St., Mount Horeb: www.mustardweb.com, 800-438-6878. More than 4,800 kinds of prepared mustards and mustard memorabilia are on display or for sale.