Popping into the Mill for some happy hour relief is a familiar experience. Push through the battered wooden saloon doors and life slows appreciably. The cars outside continue to hustle up and down Burlington Street, but that has little bearing upon the glacial pace of activities for those inside.
The first pitch just let fly at Wrigley, and familiar faces occupy the well-worn stools around the bar, where pitchers of PBR remain under $4. Life is good and appears relatively unchanged at the Mill since its beginnings, yet below the veneer of this iconic Iowa City folk-blues club, its foundation is shifting.
Major cracks include both the city’s efforts to reduce the number of drinking establishments in the downtown area, and the fact that the Mill does not own the land on which it currently resides. Each issue, separately or combined, point to the possibility that this venerable Iowa City institution could be closed in the near future.
Opened in 1962 by Keith and Pat Dempster, this all-purpose tavern was intended to emphasize its home-cooked meals and chill environment, where people felt comfortable hanging out. Tucked away in a former auto dealership, the Mill is spacious enough to offer drinks, dining and billiards at the front bar while live music can be enjoyed down the hallway in back.
It’s now one of those unique establishments that transcends the label of bar or restaurant, and has become a second home to many for going on 50 years.
“My friend Ed Bornstein, a former Iowa City musician, often described the Mill as the local “club house”: a place where musicians, writers and artists can convene and share ideas in a relaxed atmosphere, and I definitely agree with him,” said Andre Perry, booking agent and bartender at the Mill.
Make no mistake — music is the star attraction here. Since opening, the Mill has established itself as one of the premiere folk-blues clubs in the Midwest. In addition to hosting national touring acts, all the local roots musicians pass through its swinging doors.
Artists like folk superhero Greg Brown and American songwriter Dave Moore, both frequent contributors to “A Prairie Home Companion,” along with guitarist/producer Bo Ramsey, slide guitar wizard Joe Price and boogie piano man David Zollo all have longstanding relationships with the Mill.
Iowa City’s folk-blues scene is solid, but dates to the early 1970s — and is aging. New blood has arisen from the scene’s forerunners, like Brown’s daughter Pieta and Ramsey’s son, Benson, who plays in the Minneapolis-based band The Pines.
Still, original owner Keith Dempster saw change coming in how the city council was dealing with downtown bar owners in an effort to curtail Iowa City’s drinking problem, and he elected to close the Mill in 2003.
Upon hearing of the Mill’s impending closure, local musician Marty Christensen stepped in to negotiate its purchase. Although the deal had already been arranged, it was kept quiet as Keith and Pat hosted a prolonged wake before the doors shut. The Mill reopened a month later, relatively unchanged physically, but with a modified business plan befitting the new ownership and changing business climate in Iowa City.
Christensen was raised in Iowa City and began playing music at the Mill in 1985. By day he’s a software guy, working at ACT for going on five years, but has tangents attaching him to all the major players in town, including Ramsey, Zollo, Brown, former Iowa City songwriter Kevin Gordon, and bluesman Dennis McMurrin.
“I’ve played over 150 rooms, and this is one of the best…it’s a special place,” said Christensen. “The stage sound and atmosphere are so comfortable, that for a performer, you’re likely to have a good show.”
He found a partner in his brother-in-law, Dan Ouverson, who owns Short’s Burgers and Shine on Clinton Street. These two shared a history from their days at the Yacht Club, where Christensen played and Ouverson bartended and booked talent.
Yet even with their combined experience, the beginnings at the “new” Mill were a learning experience. Between staff quitting, regulars refusing to return and complaints from patrons about menu changes, the owners realized they needed to formulate a more defined direction for what would become their version of the Mill.
Under its previous ownership, Dempster kept the Mill’s comfortable confines centered on blues and folk traditions exclusively. The new owners want the relaxed atmosphere to carry on, while broadening the club’s appeal by catering to local talent – all local talent.
“I like one kind of music, good music, and that crosses many genres,” said Christensen.
Where the owners first elected to expand was into the alt-country and singer-songwriter markets. This brought in acts like the Drive-By Truckers, the Jayhawks and Des Moines-based Brother Trucker.
When original booking agent Trevor Lee Hopkins moved away, the decision was made to split his position between Andre Perry and Sam Locke-Ward. This only speeded Christensen’s concept to expand the Mill’s market.
Perry, 31, is a graduate of the Non-Fiction Writing Program at Iowa, and is a postdoctoral research fellow there. He also is one of the four founding members of the Mission Creek Music Festival, based out of Iowa City. Now in its fourth year, this event takes place over several days and utilizes multiple clubs in town to host live music.
Perry had already been booking acts into the Mill for Mission Creek, so it was a natural progression for him to slide into one of the available positions. Furthermore the philosophy of Mission Creek parallels his employers’ intentions: they like breaking stereotypes associated with particular clubs, and book atypical acts into them with the intention of bringing different fans to venues they might not ordinarily frequent.
“Sam and I have a lot of overlapping tastes and many different ones as well,” said Perry. “This opens up the range of acts we’re now bringing into the Mill.”
Together they’re responsible for getting Indie groups like the Decemberists, Arcade Fire and Okkervil River into the Mill.
But Perry and Locke-Ward are both hyper-conscious about attending to Iowa City’s local talent. They put emerging acts onto the stage at the Mill, pay them some money and make sure they get a good meal for playing.
“It’s important these kids get heard,” Perry said.
The lineup hasn’t changed considerably with the new ownership, especially on weekends, but the clientele has broadened considerably.
It helps that everybody on staff is either a musician or a huge fan. Locke-Ward has his band, Miracles of God; Perry plays keys in The Lonelyhearts; and Sam Knudson, who runs the soundboard for shows, fronts Shame Train.
“We understand service to the music community, the musicians and the public better than any other venue in Iowa City,” said Christensen. “It’s no good to be exclusive.”
The primary vehicle to showcase emerging talent is the Mill’s Tuesday Night Social Club. Perry set this up and Christensen lets him and Locke-Ward run it, allowing for anything from solo indie-guitarists to off-kilter electronic noise bands.
These are acts that never would have seen the stage when Dempster was running the place, but it does come with some trade-offs.
“Sometimes there’s more graffiti in the bathrooms after these shows and that’s not OK,” said Christensen. “This isn’t going to be turned into some shit hole.”
Aside from this unfortunate detail, the new changes are paying huge dividends. Christensen reports their gross has nearly doubled in the first five years – although they still get complaints about taking the egg sandwich special off the menu.
The primary difficulty facing the new owners is that the Mill doesn’t own the property it resides upon. Developer Marc Moen is the landlord.
Christensen and Ouverson knew there was only a five-year lease when they made the purchase, and it has expired. Now it’s year-to-year.
The Moen Group owns the property from the Starbucks on Clinton Street, down to West Bank on Burlington, save a small parcel belonging to the city. Long-term possibilities for this land include the relocation of the university’s flood-prone art museum, but that’s slow moving until a decision is made on where to rebuild Hancher. Another possibility is constructing a glass and steel high-rise, with commercial entities on the bottom floors and residences above.
No decision is imminent, and Moen is adamant about preserving the Mill. “We love the Mill, it’s an institution and we want it to be here for a long time to come,” said Bobby Jett of The Moen Group. We’re working with the owners to ensure that.”
To lose such a treasured piece of Iowa City’s cultural landscape would be tragic enough, but darkening what is now the most diverse live music room in town could prove difficult to replace.
In the city’s ongoing effort to combat the college-related drinking problem in town, a new zoning ordinance was enacted by the city council in June, limiting new bars from opening within 500 feet of pre-existing liquor-related establishments. It’s possible this new ordinance would prohibit the Mill from reopening, due to its proximity to other bars already in existence.
“It’s hard to find something anywhere that has the character of the Mill, said Andre Perry. “You could build something new, but then…it’s new.”
Pete Wilson wants to thank Iowa City for everything! He’s packing his bags for New Orleans and looks forward to seeing you down the road.