Mustard Museum taking tourists out of town
By Judy Keen, USA TODAY
MOUNT HOREB, Wis. — For the final time, people will gather here Saturday on two closed-off blocks of Main Street to celebrate National Mustard Day. There will be free hotdogs with mustard — there's a $10 surcharge for those who dare to request ketchup — mustard painting and music by the Poupon U Accordion Band.
Mustard Day and its host, the Mustard Museum, are relocating 18 miles away to Middleton this fall. The move will leave a gap on Main Street and reroute the tour buses that bring visitors to the Mustard Museum and its gift shop. The move is stirring debate about how small towns can effectively compete for tourist dollars.
The loss of the museum is part of a shift in Mount Horeb's character, says Bruce Fortney, 57, an artist who exhibits his work at a gallery above Isaac's Antiques.
Once there were five antique shops here; now there are two. Some storefronts are vacant, others now house insurance or real-estate offices. "It's kind of sad. It was a shopping town, and it's changing," Fortney says.
This town of 6,700 is "disappointed to see such a large tourist attraction leave," says village administrator Larry Bierke. He says he's trying to lure a new "destination location."
Barry Levenson, owner of the Mustard Museum, says the move will give him more space to display 5,000 mustards and 1,500 antique mustard pots, bottles and tins. He'll be closer to Madison, the state capital, and is getting up to $50,000 for relocation costs from Middleton.
'People will still come'
The museum draws up to 30,000 visitors a year, but the dwindling number of antique stores, the recession and last summer's spike in gas prices reduced tourist traffic and squeezed the museum, which is free for most visitors and is operated as a small business.
"People will still come," he says. "Mount Horeb has a resiliency that's going to prove itself."
Levenson, 60, grew up in Worcester, Mass., and attended law school at the University of Wisconsin and has been collecting mustard since 1986.
As his collection grew, Levenson, then a lawyer for the state, decided to share it. He opened a small museum here in 1992 and moved to its current leased building in 2000.
When Levenson began looking for a new home, Middleton seemed ideal. Mount Horeb is surrounded by farmland and is a 30-minute drive from Madison. Middleton has about 17,000 residents and is adjacent to the state's second-largest city.
Besides approving relocation support, the Middleton City Council voted to give $1.4 million in aid to the owner of the downtown building that will house the museum. "We did it because we wanted the increased traffic downtown," Middleton Mayor Kurt Sonnentag says.
Although there are restaurants near the site, "there's a shortage of retail," says Van Nutt, executive director of the Middleton Chamber of Commerce. He hopes the museum's presence will prompt more stores to open, enlivening the neighborhood.
Middleton's incentives, says Bierke, were "perhaps beyond what Mount Horeb is able to compete with."
Finding 'its own identity'
John Stowe, 64, owner of Prairie Bookshop on Main Street in Mount Horeb, is chatting with a visitor when four people enter. "Where's the Mustard Museum?" one of them asks. Stowe directs him down the street. That happens a lot, he says.
Stowe, who has been in business here since 1991, says Mount Horeb is at a crucial point. Downtown has lost a hardware store, a bank and a card shop. Schubert's Diner, a landmark since 1911, closed in February.
The museum's departure might mean fewer tourists for a while, Stowe says, but "in the long run, it's probably just as well. It could take over the town's identity." The key to downtown's survival, he says, is for more locals to shop on Main Street.
That's happening now, says artist Janet Andersen, 64. "Mount Horeb is becoming a town where people want to shop because they came here to raise their kids," she says. "It used to be a tourist town. It's beginning to be a town with its own identity."
Mustard isn't the only attraction here. Mount Horeb has a 39-mile biking and hiking trail and Norwegian heritage that's celebrated in festivals and the carved trolls around town that give the village its "Troll Capital of the World" nickname. If Chicago wins the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, mountain bike events will be here.
Guy Gibson, 56, owner of Artisan Woods Gallery, moved his store here from a Madison suburb four years ago. He's optimistic that Mount Horeb will continue to thrive after the Mustard Museum is gone.
"I'll tell you what — my business is up," he says. "I'm not too concerned."