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Connections, culture, community in Madison

Madison woman moved home, opened community center

By Patricia Buschette

When Kris Shelstad returned to her hometown of Madison, Minn., in July of 2020, she decided that she would not become involved.

“Don’t let me volunteer for anything,” she announced.

Kris Shelstad presents an example of the Assemblage series of works by her friend Janice Anderson that is on display at the Madison Mercantile, a community center being developed by Shelstad. Photo by Patricia Buschette

However, the circumstances of life presented a different path.

Kris, a retired Lt. Col. in the National Guard, and her husband, lived in Austin, Texas. She enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard in 1981. Of her 31 years of service in the Active Guard/Reserve, 21 years were spent in Washington, D.C., Germany, Atlanta, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, and Texas, along with overseas deployments to Bosnia and Iraq.

When her husband died suddenly, Kris determined she would move back with her family and friends where she graduated from high school. She sold their home in Austin and returned to Madison to start a new life... and a community center.

Her friend Janice Anderson, for whom she was providing Hospice care, was to have a profound influence on her life.

“You better buy a really big place,” Janice told Kris. A talented and earthy woman, Janice used a saltier term for “really,” but she meant what she said. A creative artist, Janice died before she could gift or sell her huge collection of work. She arranged to have it sent to Kris in Madison.

Kris intended to open a coffee shop, and found a 15,000 square foot building in Madison. It was located at the end of Main Street and had been a hardware store and lumberyard. Besides a coffee shop, the new space would display her friend’s unique art collection.

Madison Mercantile. Photo by Patricia Buschette

“Huge wooden boxes arrived in Madison, carefully packed with styrofoam,” Kris said. The boxes were filled with Janice’s artwork that began with stitched canvas, and had developed into artwork using objects that represented her love of textures and shapes. She gifted Kris her body of work, which included complex assemblages and intricate collages to be shared and enjoyed.

Janice’s body of work would be displayed in what is called “The Anderson Gallery.”

“A lot of folks thought I was nuts, “she said. “It was a huge empty space, with just three counters,” she said.

People also questioned how she was going to make money. She explained that she was planning a non-profit community center.

Kris met with the Madison City Council to let them know of her plans.

“They were thrilled,” she said. “They thought I wanted some help, but I explained that I had sold my home in Austin and had money to invest.”

As they learned, Kris had much more in mind than a coffee shop and an art gallery. She called it the Madison Mercantile and its mission is clear...“To provide a place for community, culture, connection, and innovation in our region. Our goals include inclusivity and accessibility - ensuring all are welcome regardless of age, identity, ability, or origin. We strive to listen to the community and let them reveal what they need and want; we commit to being flexible, changing and growing to meet our community’s needs.”

Things began to take place at the Merchantile in January of 2022.

“We now have three artist studio spaces; one is rented and two are being developed. They pay rent but we keep it low and manageable,” said Kris.

Barista Paige Bergeland offers Kris one of her original brews... Café con Miel – coffee with honey. Photo by Patricia Buschette

The coffee shop was opened, and the vision of a community center was underway. The needs

of the community are met with Kris’ determined vision. And the huge, once abandoned building started providing room for many dreams.

“We have a group trying to promote more local foods and developing a food co-op,” said Kris.

She explained that a group of women tried such an effort in the 1970s, but were not successful. They are now helping the younger generations realize their original goal.

“They have history,” she said, “and now there are younger people involved. It is fun to see older women take on mentorship,” she said, adding that somebody referred to a woman as “an elder.”

“It is a term of respect,” she said, as in ‘I am learning from my elder,’” said Kris.

In connection with the food coop, volunteers fill containers with soil prepared for gardening. This summer the pots will be filled with vegetables and herbs for the Food Co-op Space, created in partnership with Land Stewardship.

Like many aspects of the Mercantile, or the “Merc” as Kris calls it, it is a work in progress. For example, a fully-accredited butcher shop from Dawson has located an “annex” of that shop at the Merc.

The Merc supports the people of the community who are confused by technology – Connor Peoples (left) is a tech person who helps them find answers. Seated with Peoples is David Jerpseth (left) who is a neighbor and a friend of the Mercantile who helped Kris formulate the plan for the Center. Photo by Patricia Buschette.

“We were just notified that we received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to build out the space to accommodate a local foods co-op,” she said.

Personal health is another aspect of the Merc. A massage therapist operates her business there, and has a spa area right on site.

Children are an important part of the community concept of the Merc, and a cozy setting is provided with age appropriate table and chairs, books, and toys. A backdrop with balloons is available for birthday parties celebrated at the Merc.

The gift of music is present with a music practice room that is 80 percent completed.

“We have a gentleman who gives guitar lessons,” Kris added.

The Merc worked with Pioneer PBS to establish a room where the acoustics can provide a place to practice, and some young people use it for podcasts.

“We are building connections through arts and culture.” she said. “For example, Ortonville booked a musician. They suggested we book her, too, offering the performer 3-4 bookings on one trip.”

For Kris and the Mercantile, sharing resources is a big key.

The Mercantile offers a stage set up with speakers, microphone and audio/visual equipment available for use for local talent and special programming. Photo by Patricia Buschette

“We collaborated with the Dawson Arts group that booked Kevin Kling, an American storyteller and a commentator for National Public Radio,” she said. The event was held at the Merc. “They had the funding; we had the space.”

As new ideas came forward, they were considered and pursued.

“We listened to our community,” Kris said. “They wanted a comfortable, warm and inviting space for exercise classes, yoga, and meditation.” The Wellness and Exercise room, made possible by the Blandin Foundation, will be used for hosting yoga, balance, and dance. Progress continues as the room is being prepared and equipment secured.

The Mercantile’s fame is spreading.

“Other towns wonder how we did this,” Kris said. “We are home to a dozen other organizations, a quilt organization, AA, Men’s Shed, theater group community foundation.” We need for a place for the people to meet that isn’t in someone’s living room.”

One group that calls the Merc home is the Prairie Eco-links, which meets every Thursday.

“They focus on climate change, conservation, soil health, and local food production, and recently celebrated Earth Day,” she said. “It has become more intergenerational and includes 30 year olds.”

Quilting at The Madison Mercantile. Jean Munsterman is one of many who are working on this beautiful quilt to commemorate the 150th Lac qui Parle County Fair. Photo by Patricia Buschette

Janice Anderson is not the only artist whose work will find a venue for display. In November last year, Clarkfield artist Franz Allbert Richter showcased a “A Life in Art” gallery exhibit at the Mercantile. A local artist, he was considered by many as one of the most influential artists and historians of the Upper Minnesota River Valley region. He had collaborated with such notables as Garrison Keillor, Robert Bly and Bill Holm. Richter died on Dec. 2, 2022, shortly after the exhibit.

This month’s exhibit features books and poetry. Next month will highlight woodworking.

Grants and funding from many sources provides assistance.

“We received help from Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF) to build a Community Workshop,” Kris said. The Men’s Shed provides space for people who enjoy carpentry. Men’s Shed is an International non-profit organization and we are a chapter. It provides a welcoming space where men can work on a variety of mutually-agreed projects.”

Other projects are less flashy, but contribute to the mission of welcoming everybody. The National Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation provided funding for a bathroom designed to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design.

The Mercantile welcomes children. There are areas with toys, games, and books, and comfortable conversation areas, as well as a large area in back for kids to play. Photo by Patricia Buschette

Kris is a member of the SWIF-supported Initiators Fellowship, a program that dovetails beautifully with her desire to transform her vision for a community center into a sustainable effort that will enrich the entire area. As an Initiator, she obtained assistance to help her organize the Merc as a nonprofit in a cohesive integrated legal entity.

The Merc received a federal caregiver grant administered by Minnesota River Agency on Aging. The agency provides advocacy, information, resources and assistance so that older adults can maintain the lifestyle of their choice.

“Madison Caregiver Support Services provides a space for a caregiver support group every Wednesday, some caring for a spouse, some living alone, some seeking grief support. As needs evolve, so does the organization,” Kris explained.

Kris refers to the eclectic, ever-growing, Mercantile as a work in progress and “controlled chaos.” An organizer and visionary at heart, she continues her work on a variety of programs. The Merc promises to be a source of energy for Madison and area communities for years to come.

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