By BARRY ADAMS, Wisconsin State Journal
MONTELLO, Wis. (AP) — Even amid the floodwaters that swamped the western Wisconsin city of Montello, the foundation of Shirley’s Old Time Barbershop held fast. But with the repair costs mounting and recently received government aid not likely to last long, its future remains uncertain.
When heavy rains fell in August on much of the state, turning even the smallest creeks into raging torrents, Shirley Lynch had plenty of reason to be anxious. Her business’s foundation, even during the driest months, is in constant contact with the Montello River, which flows south out of Lake Montello and divides this city’s historic downtown before merging with the Fox River.
In the end, the worst of Lynch’s fears did not come to pass. But even though her building’s foundation stood the test, her business — a fixture in this city’s downtown for generations — has had to be closed for nearly four months.
“I thought the river was going to take my building down the river. It was bad,” said Lynch, 58. “I know a lot of people got it worse than me. But I’m not working and it’s killing me.”
Lynch is one of 10 business owners in Wisconsin approved for a $15,000 no-interest disaster-recovery microloan from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the Madison Region Economic Partnership. The loans, which have a two-year repayment period, are designed to provide a short-term source of money for repair work and operating expenses.
Even with such assistance, Lynch finds her situation depressing. To really bring her business back to life, she would need even more money. Not having it will most likely mean she will soon no longer be able to provide the shaves, buzz cuts and trims she has been giving since graduating from Madison Area Technical College nearly four decades ago.
With the business’s foundation holding up well during the flooding, the real damage came from above. The roof of a connected building collapsed during the storm, allowing rain to come in and work its way into the walls and ceiling of Lynch’s shop.
Water poured through light fixtures, damaging Lynch’s walls and red-and-white checkered floor. Meanwhile, the back storage room’s ceiling collapsed, and its floor, where Lynch had stored supplies and Christmas decorations, was weakened to the point that it’s now close to falling into the basement.
“It’s safe to walk here, there and over there,” Lynch said during a tour.
Lynch has owned the business since 1994, when she bought it for $16,000. In the early years, she said, it wasn’t uncommon for her to have six to 10 people waiting for haircuts. Lately, though, she hasn’t been able to support her business without taking on side jobs.
“This place was built to be a barbershop and has always been a barbershop,” said Lynch, who believes the building dates to the 1800s. “This is my life. This barbershop is nothing without a barber and I’m a barber and I can’t really be a barber without my barbershop.”
Montello was one of many places in southern Wisconsin that was hammered by record rains and widespread flooding during the last week of August. The disaster killed two people and resulted in more than $200 million worth of damage in 15 counties. Fifty-six houses were destroyed, 564 were reported to have “major” damage and nearly 4,000 were reported to have “minor” damage. As for businesses, 14 were destroyed, 62 were reported to have major damage and 96 were reported to have minor damage, according to state officials.
In Marquette County, which has a population of about 15,300 people, every single road that crosses the Fox River and Buffalo Lake was either damaged or submerged in water. Travel times were extended by an hour, first responders were forced to stage emergency vehicles and equipment on both sides of the river, and schools were closed in Montello for a week, according to a report from the state and submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Despite the widespread damage, there are now few visible reminders of the recent flood in the city of 1,445. The Montello River, for one, has returned to a manageable level.
And Montello can still boast of various attractions: a downtown business district featuring historic buildings, waterfalls made out of an old granite quarry at Daggett Memorial Park, and a miniature chapel pumping out Christmas carols once an hour over a loudspeaker. The Granite Falls Supper Club, whose menu lists smoked oysters and frog legs, is for sale. More Healthy Foods & Cafe offers up organic fare and music, and the historic Vaughn Hall, built in 1912 to house a blacksmith shop on its ground floor and dance hall on its second, is now home to a museum and events venue. One of the newest businesses to open in Montello, Oyster Crackers, is a soup-and-sandwich diner a few doors down from Lynch’s barbershop.
“In the last year we’ve had seven or eight new businesses open,” said Jim Houdek, president of the Montello Chamber of Commerce, who manages a local machine shop. “There are some buildings that have challenges but there’s a lot of positives happening in our downtown.”
But for Lynch, the last four months have been a nightmare. The building next to hers, once home to Mary’s Coffee Cup and more recently, Trigger’s Grill, has been vacant for years. The owner, Rob Fricke, who could not be reached for this story, has not been responding to Lynch’s inquiries, she said. Court action is not likely an option for Lynch since she believes Fricke, who recently went through an eviction hearing, has few resources. His building, recently assessed at just $12,700, is in dire need of repairs and renovation, according to city records.
In late August, with water pouring into her building, Lynch reached out to the county health inspector after coming to suspect that mold was growing in Fricke’s building. When an inspector later came to Lynch barbershop and saw its condition, he ordered it shut down and had the electricity turned off until repairs could be made.
“I ended up telling on myself,” Lynch said. “Nobody will give me an estimate. Everybody’s busy because of the flood. All the carpenters are busy. I’ve just had a hard time getting someone to commit to the job.”