When Tom and Melody Fucik bought Iola Mills back in 1996, they had a dream to restore the Mill; 17-years later, that dream still remains the same.
“When we first bought it in 1996, I was working full-time in the golf industry,” said Tom. “The mill was kind of a hobby, our long term goals then were to work on the property because we enjoyed it. Eventually, to retire here and run a business similar to what I am doing right now.”
Things changed when Tom became ill in 2002 and required emergency brain surgery.
“A week before Christmas I developed a headache that never went away. Everyone told me I had the flu,” he said. “Finally on the fifth day, after Melody left for work, I started feeling better and I laid down to sleep it off.
“In reality, I somehow was afflicted with an infection that got inside my brain. As it spread, my brain began to swell; my senses were dulled.
“I was actually slipping into unconsciousness, when my dog, Mikey, somehow sensed I was in trouble and came upstairs, jumped on the bed and barked up a storm – something he never did before.
“He kept trying to get me up with his nose. When I tried to get up, my whole right side was paralyzed. I had enough left to get a hold of my daughter on the phone; she got me to the hospital. A CT scan found a large abscess, which was the source of the infection.”
Leaving Tom temporarily disabled and eventually unemployed, it put the Fuciks in a serious bind.
“It wiped us out financially and emotionally,” Tom said. “We have been trying to climb out ever since. The timing couldn’t have been worse. We were left with a capital-intensive project and no revenue stream to support the continued development.”
“By the time I recovered I was in my mid-50s. I was still at the top of my game, but I found it hard to pick up where I left off,” he said. “So, I decided to put all my efforts into this (The Mill). Melody got a full-time job at JanSport in Appleton, which is the source of our health insurance. Working 50 miles apart just adds another challenge.”
“Our goals are still the same, the time frame just got extended,” Fucik said. “It has slowed me down and made it a lot tougher to get everything done. Now we have to rely on business income and I have to do most of the work by myself.”
Three buildings on the property are part of the National Register of Historic Places.
Fucik has worked with historic architects to give him guidance. He also gets a 25 percent kick-back in tax credits for the restoration.
“To be eligible for the tax credits, I have to do things to their standards. Unfortunately, it only covers materials and not my labor.” he said.
The pride shows on Fucik’s face as he talks about what he has accomplished this far.
“The first few years I worked on the foundation,” he said. “The center of the mill sagged as much as a foot in the middle because the wooden supports were in the stream. I had to work with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the National Park Service and the Wisconsin State Historical Society. It was an endless amount of paperwork and permits. But the end result is that they are all very happy with what I did.”
“During the process of working on the foundation, I also had the 19th century water turbine rebuilt and have been using it to co-generate electricity since 1999,” Fucik said. “A few years ago we found an article in the Iola Herald from 1899 that told of the Iola Mills purchasing an ‘Edison Dynamo’ to generate power. Exactly 100 years later, we started generating electricity again. The primitive original controls are still on the wall in the mill and will be on display when we get the museum open again.”
“There are not many mills left like this water-powered mill; even fewer left that have working equipment. This is the real value in the building,” he said. “I want to expose as much of this as I can.”
“Next we had to re-roof everything and then began working on the windows and siding,” said Fucik. “The center of the building is the oldest part and was built using post-and-beam construction. Rotten timbers had to be removed and replaced before the restoration process could begin. All the structural issues were repaired and cedar siding and trim boards were applied to match original materials.”
He is currently working on restoring the floor inside the mill.
Once all projects are complete, the building will re-open as a museum.
“The Mill will primarily be a museum, but a museum that has activity. The more activity you bring in, the more use you get out of the building,” Fucik said. “I want visitors to have an enjoyable experience, appreciate history and learn the value of it.”
In the area that was formerly a gift shop for the museum, the Fucik’s opened a restaurant, The Millstone, which opened in 2007.
The Millstone features hand-made gelato, casual dining, locally brewed beers and an espresso bar. The Millstone also serves hand-made pizza Friday and Saturday nights.
Part of the Millstone’s charm comes from the historic dècor seen inside.
“We are a Travel Green Wisconsin destination,” Fucik said. “I try to salvage as much as I can and repurpose items from other historical buildings as well. There are over 40 other churches, schools, post offices, and other buildings represented in the Millstone. A partial list can be found on our website at iolamills.com.”
“The Millstone was never meant to stand alone; it is part of a much bigger picture. Once the mill opens the two will complement each other,” he said.
“We envision people coming in to grab a sandwich or gelato and then go listen to music or see a recital in the mill. I would like to see the building be used for such things as live entertainment, business meetings and even weddings,” he continued. “Our first wedding will be on Aug. 24, when our daughter Emmeline will marry Jeff Prokash. I have a lot of work to get done before then.”
“It has taken us a lot longer than we had planned, but the end result is very rewarding,” Fucik said. “What better way to give back to a community than to restore part of its history.”