The small tan stucco house at 2737 Mary St. rang with laughter and conversation as neighbors tried fried green tomatoes and blubarb crunch last Saturday. What started out as a trickle of people at 9 a.m. swelled to about 25 a couple of hours later. Wrigley, a black mixed breed rescue dog, greeted everyone and watched for dropped crumbs.
It was a typical Saturday morning at Minne Lusa House, the low-key project of friends Sharon Olson and Beth Richards.
Their goal: to do something in retirement that would bring the residents of their Minne Lusa neighborhood together — to create an environment where people talked to each other and congregated not only for special activities but also for something as simple as coffee on Saturday mornings.
Olson, a phone company retiree, and her mail carrier, Richards, had talked about how people didn't really know their neighbors anymore. After Richards retired, the women decided to change that.
They thought food could be the focal point of their project. They would buy a house and create a space where they could talk about raising food and give canning lessons.
“We thought, we'll teach people to can,” said Olson, who is lively, short and white-haired. “They'll have to talk to each other.”
They purchased the house on Mary Street, which is lined with mostly small to midsize single-family homes. Minne Lusa Boulevard, one block to the east, has grander homes on either side of a grassy median. Miller Park is two blocks to the south.
Using their own money, they spent $20,000 on the house and thought another $20,000 would take care of any fixes. But they estimate that they have spent about $80,000 on the house altogether. They had to replace the roof and “we went above and beyond on that kitchen,” said the easy-going Richards.
They removed walls to turn a living room, dining room and kitchen into one large open space. With friends, they used light paint colors inside to get rid of the navy blue that came with the house. They replaced all the kitchen appliances and cabinets. They refinished wood trim and floors.
They converted two bedrooms on the main floor to an office area and a large pantry for food. They have plans for the upstairs: a little museum for their collection of all things Minne Lusa.
“Everything we did was with the idea that we would unite the community,” Richards said.
And it worked.
They opened their doors to neighbors in May 2011.
“Minne Lusa House seems to give a different vibe to the neighborhood,” said Matt Baker, a former president of the neighborhood association and its current vice president. “People will come here on Saturday mornings instead of an association meeting. There's no threat. It's so laid back. Things get discussed.”
Canning lessons and other activities draw steady attendance, as do the weekly Saturday Brew coffee gatherings. Involvement in neighborhood activities has increased. Nearby residents have spruced up their yards and houses.
“People in the neighborhood talk about it, even if they don't come (to the Saturday gatherings),” said Baker, who had his 5-year-old son, Liam, and 12-week-old puppy, Sampson, with him that Saturday.
Some people came for a half-hour; others stayed beyond the noon end time. Conversation bounced from topic to topic. People moved around, constantly starting and changing small conversation groups.
These Saturday morning get-togethers have become an important part of people's lives, attendees said. Lori Vieth, two weeks after her release from the hospital for major surgery, was there. She had wanted to return her first week out of the hospital, but her body just wasn't up to it.
“They have given us a sense of neighborhood. I love the community feel — the familyness of it,” said Vieth, a baker for Hy-Vee, who has held a cake decorating workshop at the house and hopes to do more.
Richards and Olson aren't afraid to experiment. They served their first fried green tomatoes Saturday. The green tomatoes had been canned last fall, and everyone agreed that the result was great, especially if you added a little garlic. That afternoon, they intended to try to make garlic jelly for the first time.
The two laugh when they relate some of their experiments. Ten people once gathered to can 80 pounds of olives. A call went out. “Pretty soon we had 30 people,” Olson said.
They've made corncob jelly, cowboy candy with jalapeno peppers, pickled Brussels sprouts called frog balls and a combination of vegetables for Bloody Mary toppers. There's still a lot of canned pumpkin left after last Halloween, and they're trying to figure out what all they can do with it.
Minne Lusa House is not a tax-exempt program, and the women said they have no plans to apply for nonprofit status.
“No one is backing us,” Richards said. Selling jams and jellies brings in a little, she said, and they take produce or canned goods to the farmers markets.
They charge $10 each for classes and sell T-shirts and sweatshirts with their logo. They also receive small donations from visitors.
“We don't expect to get rich,” Olson said with dry humor.
Neighbors appreciate their efforts and their generosity.
“They are so important to this neighborhood,” said the Rev. Liz Backus, a minister at nearby Trinity Lutheran Church. “Not many people would make the investment that they have.”
Although most Saturday Brew visitors come from the immediate neighborhood, friends from other parts of the city find their way there. John Barna and Cynthia Shuck, who live in Gifford Park, come often, they said. Sometimes speakers from city government or the police department come to visit or present programs.
Saturday Brew is open to anyone who wants to stop by. You don't have to drink coffee, “but if you come, you better eat,” Olson warned.
Although they each live in their own homes in the neighborhood, Olson and Richards spend time at Minne Lusa House almost every day. Richards owns the empty lot next to her home where she has a big garden. They also have garden space at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on North 30th Street.
They said the area is trying to live down its reputation for crime. There isn't a lot these days, they insist, although they have no statistics to quote. Records show there have been no homicides in the area since early 2011. Both women are single and said they feel safe at home. And the neighborhood's citizen patrol is active.
You can tell Olson and Richards take pride in what Minne Lusa House means to the neighborhood and to their lives.
“We're retired,” Richards said with another laugh. “And we're as busy as we want to get.”
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