While some may think that Norwegians named the village of Mount Horeb, its moniker was actually given by George Wright, an Englishman who came to Blue Mounds township in 1858. Wright was appointed postmaster of a new post office meant to serve residents of the eastern part of the township in 1861, and he had the privilege of naming it. After searching the Bible, Wright chose the name Mount Horeb. The post office remained in his home, about a mile from the present-day village, until 1867.
The post office was then relocated to the general store in the tiny settlement known as the Corners, the intersection of four major roads in that part of Dane County and east of Mount Horeb’s present-day downtown. Following the relocation of the post office, the community was called Horeb’s Corners then, finally, Mount Horeb. With the coming of many Norwegians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mount Horeb acquired the Scandinavian flavor that remains today.
In 1881, the Chicago and North Western Railway decided to construct a line through Mount Horeb on the way to Lancaster. When a depot was built away from where most of the early businesses were located, some owners moved their businesses to be closer. Others built new. The prime commercial area was located almost immediately along South First Street and the 100 block of East Main Street. That area now encompasses Mount Horeb’s Main Street Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019.
One of the businesses in the historic district is the Bruce Taylor Gallery. Bruce has been in his current storefront, 207 E. Main Street, for 28 of his 82 years. He says, “The building has a lot of charm and feels homey.” Originally the O.B. Dahle and Son General Store, built in 1887, the building has a two-story Italianate section at the corner of Main and Second. Another seven entities are housed in the building, including offices of the owner, Pete Waltz. Bruce has the highest praise for Pete. “There is no better landlord on the face of the earth. At the start of the pandemic he was generous giving two months’ free rent and then charged only a half month’s rent for the following year.”
Attorney Pete Walz originally bought a half interest in his building in the 1970s and has been the sole owner for the past 25 years. The section of the building where his office is located has housed a post office, shoe repair shop, barber shop, insurance companies, and the first office of Mount Horeb Cable, along with other entities over the years. At one time a mezzanine was in use in the building. Today the space is used for storage. “The ceilings are nine feet tall, and you can see the original timbers in the unused parts of the building. It’s substantially built,” says Pete.
Michael Anderson, a financial advisor with Edward Jones Investments, has been at 106 E. Main Street since 2006, but his firm has been in the building, constructed in 1894, since the mid-1990s. Michael says, “Even though the building feels modern when you walk in, one can’t ignore its history, and we try to match the décor to the character of the building.” A few of Michael’s clients have even been employees of previous businesses that occupied the space, including a video rental store, hardware store, soda fountain, and realtor.
The building’s boomtown front was a commercial vernacular design constructed during early settlement years to evoke an image of progress and prosperity. According to the National Register nomination, concentrations of intact boomtown front commercial vernacular buildings of the type seen in Mount Horeb rarely survive a community’s pioneer era. The overall integrity of the buildings in the village is very good.
Next door at 108 E. Main Street is another boomtown front style building erected in 1885 by Dr. Niels Evans for his pharmacy, office, and home. Not only did Dr. Evans open Mount Horeb’s first hospital, but he served as village president, justice of the peace, Dane County supervisor, and member of the state legislature. He was also a founder and director of the State Bank of Mount Horeb and the Mount Horeb Independent Telephone Company. Like many early Mount Horeb businesses, the most recent occupant at 108 E. Main, Moonhill Mercantile, moved in from another location.
Sugar Troll, a store with a new twist on an old-fashioned candy store offering sustainable, high-craft candies and Italian gelato, is at 122 E. Main Street and opened March 2021. A two-story masonry block 19th century commercial vernacular style, this store was originally a meat market. The building shows brick, segmental arched lintels at the second story, and is decorated with a cornice.
The owners of Sugar Troll, Robin Pharo and Tim Duerst, also own the Grumpy Troll Brew Pub, located at 105 S. Second Street. Robin and Tim like to “lean into the history” of the buildings and display many heritage pictures at Grumpy Troll. Robin explains, “The Grumpy Troll used to be a cheese factory. There’s a ghost on the premises, and everyone who has worked there has had an encounter with him. He’s friendly, and we think he may have been an employee of the cheese factory. Perhaps he really liked his job, so that’s why he stuck around.” Or maybe he likes the craft beer brewed at the Grumpy Troll.
Grumpy Troll celebrated 20 years in business in 2019, when Robin and Tim, fourth owners of the business, took over. “We are huge brewery fans and wanted to preserve the building. You get a lot of value and architectural features you couldn’t afford in a new build. It does cost more to maintain, and there are rules about windows, signage, and colors; however, buildings in redeveloped historic districts add so much to the community and tourism base.”
All of the interviewed businesses in the historic district agree that it’s the charm of the village that draws visitors. That and the trolls. When the 1980s Highway 18/151 bypass was built around Mount Horeb, businesses in the village were concerned about losing customers. Then they remembered the trolls one of the shops had placed on its lawn to attract visitors—trolls of ancient Norwegian lore that caught the attention of passing truckers. Village officials asked Michael Feeney, the troll carver of Mount Horeb, to create more. They were placed on Business 18/151, branded as the Trollway. So take a stroll on the Trollway, visit the businesses in the Main Street Historic District, and have a charmed day in the “Troll Capital of the World.”
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.