Lerk’s, Squire House Gardens, Old Village lots sold

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The Old Village in Afton was a mess a few years ago as crews worked on four major infrastructure projects: a community sewer system, a better flood levee, reconstruction of St. Croix Trail and storm sewer improvements.

Now that the work in the commercial district is complete, the city is attracting new business owners.

First came Jill and Nick Livingston, who purchased Squire House Gardens last year after longtime owner Martin Stern retired. The couple reopened and renamed the shop, now known as Horta Culture, and moved into the historic home with their two young children.

Next came Nick Morrison, who in April purchased the former Lerk’s Bar — famous for its Lerkburgers — from longtime owner Bonnie Lind. Morrison plans to open a new restaurant in the space, which has been vacant since 2005.

Just north of Horta Culture, the dilapidated “green house” was demolished earlier this month. The property, previously owned by Dennis Amoth, was purchased by Zachary Quinn, the founder and co-CEO of Love Your Melon, who hails from the area. He’s still deciding what to build on the site, but he expects it to be commercial/residential mixed use.

Also in the works: the Afton Retreat Center for Arts and Healing, a new retreat center and commercial space being developed by residents Krista and Steve Dorgan. They purchased the lot at 3185 St. Croix Trail S. and demolished the house and plan to construct a new 5,000-square-foot building.

“If somebody had said, ‘What are the odds that Lerk’s and Dennis’ house both go in the same year?’ I would have said, ‘You’re nuts,’ ” said City Administrator Ron Moorse. “All of a sudden, boom, it happened. Then, at the same time, the Dorgans decide they’re going to build, and Jill and Nick have taken over Squire House. … It becomes much more of a place where people want to be. There starts to be a critical mass.”

Selma’s Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Afton. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Becky Nickerson, owner of Selma’s Ice Cream Parlor, is thrilled with the explosion of interest. Nickerson, who purchased the Afton landmark in 2011 and opened for her first season in 2012, said all of the new owners “have great energy, great ideas. I think Afton has just been poised for this.”

Dave Jarvis, whose family owns the Afton House Inn, the Swirl Wine Club, Shop and Bar and Current restaurant in Afton, along with the Hudson, Wis.-based St. Croix River Cruises, said he, too, is encouraged.

“For Afton to be a desirable location that is sustainable for small businesses, there needs to be more,” said Jarvis, whose parents, Gordy and Kathy, bought the Afton House Inn in 1976. “It’s one thing for us to withstand the ’70s and ’80s and high interest rates and 9/11 and the pandemic and everything else that we’ve seen in this crazy world, but there just needs to be more — more retail shops, more restaurants, more living spaces. This is a great first step.”

Added Mayor Bill Palmquist: “It’s not going to happen overnight — it never does — but, right now, things look really good. We’ve got a great group of people investing in the community.”


A couple and two children in a store.
Jill and Nicholas Livingston, with their children, 11-month-old Anders, left, and Lotte, 3, in their new business, Horta Culture, which replaced Squire House Gardens, in Afton’s Old Village on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

When Martin Stern, the longtime owner of Squire House Gardens, announced last year that he was retiring from the store and closing the business in August, people worried about what would happen to the shop, a longtime destination for out-of-towners. They needn’t have.

The Livingstons continue to sell plants, flowers and garden supplies, but they’ve revamped the place. The retail operation is now solely in the back of the building, in the 1970s addition, and the Livingstons and their two young children, Lotte, 3½, and Anders, 11 months, have moved into the historic home, built in 1876 by Minnesota’s first postmaster, which is in front.

“When we first moved in, we were just going to do exactly what Richard (Meacock) and Martin had done: live upstairs, retail downstairs. But the more we lived in the space, the more we felt really drawn to living in that sort of cohesive historic home,” Jill Livingston said. “The front room has a beautiful view of the garden, and we spend a lot of time around our dining room table, so it felt right for us.”

Retail is located in three rooms, and all of the items sold embody the store’s mission of “artful and sustainable outdoor living,” said Jill Livingston, who has worked in garden and floral design, education and retail for more than 20 years. Workshops and classes will be held in the back room, which doubles as a potting studio.

Yoga classes are held in the garden on the fourth Sunday of every month, and the couple plans to begin offering up the space for private dinners, bridal luncheons and other events.

Eventually, the Livingstons would like to build a glass house in the shop’s “sunken garden” for more events and additional retail, she said.

“We want another way to draw people out into the garden, because part of what really fuels this is this whole idea of it being a gathering space,” she said. “That’s why the yoga, the classes, the dinners. We want to demonstrate to people what all you can do in your outdoor space.”

The couple also hopes to begin offering picnic fare to cyclists, boaters, motorcyclists and hikers. “People are moving,” she said. “They don’t necessarily want to stop and sit down, but they do want to have something, especially in the summer, that is fresh and delicious and something portable.”

The Livingstons said they are encouraged by the “welcoming reception” they have received.

“I just feel like we walked into a place that really lives old-town values, but in a way that’s becoming modernized,” Jill Livingston said. “I don’t know if ‘zeitgeist’ is the right term … there’s definitely an alignment of values and an alignment of aesthetic that is happening here for a lot of people, and that’s been really positive.”


Man standing outside a bar.
Nick Morrison at the former Lerk’s Bar in Afton on Thursday, July 21, 2022. Morrison has purchased the bar, vacant since 2005, and plans to build an addition to the building and open a restaurant. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Originally from London, England, Nick Morrison moved to Minnesota with his family when he was 16. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he worked for the luxury-hotel brand Viceroy, which took him to Los Angeles; Aspen, Colo.; and Nantucket, Mass. While living on Nantucket, he started his career in real estate. After moving back to Minnesota in 2018, he started working as a Realtor for Bridge Realty in Bloomington.

Morrison, an avid skier, said he discovered Lerk’s during trips to and from Afton Alps. He purchased the building in April.

“I remember driving into town and seeing the building, and my first thought was, ‘Why is this not what it was?’ ” he said. “It’s such a great little Victorian village — I just fell in love with it, really, with those beautiful mature trees, lovely main street, the park, the ice cream shop, the decor shop, the little inn, and I just thought, ‘Oh, there are so many incredible things,’ but then smack in the middle of that is this abandoned building, basically, and I thought, ‘Well, that doesn’t seem right.’ ”

Morrison, 38, plans to open a restaurant in the space next year. The name has yet to be determined, but he says it will be a nod to the town’s founding or have a connection to the St. Croix River Valley.

“I want it to feel like it has always been there, like it had never gone away, and that it had been a continuous operation from the early days of the town’s founding,” he said.

He said Lind, the previous owner, preferred that he not keep the name “Lerk’s,” which was named for her father, Harold “Lerk” Lind, whose nickname meant “onion” in Swedish.

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