The Bien building at 222 Main in Milbank is one of the grand dames of Milbank. This year, she celebrates her 120th birthday and like most women of advancing age has earned her quirks and wrinkles. Get closer, though, and you see her classic beauty. It was always there – it just needed a little polishing from new owners, Mark and Susan Leddy.
Mark is the man behind her redux. He loves history in general and Grant County and Milbank history in particular. He has a passion for restoring buildings and is eager to work on this project. Mark said, “I love the way Europeans restore their old buildings and I want to do the same to preserve the history of Milbank.” His job is part magician, part manual labor and, like every good makeover, there’s a lot of cutting, glossing, waxing, and buffing going on.
Makeovers are also famous for their surprises and this one is no exception. According to Leddy, during demolition, large glass block windows in the rear of the building were exposed. The windows had been preserved in nearly mint condition. “Back then, things were built to last – amazingly well- in another hundred years, I expect this place to be here.”
Leddy says his new tenants – EXIT Realty, Milbank Eyecare, and Urban Threads – will benefit from the best of both worlds. There’s the solidness that comes from historic construction and the beauty of tradition combined with all the modern conveniences. The building’s life started before telephones and electric lights were commonplace and now it will have computers and the internet – today’s necessities.
Although the site has been home to a pharmacy since 1881, the brick building of today wasn’t erected until 1897. She rose from the ashes of her ancestor – a plainer wooden structure.
The original business, Excelsior Pharmacy, was started by Dr. O.S. Pine in December 1881, but by 1892, Pine had moved from Milbank and his right hand man, N.J. Bleser, purchased the drugstore. In February 1897, a devastating fire destroyed the building and several others on Main Street. Bleser immediately found temporary quarters for his pharmacy and went to work creating a safer more sophisticated place of business.
Perhaps he envisioned her as a tougher generation with great bones and style to boot as he drafted his design. He replaced the wood with thick brick walls and added hardwood floors and plate glass windows and mirrors to reflect the glow from the gas lamps. He also selected ornate tin tiles for the lofty ceilings, a lightweight and fireproof product, and a fashionable choice at the zenith of their popularity. When his new shop opened on November 11, 1897, it was elegant, up-to-date, and considered as “afternoonified” as anything in the big city.
She entered the world at a time when McKinley was President and mauve became a color. Coca-Cola still contained cocaine and it would be two years before aspirin was manufactured and marketed.
It was also the year the ice cream scoop was invented, which is more important than it sounds, because during the time Bleser was running the drugstore in its temporary quarters, he installed a soda fountain. Later, he moved it to his new store where it stayed until 1966. Mark unearthed the original soda fountain stools in the basement of the property. In the rear of the building, they found a custom-made showcase from the original Bleser’s. They plan to use it to display other antique and vintage treasures discovered during the remodel. Luckily, the gargantuan Cary safe that has been used from Bleser to Bien is already on the main floor. It will also assume a place of honor in the front of the building for all to see.
Bleser’s Drugstore remained a family-owned business until 1967 when it was sold to John Radeke and renamed Radeke Drug. Twenty years later, Radeke sold to Dan Hilgenburg, who renamed it Dan’s Pharmacy. Dan expanded the business to include the building next door – the former Lindrud’s – a five and dime. Another twenty years later and it became Bien Pharmacy in 2007. In December 2016, Lance Bien picked up shop and moved to the new Avera Healthcare campus on the east side of Milbank. Mark and Susan acquired the property in February and immediately began the facelift with the help of Hicks Construction and Nelson Electric.
The couple has dubbed the building “222 Main” and divided the 4,400 square feet to accommodate multiple businesses. Mark cites the need and excitement of revitalizing existing Main Street structures to inspire people to start businesses. “People often give up when confronted with buying a building and investing money into it. They quit before they even get started.” Susan says she believes, “When visiting a town to decide if you want to make it your home, you look to see if it has a healthy Main Street. We want to do our part to ensure Milbank’s is vital. We grew up with the sign ‘You’ll Like Milbank’. It’s something we believe in.”
When 222 Main reopens this spring it will be the new home of EXIT Realty. Owner and realtor, Denice Hooth, says she is excited to be moving to Main Street, “It’s the perfect location for a realtor and it’s going to be so beautiful. I love the high tin ceiling. Many people would do a slapped together job just to get the building ready. Not Mark – he is doing it right!” Dr. Nick Gillmore of Milbank Eyecare will expand his business to include additional exam rooms. Lindsey Keller is moving her boutique, Urban Threads, into the north half of the property. She says she is super-excited about all the added space. “I plan to expand my women’s and girls’ clothing and add men’s and boys’ wear, too. I’ll also be open more hours.”
Somehow it seems fitting. For her 120th birthday, this Grand Dame of Milbank is not only receiving a makeover, she’s getting some new clothes, too.