By Sheila Julson
When the South Shore Farmers Market (SSFM) opens its 24th season this summer, two familiar faces will be absent. Dolly Mertens of Wild Flour Bakery and Phil Herrin of Herrin Farms are semi-retiring.
Both Mertens and Herrin have participated in the market since its beginning years. The Compass caught up with them to capture their reflections on their years at the market and about their future plans.
Dolly and her husband Greg Mertens have been married for almost 50 years. They have always been entrepreneurs at heart. Dolly once owned a custard stand in Eau Claire, WI. The couple owned a residential and commercial cleaning business, which they sold 27 years ago to start Wild Flour.
Wild Flour’s first location was a leased space in New Berlin. They outgrew it and purchased a building on the corner of South 28th Street and West Lincoln Avenue. They’ve also operated in Bay View, East Troy, the Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee, and their current location, 1205 S. Milwaukee Ave., in South Milwaukee.
The Mertens recently partnered with Stephen Blanchard of Stephen’s Breads. “During that process, we will be selling to him,” Dolly said. “Our breads are similar, yet different. We both do sourdough breads, and we both work with starters, which is a more artisan way of baking bread.”
Dolly grew up on her family’s farm in Colby, WI. She’s the 13th of 14 children. “My mother and I baked every day—we had people to feed!” she said.
She was inspired by the generosity that her parents showed to the community. Her father Bill Hackel harvested a fellow farmer’s crops for him while he recovered from back surgery. Her mother Helen frequently bought garments at rummages sales, laundered and mended them, and then Dolly secretly dropped them off on the doorsteps of their impoverished neighbors.
Warm sense of community
Wild Flour was one of the vendors at the SSFM at the inaugural market event in 1998. Dolly was approached by market volunteers to ask if she was interested in participating. At first, she was apprehensive about taking on another market. At the time, she was selling at three other farmers markets. “But I said, ‘Sure, let’s do it and I loved it! It’s one of my favorite places,’” she said. “It’s a very different community.”
Wild Flour was at the New Berlin, Cathedral Square, and Brookfield farmers markets. South Shore was her fourth market. “I call South Shore my market,” she said. “We did several others, but I call it my market because it’s where I choose to be every Saturday.”
Dolly and Greg had help from their family. Their son Josh was involved with the business for 20 years. His wife Alayna also helped. Their other son Jay and his wife Michelle were also involved, and their daughter Brenda DeLatora helped operate Wild Flour’s stand at the SSFM.
Dolly recalled how Brenda, now 29 years old and living in Florida, was tearful during a recent phone conversation. “She said, ‘Grandma, I wanted to be there with you on your last day at the market!’ She got to know all the customers and gained so much from being there,” Dolly said.
The SSFM’s warm sense of community, along with a solid market board and volunteer staff, were outstanding, Dolly said. Most of the vendors have become friends. They frequently share leftover products and help each other if someone runs out of change or needs help at their stand when short-staffed.
Dolly maintained a tradition of gifting a loaf of bread to a family when they brought a new baby to the market. “It’s to welcome the new baby to the community. I’ve given away a lot of bread. Families later return with their second or third child and remember how I gave them that first loaf. I tell them that Bay View’s population had risen dramatically because I gave them a loaf of bread,” she quipped.
Many of those families return to say hello with those same children who are now grown and in college.
There were five vendors at SSFM when Dolly first started. “It was small, but it did not take long for people to have a real interest in being in that market and build that sense of community,” she said.
Dolly knew Phil Herrin from the Cathedral Square market. He often dropped off his son Mark, who was 14 in the market’s first season, so Dolly could watch him while Phil worked other markets. It wasn’t long before Mark was minding the Herrin Farms stand at SSFM.
When she first started, Dolly said sesame semolina and cranberry walnut breads were her top sellers. Her jalapeño cheese bread flew off the table, along with brioche buns, which she started making in recent years for upscale pubs and restaurants.
What does retirement have in store for Mertens? “More sleep!” she laughed. She plans to spend more time with her four grandchildren and vacation at their second home in Utah. “But it’s not like I’m going to ignore the bakery. I’ll still have my hands on the flour one way or another,” she said.
Dolly plans to visit the market this summer. “I collect people,” she said. “I have made so many wonderful friendships—the market staff, the other vendors, and the customers. These people, even though I don’t see them a great deal, have brought so much to my world.”