Iconic symbol returns to McGregor's Main Street

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For the first time since the July 19, 2017 tornado, the well-known mortar and pestle is hanging outside the McGregor Pharmacy. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Although the original was too damaged to repair, local resident Mike Sloan was able to create a replica mortar and pestle, which was hung outside the pharmacy building on Main Street Aug. 5. (Photo courtesy of Larry Brummel)

Using the original mortar and pestle as a guide, Sloan cut out large pieces of styrofoam as a template for the mortar and attached them to a tube. (Photo courtesy of Mike Sloan)

He filled that in with more styrofoam to build the shape. The structure was then plastered and coated in polyvinyl alcohol and, later, fiberglass, before being painted. (Photo courtesy of Mike Sloan)

The pestle, formed using another construction tube with a simple rubber ball on the end, was moulded as a separate piece and joined to the mortar later. (Photo courtesy of Mike Sloan)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

For the first time since the July 19, 2017 tornado, the well-known mortar and pestle is hanging outside the McGregor Pharmacy.

The move has generated quite a bit of attention. Within minutes of the mortar and pestle’s installation on Aug. 5, social media was flooded with photos, racking up hundreds of likes and shares. Larry and Maria Brummel, who own the pharmacy building at 230 Main St., said they haven’t gone anywhere the past week without hearing about it.

“I was at two different places yesterday and that was the first thing they said,” remarked Larry, who was the long-time pharmacist in McGregor before turning the business over to Dennis Alcorn. “A lot of people have commented.”

“It’s an iconic symbol,” he noted. “For years, people have used it as a guideline for where to stop.”

That’s why, when the tornado tore down and damaged the structure two years ago, the Brummels were determined to bring it back to life.

They reached out to rural McGregor resident Mike Sloan for help.

“We heard he was really good with boats,” a skill that could translate well to rehabbing the fiberglass mortar and pestle, said Larry.

Sloan worked with fiberglass many years ago as a profession and still does it as a hobby. Now, he’s in construction. In the time after the tornado, he found himself busy with many projects around town. But this request stood out.

“I thought it was a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “It’s such an icon.”

The Brummels are unsure where the mortar and pestle came from or even when it originally went up. Maria said Floyd and Sally Wagner, who owned the pharmacy from 1965 to 1975, before selling it to the Brummels, oversaw the installation.

Under Larry and Maria’s watch, it was fixed up and repainted once by an elderly artist named Roy Gluss.

Unfortunately, this time around, there was no fixing the original structure. The damage was extensive, and too much weight would have to be added to make the necessary repairs, leaving it unsafe to hang, Sloan explained.

So he started from scratch, using the original mortar and pestle as a guide. After drawing out a plan, Sloan cut out large pieces of styrofoam as a template for the mortar. He attached the pieces—32 in all—like “spokes  on a wheel” around a tube that’s normally used for pouring cement.

“I put that on a pipe with a couple rollers on the end, so it was a lathe-like apparatus. Then I started gluing one piece at a time,” Sloan explained. “I filled that in with more styrofoam and kept building the shape.”

The project was actually fairly easy, he said, since the mortar is symmetrical.

The pestle, formed using another construction tube with a simple rubber ball on the end, was moulded as a separate piece and joined to the mortar later. A dome-shaped piece at the top of the mortar, which Sloan said will keep water from getting into the structure and increase its longevity, was moulded separately as well.

Next, Sloan moved to plastering, utilizing his sheet rocking skills. Then he coated the structure with polyvinyl alcohol to prevent the fiberglass from melting the styrofoam. Finally, he hand laid the fiberglass.

“Then I tore the inside out,” he said. “I would just go in with my hands and rip the styrofoam apart.”

The last step was painting the mortar and pestle white and gold with purple and pink details.

“Larry provided me with stencils that were all original,” Sloan noted.

The finished product comes in at around 86 pounds. Sloan estimates he invested roughly 120 hours of labor into the project. But it was a labor of love.

When he took it down to the pharmacy, “I didn’t even get it off the trailer and people were coming by with thumbs up, saying ‘about time,’” he shared. “That’s very satisfying to me, to have the townspeople cheering you on.”

“There were many hours of hard labor,” Sloan added, “but also a satisfaction of community service. I enjoyed doing the project.”

Dan Davies and Andrew Fettkether helped hang the mortar and pestle. The Brummels are appreciative of their and Sloan’s help.

“Now, it’s very secure,” said Maria.

The monetary contributions to the project—including one from the Restore McGregor Fund and another from members of Living Faith United Methodist Church—were appreciated too.

“We’re thankful for all the community members who find it an important part of their hometown,” Maria stated. “It makes us happy that they have fond feelings for it. You don’t know what strikes people sometimes.”

The mortar and pestle serves not just as a symbol of McGregor, but a symbol of recovery, remarked Larry.

“It’s one more step forward from the tornado—putting things back to the way they were,” he said.

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