Unlike so much of downtown Brainerd’s architectural history that has been ravaged by the passage of time and fires, the Lively Building lives on.

The building on Laurel Street was the corporate headquarters for Mills Fleet Farm, which so far has a total of 47 stores in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.



The exterior of the Lively Building Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
The exterior of the Lively Building Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“The first Mills Fleet Farm store in Brainerd was opened in that building, I believe, in 1955,” Ann M. Nelson, a local historian, said Friday, Oct. 15. “My mother won a Hoover Constellation vacuum cleaner at the grand opening drawing in 1955.”

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In 2019, Fleet Farm announced it would be moving to new corporate headquarters in Appleton, Wisconsin. The Fleet Farm Group LLC purchased a 192,000-square-foot office building so it could consolidate six of its locations under one roof while remaining in Appleton.

The exterior of the Lively Building Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
The exterior of the Lively Building Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

But the Lively Building itself and its location in Brainerd has a long history, first as a livery stable, and later for bicycles before becoming a sales location for Chevrolets and Hupmobiles.

Prior to the existence of the garage on Laurel Street, Purdy’s Livery Stable was located at 514 Laurel St. But children playing with matches started a fire in the hayloft on Sept. 26, 1916, and the stable burned to the ground, according to the Crow Wing Historical Society.

The garage business was started by Willis E. Lively, an early bicycle repairman who had a shop on the 700 block on Laurel Street. The Lively business was acquired by Stewart C. Mills Sr. in 1921 after Lively moved to the 500 block of Laurel Street.

A plaque on the Lively Building identifies its roots in the city with the Mills' operations dating to 1922 with the Lively Motor Co.. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
A plaque on the Lively Building identifies its roots in the city with the Mills' operations dating to 1922 with the Lively Motor Co.. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“The building's garage door opened for business every morning by turning a large wooden wheel, which has since become the symbol for the Mills Automotive Group and all our dealerships,” Mills Automotive Group notes on its website.

A Ford dealership was started by E.C. Bane and Charles Stadibauer who first had a garage at the corner of Front and Seventh streets. Their Ford Agency was acquired by John. F. Woodhead, who bought the Ford Agency from Bane and Stadibauer in 1916. Woodhead sold the dealership to Walter Tyrholm from whom Mills bought the business.

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The historic Lively Building, which sits at the corner of Laurel and South Sixth streets, was expanded and remodeled in 1999, along with the then Mills Fleet Farm store in Baxter.

The garage was built in 1919 of cement blocks, with a pressed brick front and measured 75 by 135 feet, two stories high, with a full basement. The basement provided storage rooms for cars, the heating plant, stockroom for accessories, the radiator repair shop and battery station.

“During World War II, the second floor of this building was used to make adapter boosters for bombs,” Nelson said.

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The main floor contained the offices along with the display and salesroom for automobiles; car storage and the wash rack were located in the rear. The second floor contained the repair and paint shop for cars.

Vehicles sit parked in front of the Willis E. Lively Garage in the 500 block of Laurel Street in downtown Brainerd in this photo from the 1920s.
Contributed / Crow Wing County Historical Society
Vehicles sit parked in front of the Willis E. Lively Garage in the 500 block of Laurel Street in downtown Brainerd in this photo from the 1920s. Contributed / Crow Wing County Historical Society

“A new addition has been made on the left (of the building). It would appear that some care was taken to match the color of the original bricks and the design of the top of the original building has been carried into this addition,” according to the historical society’s records of the building.

“The original storefront windows of the first story have been covered with the same material used to cover the bricks in the Greyhound Bus Depot and the law offices to the left. The second-story windows have been replaced but they are the same size as the original.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.