Friendly Madison Lake businessman combines insurance, newspaper, and photography businesses into interesting whole.
Photo: Kris Kathmann
Since the early 1700s, when John Peter Zenger was tried for seditious libel (and exonerated), American journalists have been willing to go to jail to uphold the principles of a free press. Jerry Groebner, the editor and publisher of the Lake Region Times, has taken the journalistic tradition to a new level. He spends much of his time in the Madison Lake jail, complete with bars on the windows—that is, when he’s not in the old fire station that originally occupied the other half of the building.
The historic structure was built in 1912, after a fire destroyed the town’s jail two years earlier. The building houses Groebner’s newspaper office, his insurance agency and his wedding and graduation photography business. He bought his piece of history in 1989 and moved his insurance office to it from another downtown building. He believes the restoration he has since done on the building will extend its life to the 22nd century. He wasn’t able to make quite all of his dreams come true, however.
“There was a dance hall upstairs, with 1,800 square feet of hardwood floors, where more recently karate classes were held,” Groebner said. “I considered making it into two apartments, but the remodeling would have been too expensive, so we use it for storage now.”
Groebner, who served 10 years as the mayor of Madison Lake, came to the community in a roundabout way. The story begins with his marrying Marie, his high school sweetheart, on July 3, 1965.
“We dated for five years and played in the Loyola High School band together,” Groebner said. “She played the clarinet, I played alto and baritone sax. I still play the sax for fun.”
Groebner worked briefly at the Artcraft Camera shop in Mankato, processing film at night and selling cameras and equipment on weekends. In 1966, he embarked on a 10-year career as a Holiday store manager, moving his family to Duluth, Two Harbors, Columbia Heights, Brainerd, then back to Columbia Heights, and having one child in each community.
“They paid me well, but they moved me too much,” Groebner explained. “When our oldest boy was in third grade, he was in his fourth school, so we returned home. Then we stopped having children.”
From 1975-77, he and Marie operated Jerry’s Dairy store, a convenience store in North Mankato, at the corner of Belgrade Avenue and Lake Street, the location that now boasts a municipal fountain. When the store failed to turn much profit, the Groebners closed it, paid the bills and moved to a mobile home on Duck Lake, where they became caretakers of Duck Lake County Park for the next six years. Groebner also began working in the insurance business.
By 1983, the Groebners had tired of raising four children in a two-bedroom mobile home, so they moved from the lakeside to the house they still occupy on Third Street, a short walk from Groebner’s offices.
The Groebners bought the Lake Region Times in 1991 from Wayne and Pat Will. Marie, who enjoys writing, operated the weekly newspaper until a fire destroyed that building in 1999. Groebner salvaged what he could of the old newspapers, tore down the building, moved the newspaper office into the jail and stepped into the publisher’s, editor’s, and reporter’s shoes.
“I took over because Marie was too emotional about the fire,” Groebner said. “I planned to sell the paper in six months, but 10 years later I’m still running it. It’s now in its 101st year. I wanted to continue it because of its value to the community. I don’t think I would have had that concept had I not been mayor.”
Groebner works seven days a week, spending about one-third of his time on Lake Region Times business, the remainder on Groebner Insurance Agency responsibilities. He sells most of the ads in the Times and reports some of the stories. His newspaper staff includes a reporter, a person who does page design and layout, and a billing clerk.
“The newspaper has about 75 regular advertisers and occasional others,” Groebner said. “A community paper lays around for a week, so unlike in the bigger papers, the ad is there and is read five to seven times over the week.
“We have 900 subscribers, including 50 readers out of state, and 100-125 over-the-counter sales. We cover the news, mostly good news, not only in Madison Lake, but also in Eagle Lake (which is Independent School District 77), St. Clair (District 75) and Pemberton, and we print whatever Janesville submits. We’re the legal publisher for those four communities, so all of their government business appears in the Lake Region Times.
“My goal is to have this newspaper continue in a time when newspapers are struggling. I think community newspapers are going to continue as long as people continue to see the value of local coverage. I think you do it with content and quality. Give people the coverage they expect. We pick up additional subscriptions by blanket mailing Eagle Lake, Pemberton, St. Clair and Madison Lake when each community has its town celebration. Someday I’d like to sell the Times to someone who has an understanding of community spirit.”
Groebner feels the same commitment toward his insurance clients.
“I believe that when customers pay a premium, they expect service,” he said. “About 95 percent of my clients call me instead of the 800 number, so they don’t have to “punch five,” then “punch eight” on the phone. I make the call and do it for them.
“When I was 20 years old, my insurance agent, Harry Miller, thought I should go into insurance,” Groebner said. “He kept bugging me over the years. I did a self-study insurance course and took seven state exams for seven insurance licenses in 1978, the year he hired me. I opened my own agency in 1981. That was with Farm Bureau for three years and with Mutual Service Insurance for 22 years. When it was bought out, it was no longer a good fit for me, so in 2006 I switched to being an independent agent. I lost all retirement benefits, so at age 60 I was starting over.”
Groebner’s agency produces an annual volume of about one million dollars in premiums and serves 750-800 customers (most of whom he knows on a first-name basis) with auto, home, business, farm, life and health insurance, as well as annuities and IRAs.
“My goal is to build up the agency, train some people to do business the way I do, which is personally, and sell the agency in five to seven years,” Groebner explained. About 18 months ago, Groebner hired a full-time agent, Jake Hesse, saying, “It’s the best thing I did. Jake believes very heavily in customer service and contact with people.”
The photography business stems from a childhood interest. Groebner bought his first 35mm camera at age 14. He took photos for his high school publication and was president of the Loyola photography club. While working for Artcraft, he covered some weddings. His business grew through word of mouth and now includes his daughter, one son, and one other employee.
“We do 12-32 weddings a year, mostly during the summer, and about 20 graduations,” he said.
Groebner’s ability to juggle a variety of responsibilities is evident in his weekly schedule. He spends Mondays entirely on newspaper work, leaving insurance calls to Jake. The paper goes to a printer near Waseca on Tuesday morning; then Groebner drops it off in the four towns’ post offices at and over-the-counter dealers. He catches up on insurance work in the afternoon. He spends the next three days at his insurance agency desk, his evenings at sports events or typing up stories. Saturdays he contacts customers who are unavailable during the week and gleans historic newspaper items from 25, 50 and 75 years ago for the next edition. Sundays, after attending church, he spends a few hours finishing articles for the next edition.
The confluence of Groebner’s businesses is typical of small communities. “We have a lot of newspaper customers for whom we do insurance,” he said. “I also have taken wedding photos for insurance clients.”
In addition to operating three businesses out of the historic building located on Madison Lake’s four-block-long Main Street, Groebner has made a name for himself in the local political arena.
“My first political involvement was in Mankato in 1976, when we lived on Elm Street,” Groebner said. “I went to a caucus at Franklin School, looking for the Republican caucus, and was greeted at the door by Mankato Mayor Herb Mocol, a Democrat. He took me by the arm, told me I was a the right meeting and tried to get me to attend the Democratic caucus at the school.” Mocol, however, failed to sway Groebner from his Republican persuasion.
After the move to Madison Lake, Groebner served on the City Council from 1984-87. The experience opened his eyes to the need and opportunity for modernizing the community, so he ran for mayor, a post he held from 1987-97. He currently chairs the Madison Lake Economic Development Association.
“The City Council would get calls inquiring about rental property, but we had no cable TV. So it was ‘no cable, no rent,’” he explained. Under his leadership, the city got cable. It also replaced propane tanks and fuel oil with natural gas. In 1990, the city took over the underdeveloped Fasnacht Subdivision for unpaid taxes and assessments, formed a partnership with a local bank, and marketed the undeveloped lots.
“Local developers put up a couple of spec homes, lots were offered for $12,500, we put in sewer, and the majority of lots sold within a few years,” Groeber said. “Then we annexed the northeast corner of Duck Lake and developed the other part of the subdivision.
“Our population went from about 625 in 1990 to about 850 in 2000. Now, we’re around 1,000 population. Younger families moved to Madison Lake. In 1980, the average age was early 60s, but by the 2000 census, the average age was early 40s.”
Groebner recalled that the change in demographics affected the town celebration.
“In 1983, we restarted having a city celebration, after 10 or 15 years without one,” he said. “The first two years we called it Old Timers Day. Then we thought that kind of gave the wrong message, so we went to Paddlefish Days, with the theme ‘Hooked on Madison Lake,’ which fits with the fishing theme. We have good parades and usually have five to seven bands.”
During Groebner’s mayoral tenure, he successfully promoted the development of two new parks, including one in the Fasnacht subdivision, bringing the town’s park total to four—another draw for young families. His ninth year as mayor saw completion of the wastewater plant renovation. (This year the city is connecting to the Mankato sanitary sewer system.)
Groebner makes no effort to hide the pride he feels about Madison Lake. He answers every question with a spate of facts that require no spin to look and sound good.
“We figure the population triples in the summer,” he said. “Duck Lake, which is not in the city limits, has 91 cabins. We have two restaurants and two convenience stores, which campers and boaters appreciate. And the Trail Blazer (one of the restaurants) has a campground for construction crews.”
Jerry Groebner has a lifetime history of going the extra mile. The list of his volunteer commitments includes political, business and community work.
- While serving as Madison Lake mayor, he served nine years as the chairman of the Blue Earth County Mayors and Clerks Association, saying, “We got together once a month to discuss common problems and to exchange ideas.”
- He currently chairs the Madison Lake Economic Development Association.
- He also spent nine years working with the Minnesota Association of Small Cities (a lobbying group), serving as vice chair for a year.
- He has been on the Blue Earth County Republican board for many years and currently is serving his second year as chair.
- He directed the choir for 11 years at All Saints Catholic Church in Madison Lake and served three years on the All Saints Board of Education.
- In 1983, Groebner helped found the Madison Lake Family Action Association, which put on teen dances, bought appliances and furniture for the community center, sponsored winter bingo at the center and participated in Paddlefish Days.
- Although he had no time for Boy Scouts while growing up, he was an assistant Scoutmaster for his sons and serves on the Twin Valley Boy Scout Council Board. He’s proud that two sons and a grandson are Eagle Scouts, the highest level in Boy Scouting.
- Where did you grow up? I was born and grew up in Mankato, the second of four boys in our family.
- Tell us about your education. I graduated from St. Peter and Paul’s Elementary School and Loyola High School, then attended Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University) for one year before getting married and dropping out. I graduated from the University of Phoenix in July 2007 with a degree in business management and marketing.
- Favorite subjects? My favorite high school subject was math. I wanted to be a teacher of math. I’m now signed up at Loyola as a substitute teacher. My least favorite subjects were history (it was just the memorization of dates) and English, and now I’m writing a newspaper. Later, because of my political interests, one of my favorite classes at the University of Phoenix was U.S. Constitutional history.
- Your first job? I began working illegally at age 14 at the Red and White Grocery store in Mankato, first in stock and carryout, in the produce department, then as a cashier. I averaged 50 hours a week during the summer and worked after school, too. I tried going out for track one year, but it interfered with work. From the time I was 14 until I got married, I was buying the groceries for our family.
- Family: Three sons and one daughter (all adults) and six grandchildren, all of whom live within 30 miles of Madison Lake.
- Hobbies: Photography, especially scenery and grandchildren.
- Most relaxing change of pace: Sitting back and enjoying music—classical, patriotic, old-time, religious—everything but hard rock. I used to have a big garden, but don’t have time for it anymore; but maybe when I retire . . .
- Accomplishment of which most proud: At age 57, I began taking on-line classes from the University of Phoenix. I had always told my kids my only regret was that I didn’t finish college. I graduated July 7, 2007, at age 60, with a 3.73 grade point average. We flew to Phoenix, my wife and one son, for me to walk through the graduation ceremony.
- Most valued intangible: My health. I’m pretty healthy even though I’m diabetic. I test myself five times a day and wear an insulin pump on my belt. I was diagnosed at age 42 and have gone from pills to shots to the pump. I have a big drive to keep the diabetes under control so I can continue to see my wife, kids and grandkids.
- Three words that describe you: Active, political and dedicated.
- What would you change: There are so many things I would like to do. I’d like to be teaching, but I don’t have regrets.