MANKATO, Minn. — When Mankato mechanic Tony Baumann drove by the building that he would later house his automotive repair business, he didn't think much of it— let alone its historical significance.
"I drove by it so much without even really acknowledging it," he said.
Then the building — at the time an appraisal office — went on the market for sale last year. Baumann, who had spent the past decade working for automotive repair businesses and later out of his own garage, kept returning to the property for another look, but wasn't convinced.
But his brother Tyler — who has a construction background — saw the potential.
Then they discovered that the historic building, located at 502 N. 2nd Street in Mankato and erected in 1930, was originally designed to be a Texaco station. That piece of information, combined with the ideal downtown location on a busy thoroughfare, led the two to begin the painstaking process of converting the structure back to its original purpose.
"To keep the Old Town feel of the building, we went through a lot of work just to keep it as original or close to what it was," Tyler Baumann told The Free Press . "There were probably a couple hundred hours just in the office here fixing windows and doors."
The neighbors took notice of the new owners as they were busy spending 2018 preparing the new shop for opening. The Washington Park Neighborhood Association gave them their "yard of the week" award last summer. After a long summer day spent clearing out five trailers worth of old boxes and furniture, a neighbor stopped by for a visit. It turns out his grandfather ran the Texaco station at that location back in the 1930s, and he had some old photos and memorabilia from back then to share with them.
"Since then I've gained a lot of interest in vintage gas pumps," Tony Baumann said. "The logo spiraled into that. It's obviously based off of the Texaco logo they used in that era."
They named the business Old Town Garage in homage of the historic preservation in Old Town Mankato, renovating with the aim of preserving that element of service station history. The sign, which stands in front of the building, was heavily influenced from the old 1930s Texaco logo with the help of a family friend.
Along with the sign, historic memorabilia from the 1930s decorates the front office of the building. The business, which officially opened earlier this year, contains three auto bays for three cars, one of which is the original hoist from the original service station.
"We're getting it functioning again," Tony Baumann said. "It dates back to 1932. It works really good for SUVs."
The brothers, who come from a large family, say they began tinkering with bikes and go-carts at a young age. Some of the basic nuts and bolts of working on smaller engines transferred to full-size cars, which they began working on before they could legally drive.
"We both had cars before we had our license, cheap little beaters that had broken several times before even being able to legally drive," Tony Baumann said. "So it's pretty much been wrenching on stuff since we were kids. There's a lot of knowledge you can tie between the nuts and bolts aspect of it, the engine, the brake system."
That exposure at a young age, learning through trial and error with their dad's tools, led both to pursue work in that field. Tyler Baumann, who has a degree in automotive service from South Central College, specialized in trucks and worked at a marine shop for the past couple years. Tony Baumann honed his skills at a couple of the automotive shops and dealerships around town for over a decade. Friends and family would ask for help with their own vehicles, and Tony Baumann was eager to help.
"As long as I worked at other shops, you usually end up working on their cars on the weekend or on the side," he said. "Then I quit my other job and that just spiraled into doing it full-time out of a place that I rented out of North Mankato."
After eight years, it became apparent that finding a central location was paramount. Many of Tony Baumann's customers became the foundation of his new venture. The vintage sign, activity seen from the street and word of mouth led curious neighbors to call.
"It's really kind of amazing," Tyler Baumann said. "Since we've been here just working on cars and stuff, a lot of the neighbors have had an issue and will come up; 'I see you guys are working on cars here, can you help me or I have a question.'"
Old Town Auto is unique in that the brothers are the sole staff. That — they said — is an asset.
"That really sets us apart; more one-on-one communication," Tony Baumann said. "One thing I've noticed working at other shops is information gets skewed. You're communicating with your boss and then hear him talking with the customer, exaggerating what you just told him. You'll hear him talking and going 'this wheel bearing is going to fall off,' and I just got telling him the wheel bearing was a little bit loose. Whatever the situation is, they magnify it to get a sale."
Both say they place an importance on catering to the needs of the customer, whatever their budget may be. They say their mission is to diagnose potential problems and then let the customers decide, diagnosing what things need immediate attention and what things can wait.
That includes physically showing customers the old parts that were replaced. Tony Baumann said while some people don't care either way, others are fascinated to see the evidence first-hand and are appreciative. Whether it's topping off oil or fixing a key battery, they say they strive to go above and beyond what is expected, understanding the customer's needs and providing an honest diagnosis.
"When you're the one doing the work and diagnosing, you're more accountable for everything from the work being done to making the customer happy," Tony Baumann said.
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