Oak Center General Store

Lynn DeVault of Rochester lights the wood burning stove while preparing for a concert at the Oak Center General Store on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019 in Lake City. Right now wood burning stoves are the buildings only source of heat. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

OAK CENTER -- The Oak Center General Store, a venerable concert venue that has helped launch the careers of several folk artists, is in need of major repairs, including a new heating system.

"I have no furnace," said Steven Schwen, owner and proprietor of the store. "I just go around and start three or four fires everyday."

In addition to a concert venue, the store is an operating commercial venture selling farm produce and other items. Schwen also maintains an agricultural operation on the property.

However, he said, last February's blizzard caused his greenhouses to collapse, while a summer windstorm tore up portions of the building's roof. Flooding from new road construction has caused water to enter the basement. And the furnace has died.

At the same time, Schwen, 69, is battling health issues that make it difficult for him to repair and maintain the property.

To get a start on the repairs, a benefit concert featuring Greg Brown, Erik Koskinen and the Pistol Whippin' Party Penguins will be held at 4 p.m. Dec. 15. All three artists have performed over the years at the store's Folk Forum concert series. Brown, who got much of the early momentum for his career at Oak Center, has not performed there in over 10 years.

Despite the difficulties, the Folk Forum concert season is not in immediate danger of being canceled, Schwen said.

"No, the thing right now is trying to get the place warm enough for people," Schwen said.

He said the cascading issues, along with a tough year for the farm economy, have strained his finances. "We use the funds from what I make farming to do Folk Forum," Schwen said. "I lost my main source of farm income last February."

Schwen started the concert series in the late '70s, and over the years developed a reputation as an artist-friendly venue frequented by the likes of Brown, John Gorka, Bill Staines, the late Willie Murphy, Bo Ramsey, Peter Ostroushko and others.

Pianist Radoslav Lorkovic launched his international career at Oak Center 30 years ago and still returns annually to perform.  “I have never missed a year," he said last year. "Many years I have been lucky enough to perform there three times.”

In recent years, a new generation of artists have taken to the acoustically-perfect, wood-paneled room: Koskinen, Chris Koza, Charlie Parr, the Pines, Jillian Rae and the High 48s.

Concerts are presented nearly every weekend from October through April.

In addition to the concert, the Dec. 15 benefit will feature an organic buffet with appetizers and desserts, a raffle and silent auction, a free drink and holiday gifts. Tickets are $100. Funds will go toward building repairs.

"We're going to try to do whatever we can to fix the building," Schwen said.

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