July 4, Lukas Keapproth and I left a sweltering, obnoxiously festive Madison and drove straight north on Highway 51. About 20 minutes north of Wausau, right about the time the farms and fields turned into pine tress, the temperature dropped 10 degrees and my breaths came deep and easy, like they always do Up North.
We finally pulled into Hurley and scoped out the town — it didn’t take long. We’d come up this way because experts had told us Iron County faced immediate challenges, and we needed to see for ourselves. From 2000 to 2010, it lost roughly 14 percent of its population — much of that number made up of young people. The county’s median age is 51, making it the oldest in the state.
One thing I sensed before we even got to town: People were friendly. I’d called ahead to line up interviews, and everyone I talked to, it seemed, knew just the person we should meet: “yes, they’d be happy to chat. Why don’t I go ahead and just make the call for yah?”
That sounds satirical and made up. It is not. I’ve never had such good luck finding sources. We spent three days in Iron County and packed our schedules with back-to-back interviews.
On our first day, a Hurley resident recommended we stop down at the Liberty Bell Chalet — a favorite, we were told, with tourists and locals alike.
The Liberty Bell — so the story goes — began as a mom- and pop-run operation around the turn of the 20th century. During the early, meager years, mom and pop accepted donations instead of cash for food, and the restaurant finally opened in 1923. The restaurant has stayed in the same family since, and today it serves as a news-hub and social club — the kind of nerve center that only a small-town restaurant can be.
This is where I chose to open the story. I introduced 19-year-old Chanel Youngs in the lede because she seemed to illustrate the issue of small town decline in its most poignant state.
Youngs, a sophomore at UW-Oshkosh, came home for the summer to work at the Liberty Bell. When Lukas and I spoke with her, she spent much of the interview complaining: There wasn’t much to do in this small town, nothing ever changed, and why isn’t there anyone open-minded around here? Yet when we asked her how she’d feel if these small towns shrunk and faded away, the thought seemed to genuinely sadden her.
And that, I think, is the central tension of the story. We can complain about the inconveniences, the lack of opportunities, the “small-mindedness” of rural Wisconsin, but small-towns are a part of our social fabric in Wisconsin. Losing them would jeopardize more than our identity. Change isn’t inherently bad, but it’s our responsibility to meet economic and social demands and to make sure nobody gets left behind in the wake of out-migration.
For more on the story, and to watch audio slideshows on some people we met, visit Wisconsin Watch.