Recreating Wood County’s identity

The following paragraphs appeared in the August edition of Artifacts, a local history magazine published by the South Wood County Historical Society. Artifacts’ editor, Dave Engel (Uncle Dave), was incredibly generous with his time while we reported on rural slide in Wood County. 

Dear Uncle Dave,

What a great name for you: Uncle Dave.  We’ve only spoken a few times, but it was enough to see your charm — wisdom with a sense of humor — just quirky enough to tell a great story, but not so strange that I feared for my safety.  Not much anyway.

I was born and raised in Marshfield — not far from Rapids, but in a slightly different culture. Paper mills weren’t part of our daily vernacular.  My parents ran a mom-and-pop cleaning business. Work was where they found their living, not their meaning.  But still, business found its way into dinnertime conversations; it influenced how I saw the world.  Like the landscape, it was a part of my identity that I inherited.  I don’t think I’m unique in this way.

I recently returned to Central Wisconsin to report a story for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.  We traveled to Iron, Clark and Wood Counties, looking for the answer to why young people are leaving small towns faster than they’ve done in the past.

And more importantly, we are trying to find out why it matters.

The New Page paper mill in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. on July 13, 2012. Wisconsin has lost 35 percent of its paper mill jobs over the past decade, from 48,000 to 31,000. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Some people I’ve spoken to call the trend brain drain.  Some call it rural slide.  The issue is not new. Young people have always left their hometowns in pursuit of greener pastures or other fine ideals.  What is different, as you so aptly pointed out, is that an increasing number of young people, who would otherwise prefer to remain close to home, are finding it necessary to move away in order to find work.

This decades-old story by Bill Granger of the Chicago Sun-Times illustrates that Wisconsin Rapids faces many of the sames problems it has for generations. “People have always been leaving the farms, they’ve always been leaving the mill towns,” Engel said. “The sad part is that people who want to stay, can’t figure out how to.”

We came to Wood County for similar reasons that we visited cities in Iron and Clark Counties.  We wanted to look at the mining country near Hurley, the farms near Abbotsford, and the mills of Rapids — areas teetering on the precipice of a changing industry.  The mill that supported generations of workers through the years is no longer a sustainable solution for many high school graduates.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say a way of life is ending in Rapids.  That statement may be bold to some — obvious to others.  Change is immutable, and always occurring.  Maybe the degree to which change is a negative depends on how well we welcome it, how willing we are to change ourselves.

Jake Long (center) waits his turn at bat during an amateur baseball game in Marshfield, Wis., on July 11, 2012. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

In many ways, my recent trip to Wood County allowed me to see it for the first time.  It’s been a way to reconnect with where I came from and what I value.  No matter how I grow, these things are ingrained.  Wood County is a part of who I am.

As a state, can we maintain our identity, the things that made us great, while becoming something new?  I believe so.  I don’t think our resources made us who we are.  I believe it’s our spirit and character, our willingness to take whatever resources we have at hand and make a go of it.  I believe that’s what we’re truly made of, and that’s what we need to promote.

And so, Uncle Dave, I thank you once again for showing us around and taking the time to talk to us.  I’ll make sure you get a copy of the final story, and don’t worry; I won’t make you look too bad.  Thanks for all your help, and I’ll see you in the funny pages.

Sincerely,

Mario

Ryan Metz adjusts his hate while watching his team, the Marshfield Chapparels, compete on July 11, 2012, in Marshfield, Wis. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

To read more of the story and to watch audio slideshows of some of the people we met, click here.  To see more of the photographer’s work, visit lukaskeapproth.com.

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