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.
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.
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.
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.