Monday, January 09, 2006
Adventures in Small-Town America
Note: This post was originally started December 30th while I was home, but I didn't finish it until now.

I, as a devoted Keillor fan, would be fooling myself if I were to count my hometown among those that inspired the fabled Lake Wobegon. Wisconsin Rapids is on the far eastern edge of the plains-state Norwegian ELCA Lutheran demographic. While there is farming around here, the area's economic history is much more deeply rooted in Great-Lakes-region manufacturing. The convergence of forests and a river made the city a quintessential mill town, its fate tied to the greater boom and bust of the manufacturing sector in this country. The primary employer in this city was Consolidated Papers, started in 1894, and bought out in 2000 by the Swedish-Finnish Stora Enso. Many nearby communities were dependent on other paper-making companies. The Nekoosa and Port Edwards mills were run by the Nekoosa-Edwards Paper Company, which merged with Great Northern in 1970 to create the Great Northern Nekoosa Paper Corporation, which merged into Georgia Pacific, who sold the plants to Domtar in 2001 (GP itself was bought out about a month and a half ago by Koch).

In Rapids, at least, the Consolidated buyout has been difficult on the town. After the buyout came rounds of layoffs. Not many new families are moving to the area, and they recently announced the closing of the elementary school where I went to kindergarten. There are two shopping malls, both of which have a sizable number of conspicuously vacant storefronts. There are now eight separate cash advance shops in three miles of 8th Street, the city's main drag, (and there are surely more elsewhere) serving a population of a bit over 18,000 . They've gone up primarily because they're profitable and because there are plenty of vacant storefronts with low rents. I don't remember there being any when I was growing up.

My growing up in a small industrial town is why, despite my background in economics, I'm merely a tepid free trader. Yes, I understand that by opening up markets, capital will be reallocated to more efficient applications. But those same forces have been tearing right into my hometown over the last decade. It gets really sad to go back.

A friend of mine and I spent three nights hitting the town. We're both graduates of the local Lincoln High School and have gone on to lead relatively interesting lives. I'm a software engineer in Silicon Valley--he's in grad school near Chicago, studying viola. Most of our friends that were home for the holidays only stayed a few days. We passed the time by dropping by drinking and bowling establishments in the area each night. Part of it was an extension of our adolescence--we weren't able to visit the bars in high school, and, having returned home, we got to see a separate world that we knew existed but never saw.

Our first night out, we stuck to the city, visiting "bar row," the small street of bars that stood on the other side of the river from what was, before the city sprawled eastward, the downtown. Nick and I haven't seen each other for a number of years, so we spent the time catching up at Hollyrocks. We headed to Johnny's on 8th, then headed on the highway out of town and visited Goose's, and stopped back at bar row to help The Bar close.

But the second night was much more interesting. We decided to go bowling, so we stopped at Bowlmor Lanes in town, but it was packed. We figured we'd have better luck if we headed towards Nekoosa to Evergreen Lanes, a pretty rurally isolated alley. Nick and I bowled a few games. It was certainly a departure from my days spent around Silicon Valley types. A few lanes over, a teenager was bowling with a completely transparent bowling ball that had, encased inside, a confederate flag.

We continued across the river to Nekoosa, Wisconsin, population 2,590, and drove up to one of the paper mills. Across the street were the four or five bars frequented by after-shift workers. We went into one, took a seat at the bar, and ordered pints of Point (at an amazing $1.50 each). We eventually struck up a conversation with two colorful brothers, probably around 50 years old, that worked at the mill next door.

The older of the two was the talker. What began as a discussion of the Packers (his tirade against Mike Sherman, interestingly enough, foreshadowed Sherman's firing the next week) flowed into stories of him and his brother bringing a fake wheelchair to get into the front of the line for the rides at Six Flags. He launched into a denunciation of NAFTA and outlined conspiracy theories concerning credit card companies and government tracking of financial data. I hardly followed.

But Nick and I were thoroughly entertained and pleased to have spent the evening there. We stayed at the bar until near closing, then went for a walk around the small downtown (which, primarily, is bars, a mill, and a gas station). The temperature was just above freezing, and a light drizzling rain was falling, giving the well-lit mill a bit of a halo. Other than the drone of the mill, the town was silent. I contemplated the town for a bit. It's been around for a long time, but it's hardly a speck on the map.

The third night we went out with Clara, another friend from school who was back for the holidays from Mali, where she was on a Fullbright. We bowled again, but then headed out, past Nekoosa. We saw a sign for Rainbow Casino, which was past Nekoosa on the highway. I had never been.

We stopped for a beer and then put a few dollars into the slot machines. The casino was brightly lit (with the same drizzling halo effect as the mill) and isolated out on a rural highway with an incredible number of cars outside for a Thursday night. Inside, there wasn't much else than the constant beeping of the slot machines--hardly anyone talking. People that looked like they didn't have quarters to spare were plugging the machines with quarters, eyes glued to the screens. I felt bad, like I was intruding. The scene was depressing.

I've never been fond of the concept of casinos. They seem to feed off of people's irrationality--exploiting a psychological weakness and, in the process, skimming money from folks that don't have a lot to begin with. The bells and lights seem so heartless, mindlessly flashing and grabbing attention to draw people to them, half-promising the clanking of flowing coins if you just pull one more time.

We left and hit a bar on the way home, playing darts until closing time.

It was really weird to be back.
You're right -- there weren't any check advance places when we were kids. Of course, there weren't any Mexican restaurants either, and now Rapids has two! Oh, the culture.

I used to make the trip to Nekoosa to visit Segovia's, the little Mexican restaurant there. That's where my date and I went for junior prom (we didn't take the night very seriously).

It's gone now.

(Also, you're right. There's not much for dining in Rapids)
I went to Johnny's the night before Christmas Eve in 2004. Someone recognized me and asked what I was up to. I pulled out my standard "I live in city XYZ and work for ABC Association....what are you doing?" Usually when I ask that I mean "What are you doing now, job-wise." This wonderfully well-educated Wisconsin Rapids native said, "I'm getting wasted!"

For another view of small towns, see the photo essay, "Hamlets of Lane County" at
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