Letter from a Small Wisconsin Town

by andrew l. yarrow
Wikimedia Commons

andrew l. yarrow, a former New York Times reporter and American history professor, is the author of five books, including Man Out (2018).

Published April 15, 2020

The only certainty about Wisconsin politics seems to be that it will change. The state was a stronghold of early 20th-century Progressives, who were champions of labor rights, public colleges and transparency in politics. And after World War II, Milwaukee even elected a socialist mayor (Frank Zeidler served three terms, 1948-1960). To be sure, Wisconsin’s post-war years were stained by the election of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. But a majority of state residents voted for Democrats in the seven presidential elections between 1988 and 2012.

Yet, even before Wisconsin helped to reelect President Obama, the blue state was looking increasingly red. In 2010, riding a wave of righteous Tea Party militancy, Wisconsinites elected a hard-right governor, a Republican senator and a crew of GOP state legislators who attacked collective bargaining and abortion and refused federal money for high-speed rail. Then, in 2016, the state was key to Donald Trump’s unexpected victory.

There is no shortage of explanations for the rise of right-wing populism coursing through heartland small-town America: job insecurity, stagnant wages, hard times on small farms and rapid social and economic dislocation in the wake of globalization and technological change. But I have a vested interest in a closer reading of the zeitgeist of the place where my mother grew up and I often visited as a child.

Can You Go Home Again?

Horicon, some 40 miles north of Madison, has about 3,600 residents, 93 percent of them white. It is surrounded by farm country, but Horicon has been partly protected against the economic displacement of small-town America. Anchored by a John Deere factory that produces lawn equipment and light utility vehicles, the town prospered for decades thanks to union jobs. And its wetlands — a national wildlife refuge called Horicon Marsh is nearby — remain a mecca for hunters and fishermen, along with tourists attracted by the annual migration of Canada geese.

With its traditional wood-frame houses, many of them flying the Stars & Stripes, Norman Rockwell might have been inspired to linger in Horicon for reassurance that the American Dream was intact. But cracks are showing. The main street has been devastated by competition from the big-box stores — and, of course, Amazon. Less obvious, the shine is off those union jobs; they pay less in real terms and have less generous benefits than they did in the 1980s, according to former workers. And, as a community, Horicon shares a lot of the problems now common to small-town America: Church attendance has dwindled, and chronic public health problems like opioid addiction and obesity have become too big to ignore.

And though it is hard to quantify, I experienced a waning sense of neighborliness and trust. By no coincidence, the weekly Horicon Reporter, which began publishing in the late 19th century and served to knit the town together, shut down a decade ago.

I’ve been back to Horicon twice in the past few years, interviewing residents for my book on the socioeconomic decline of men, and have stayed in touch with many. So, how is Horicon doing, and what are its people thinking in the age of cable TV news and partisan division in Madison as well as Washington? “There’s a defeatism, and people in Horicon are defensive about how well it was doing in the old days,” a former city official told me. “If not for Horicon Works” — the name of the Deere plant — “there’d be almost no jobs.”

A longtime Horicon resident recalled Lake Street — the main drag — when it bustled: “We had a couple of bakeries, two pharmacies, a few hardware stores, the Ulrich clothing store, Curry’s grocery store, four gas stations, three car dealers, more than a half dozen taverns, and the Reporter.”

First, the movie theater shut down. Today, all but a few taverns and merchants are gone. A Dollar General opened last fall. Some say they’re afraid to cross Lake Street, as 18-wheelers have taken advantage of the sparse traffic to make it the route of choice to cross between Interstate 41 and Wisconsin Route 51.

Horicon is a Republican town in one of the most Republican counties in Wisconsin. But not all Republicans are created equal. Its state senator, Scott Fitzgerald — who is Senate Majority Leader—is “not what I’d consider moderate,” a rare convert to the Democratic fold told me. “And my parents’ Republican Party is not the Republican Party today.”

Wisconsinites don’t usually wear their politics on their sleeves. Or their heads: if there were any MAGA hats around, they weren’t on the streets when I was visiting. As for the 2020 election, Fred Schwertfeger, president of Horicon Bank, predicted that President Trump would win Horicon. “Very few people are undecided here, but we don’t talk about politics as much as you do in Washington,” he said.

Hard Times in Rock River City

Zoom out, and this looks like yet another story of small-town depopulation, stagnant manufacturing wages that have come with globalization and factory robotization, the discontent of the white working class and the yearning to make a stand against change.

There is some truth to this trope. A Deere retiree in his mid-90s counted himself fortunate to be receiving monthly checks from the company’s legacy defined-benefit pension plan. “The jobs pay less than I was making when I retired,” he said. “Benefits, which didn’t cost me anything, have dropped and workers have to pay for part of their benefits.”

“It’s moved the Deere worker from middle-to-upper income to low-to-middle income,” a former city official confirmed. “It used to be that husbands could support a family and wages were high enough to buy a house.”

By most measures — from Deere’s modest $16 per hour starting wage for assembly workers to drug abuse to see-though storefronts on Lake Street, Horicon’s trajectory has been decidedly downward.

This is in a town in which three- or four-bedroom houses sell for $100,000 to $150,000. Apartments and townhouses, built toward the end of the 20th century, rent for about $500 to $700 per month. Trailer parks — like the one where the Reporter’s former editor lives — have sprung up on the outskirts. And a new planned housing development along the Rock River was voted down by the city council. This cut off a potential source of tax revenue to help revitalize the downtown, said Schwertfeger, whose bank was spearheading the project.

Pastures and silos still give this part of Dodge County a bucolic look, but recent years have been very hard on the area’s dairy and crop farmers. Low food prices and the growth of agribusiness have led many to sell their herds, rent their land and take second jobs.

And though Horicon’s median household income is slightly higher than the national average, the stats mask the reality that younger families with kids are hurting. Nearly half of elementary school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. School enrollment has fallen by about 30 percent since the 1990s, and, a few years ago, the high school had to combine its football team with one from a nearby town.

Economics certainly plays a role in the town’s transformation, but it is only one reason for nostalgia about the old days. Trends in divorce, single-parent households and drug and alcohol abuse have followed those in the rest of rural America. Fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamines have come to town, and a health worker told me that they are always on the lookout for meth labs in townspeople’s garages. Obituary notices for overdose deaths use the euphemism that victims “passed away unexpectedly.”

Though hard to pin down, there is a new edge of coarseness in this once model upper-Midwest family town. One woman told me that too many men are “jerks” who “get women pregnant and disappear. Sometimes, the girl takes off and parties, and a number of grandparents raise the kids because the parents are drunk or in jail.”

Wisconsin has the dubious distinction of having the highest excessive drinking rate in the nation, and nobody claims Horicon is out of step. But changes in drinking patterns are revealing. Men used to flock to Horicon’s 10 — yes, 10 — taverns for a Pabst or four when the factory whistle blew. The few bars left (they’re no longer called taverns) are rougher, with heavy-metal music blaring and who knows what being sold surreptitiously behind the kitchens. And an “Irish pub” in a town where most people are of Germanic descent was called a “rowdy dive” by one reviewer on Yelp. One of the few new businesses in town is a liquor store. “People just buy stuff and go home,” a man in his 40s explained.

Indeed, a frequently heard regret is the decline of civic life. The Rotary and Masons, where small-town America socialized and business owners buttered each other’s bread, have hemorrhaged members. Meanwhile the International Association of Machinists Local 873, which is bonded by a sense of community as well as a union contract with Deere, has also lost members. Few people show up for school board or open city council meetings. The 160-year-old Presbyterian Church has virtually shut down, and most of its remaining members are collecting Social Security. Deere once sponsored Marsh Days, an annual community-wide festival; now it encourages employees to volunteer. Even the number of hunting licenses issued by the state’s Department of National Resources has been on a long-term decline, with most of today’s hunters “old white guys,” as a young conservationist and hunter put it.

There’s Hope — Really

Not all of the news is bad. Despite declining enrollment, a new elementary school building is going up to replace an obsolete one. The Horicon Marsh refuge has a well-designed new visitors’ center. And after Horicon was deemed an “unhealthy community,” it was included in the Blue Zones Project, a global non-profit wellness initiative.

Most important, Deere seems committed to maintaining the Horicon facility as part of its global diversification strategy, even adding 410,000 square feet to its factory along with 100 additional workers in the past few years. “Horicon Works has hired nonstop for the past four-plus years,” Amanda Remley, the plant’s human-resources manager, said. Most of these jobs, it’s worth noting, were at the expense of jobs at another Deere factory in Janesville, Wis. (In any event, the lift hasn’t done much for Horicon’s community: only about 20 percent of the plant’s 1,200 employees now live in town.)

One ardent outdoorsman summed up Horicon’s durability: “The Midwest attitude still exists. You move into a neighborhood and people bring baked goods” (or maybe a fruit basket once the Blue Zones Project gains traction).

Schwertfeger agrees: “We still have a really nice community.” But, as in much of small-town America, few of the changes during the past 40 years have made the town itself a nicer place to live or work. By most measures — from Deere’s modest $16 per hour starting wage for assembly workers to drug abuse to see-though storefronts on Lake Street, Horicon’s trajectory has been decidedly downward.

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