I became aware of it as I was walking our dog in the neighborhood around our new home in Arkansaw, Wisconsin: the utter silence around me under the shroud of a clear winter’s nighttime sky. The darkness on the edge of town where my home is located underscored the reasons we had chosen to live there.
Being on the edge afforded plenty of space to walk the wirehair terrier and ponder what all of this meant. I can pull out of the driveway of my little 1960’s rambler home right into the parking lot of Arkansaw Middle School, just across the street. A football practice field, a softball diamond, and a playground are also nearby. The town cemetery is just behind the town garage at the end of the school driveway; beyond that, there is nothing but fields, farms, and hills.
If you drive around rural Wisconsin on a snowy winter’s night, as I often do as a newspaper reporter, you always look off into the distance for the glow in the sky that announces the presence of an upcoming town. It relieves the mind to know that there is a port in the storm, even if you don’t have to stop (or want to)—like a ship’s captain on the Great Lakes relieved to see the lighthouse.
You wouldn’t get that kind of glow from Arkansaw, however, with its population of 300. If you looked at an aerial nighttime map of western Wisconsin, you could draw a line between the light and darkness, right down the middle of several counties. To the west are the lights that announce the Twin Cities metro area; to the east, rural Wisconsin.
I wouldn’t have minded staying in East Ellsworth, Ellsworth, or somewhere around there. It would have been a lot easier for my wife and me to get to our jobs, but I didn’t have $160,000 to spend on a home. That’s the minimum around there; the further west you go, the more expensive it gets. Land is at a premium because the Twin Cities metro area continues to sprawl further in all directions.
The metro area is coming, at least for what remains of western Pierce, St. Croix, and Polk counties. They’re just too close. The town fathers of Ellsworth know it, too. A new subdivision goes up in the spring, and more houses are being built in the village’s existing subdivision, with the blessing of the authorities. At least they have a growth plan that is limited. They have plenty of examples of what they don’t want to become—a Woodbury, Minnesota, or a Hudson, with its valleys and hills filled with ticky-tack. My friend Harvey Stower, a former state legislator and now mayor of Amery, exemplifies the dilemma of any small-town statesman. Caught between the no-growth forces and those of fire-up-the-bulldozers, there has to be a balance. The increasing costs of city services and schools require an expanded tax base, yet, the more people you have, the more such costs increase.
A lot of these costs are brought on by the newcomers themselves. Like any red-blooded American, they want it all—suburban convenience at country prices. Too many two-lane roads that increase commute times? Make them four-lane roads. Not enough retail business on Main Street? Build strip malls. Not enough to do in town? Build recreation centers like those found in the lands the newcomers left behind. Don’t like the smell of the countryside? Ask for onerous environmental regulations that small farmers cannot afford. Schools a little too ordinary? Ask for referenda to build Taj Mahals. The newcomers made the difference in a referendum Ellsworth held a few years back on whether to build a new indoor pool in town. The village may have needed a new swimming hole, but not the domed Olympic-sized pool complete with water slide that the suburbanites have come to expect wherever they live. And then they wonder why their property taxes are so high.
I don’t think the developers are going to come our way, unless someone thinks of Arkansaw as a bedroom community for Menomonie, which is 21 miles away. Our county, Pepin, named after two French fur-trapping brothers, is one of the smallest and poorest in the state. The nearest major town is the county seat, Durand, but it has only 2,000 people. It is too far from the Twin Cities or even nearby Eau Claire for commuters, except for the occasional country home or McMansion on some hillside or hilltop. There will be no Levittowns here. After watching a Frontline documentary on PBS about the “Lost Children of Rockland County,” a suburb of Atlanta, I certainly don’t want my future children to live in one.
I want them living right here, near playgrounds and open fields, where a dairy farm can be part of the neighborhood and not stand out, and the hills are green in the summertime, orange in the fall, and white in the winter; where we can have a picnic at Arkansaw Creek Park, inside the cool gorge the waters cut through the rock to create half of the town. I have a spacious yard, too, but it’s not swallowed up by all the lights. On the edge of Arkansaw, there’s a darkness that allows you to see the stars.