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Reedsburg, Wisconsin, Shows Changing Small-Town Dynamics

Every once in a while, we need to look homeward even if we never completely left home. For me, that means checking in on developments in my home town of Reedsburg, Wisconsin. I no longer live there, having departed long ago on a route that led me to Michigan. But in some ways, I feel like I never left the Butter Capital of America.

And in catching up on Reedsburg, an industrial and agricultural hamlet of about 10,000 people in Sauk County, in south-central Wisconsin, two new things have caught my eye. One is profoundly sad for me and for the town, and the other is – well, really cool and optimistic. A third development hasn’t yet touched Reedsburg, but I hope it will.

Let’s start with the really cool and optimistic thing that’s already happened. In the past several years, an intriguingly named outfit based in Reedsburg called the Wormfarm Institute has flourished in line with how American consumers increasingly are interested in the origins of the food they eat and in the cultural practices behind them. Exploring fermented foods – such as brined vegetables, sauerkraut and kombucha, a better-for-you beverage based on live bacteria cultures – is one of Wormfarm’s specialties as the not-for-profit “explores the links between rural and urban communities within and beyond the food chain, creating opportunities for cross-sector collaboration” through its residency programs, events and outreach.

Wormfarm happens to be conducting part of its biennial “Fermentation Fest” this weekend, what it calls a DTour by car that “highlights connections between the arts and agriculture, promotes time-honored food ways, and brings people together from across the rural-urban continuum to celebrate the land and those who care for it.”

The Wormfarm Institute isn’t exactly avant garde: It was founded 20 years ago. But it is progressive in the best sense of advancing the human condition for everyone and raising appreciation for the land. So in that way, my home town is on the cutting edge of something important, and I think that’s fantastic.

But here’s the profoundly sad news out of Reedsburg: the death last month of the Reedsburg Times-Press, the weekly newspaper where I started my journalism career at the age of 12, covering Little League baseball – a sport from which I had just graduated as a player. Serendipitously, I got to learn about journalism at the feet of one Paul “Biff” Dysart, a highly talented journalist and editor, hailing from Iowa, who would make a prize-winning newspaper out of the Times-Press – including my sports sections – before he returned to his native state.

His lessons about journalism were invaluable and organic. He treasured what a weekly newspaper – with its capacity for running long feature stories, its catalogic presentation of all the goings-on in town, and its languid work pace – could do for a town like Reedsburg. And he approached covering the news without an agenda, only stressing that I should reflect what I found in my reporting.

“Boomer, go out and capture the mood of the people!” he would urge me, with the nickname he gave me and a playful wink of his eye and a raspy voice from a smoking habit that eventually would kill him. So that’s what I did. If only the journalists of today would have such simple motives, the entire country, not to mention every town and city, would be much better off.

Of course, lamenting the loss of community newspapers has gone on for decades, just as lamenting the loss of big-city dailies has. There’s no doubt something significant is disappearing with the demise of traditional local journalism, whose survival is being attempted only in dribs and drabs across the landscape. It’s just difficult to tell exactly what the damage will be until it’s all over.

There is another hopeful development for towns like Reedsburg, hundreds of which dot Flyover Country. Many have been barely hanging on as the demise of manufacturing craters the employment base and local shoppers have been lured away from traditional downtowns, first to big-box stores in nearby cities and, more lately, to e-commerce.

But the ravages of Covid-19 and urban unrest now seem as though they may benefit many towns like Reedsburg as urban denizens, particularly millennials with kids, grow suspect of living in or too close to city cores and are increasingly liberated by employers’ work-from-home decisions and the growing connectivity of digital technology.

Reedsburg has been spared demise over the decades largely because a number of major local employers have held on if not flourished, from a Lands’ End distribution center to a foundry to a butter-making plant where I ran a patty-making machine for 10 hours a day, for $2.45 an hour, in the summer of 1976.

It also helps that Reedsburg is now only 45 minutes from greater Madison via either an Interstate or the sleek, four-laned U.S. Highway 12.

But maybe soon, when my dad counts the cars on Reedsburg’s Main Street in the morning, there will be more than the four or eight or 12 he usually sees. Today’s dire straits are creating a new, endearing lens for many Americans on the advantages of small-town life in Flyover Country. May Reedsburg and a thousand other towns experience rebirth as a result.


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