Monday, September 22, 2014

Once Upon a Town

I moved from northern Wisconsin to Chicago some eight years ago, now, but every now and then I think of my 23 years there and shake my head in contemplating the differences between the two.

Pence, Wisconsin, is a tiny, time-warped town in an economically depressed area of the Great North Woods, separated from Lake Superior twelve miles to the north only by one highway, a few narrow roads, and virtually uninterrupted forest. I’m sure Henry David Thoreau would have loved the idyllic nature of the area: he’d have appreciated the mile upon mile of forest, small isolated lakes, and the majestic, endless shores of Lake Superior; walking through the woods to find large patches of wild strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

But the idyllic beauty of the area is in stark contrast to the economic realities of actually living there. Once a major lumbering area rich with iron and copper mines, when the ore ran out in the 1950s and the virgin forests were decimated by lumbering, the entire area was plunged into a depression from which I doubt it has yet recovered. In my time there, a large percentage of local residents depended on a number of seasonal employment opportunities for their livelihood. Several ski hills provide employment during winter, though that was largely dependent on the amount of snowfall, which fluctuated from year to year. Hunting season drew large numbers of deer hunters, and was—and undoubtedly still is—a vital source of income for the area’s many bars and restaurants. Beginning around Thanksgiving and running for several weeks, many found employment in the cutting of greenery for Christmas wreaths and garlands, and the making thereof.

Aside from television, the local movie theater, and a small local theater group, the area was, and I suspect remains, a cultural wasteland. There was and is a small junior college, but it offered nothing in the way of cultural activity. Hunting, football, and beer drinking were the primary means of entertainment, and made the region a form of Bubba-land North.

I had moved to Pence from Los Angeles (culture shock, anyone?) in January, 1983, with the intention of opening a Bed and Breakfast inn…surely one of the worst decisions of my life, for I found myself caught in the same trap of income being totally dependent on the season. The day I arrived, it was 19 below zero and the U-Haul truck I’d driven from L.A. froze solid about 300 feet from the house, necessitating my finding someone to help me unload all my furniture and carry it into the house.

The entire area’s population was of Italian and Finnish backgrounds. The Finns were brought in to work the logging industry, the Italians to work the mines. Pence’s population (198 per the 2000 census) was representative of that mixture. All good, hard-working, church-going (predominantly  catholic) family-oriented people, for whom having a homosexual in their midst was something of an anomaly. But aside from some teenager childish phone calls, I really didn’t encounter any direct prejudice. 

Most of the male population were retirees from the mines, who lived primarily on their pensions. Rather surprisingly the younger people did not tend to move away, but to marry very early and have four or five kids before they were old enough to realize that that decision was an obstacle to practical hopes for a better life.

Shortly after I moved to Pence, I attended a couple of the monthly town meetings which, I soon discovered, were attended by the same handful of mine-retired men. No women attended and any proposals for change of any kind met with the objection that if it hadn’t been done that way in 1933, it wouldn’t work now. I soon stopped going.

Five miles to the east of Pence lies Hurley, Wisconsin, on the Wisconsin/U.P. of Michigan border; Ironwood, Michigan is on the other. They are essentially one town with a combined and declining population of around 8,000.

Between Hurley and Pence, on Hwy 77, is the town of Montreal, a classic example of a paternalistic company town, built by the mining company for its employees, with row upon row of neat, identical white houses. The only break from the cookie-cutter houses along the highway are two larger homes for company supervisors. The houses along Hwy 77 were designated for employee families with several children. The street to the north of the highway was lined with identical smaller bungalows, for employes with smaller families. When the mines closed, the former employees were given the chance to buy their houses for as little as $800, but with no work, few were able to take advantage of the offer. And while the houses were for sale, the rights to the land on which they stood remained with the company, in the highly unlikely possibility that mining might somehow pick up at some future point, and the mines reopened.

Looking back, I question my sanity. I had bought a 12-room house primarily because I wanted to have a B&B despite having had absolutely no experience in doing so, and because the house had a mansard roof, which I’d always loved—now, there was an excellent reason. The total cost for the 12-room house was $7,500. Did that ring any alarm bells or tell me anything about what I was getting myself into? Of course not. Let it suffice to say that I did open the B&B, struggled to keep my head above water for five years, finally closed it and bought a tiny little house about four blocks away. It was an experience made bearable only by the fact that several of the B&B’s guests became and remain good friends. 

For reasons I cannot and probably could not explain, I remained in Pence until 2006, when I returned to Chicago after a 40-year absence. I have seldom looked back since. Until now.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (

1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

TELL me there's not a book in that experience, D. A small town murder for one your characters to solve? You've got the perfect setting and you know it by heart.