Wisconsin, Take Two

10 July 2017

Every place is interesting. Every place has its characters, its local traditions and idiosyncrasies. I was surely, as a New Yorker, “from away” in Appleton, Wisconsin and was taken by the sincere friendliness of the local population (with exceptions…Joe McCarthy came from Appleton) who are polite and willing to please as if it’s a genetic trait or the dictates of a local ordinance.

We were taken by friends to a neat, unpretentious town on Lake Michigan…Two Rivers, Wisconsin, Trivers as it’s called locally…to a closed factory that once made wood type for printing, before linotype and computer type setting upstaged it. It was in its last chapter…made into a museum to commemorate the things it once did. Everything was just as it was on its last productive day, as if the craftsmen were on a break away from their benches.

But it was a street scene after the museum visit that made it all the more memorable. While friends were in the storefront of a smokehouse, buying smoked delicacies, (a vertical operation in business parlance…they caught the fish,  smoked them and sold them). I stayed outside looking for photographs to take. Across a narrow channel from Lake Michigan was a panorama of churches on a far hillside. A woman of comparable vintage to her balloon-tired Schwinn, standing a few feet away, told me there used to be a factory between us and the hillside of churches. I smiled in recognition and she went on.

Used to be four Catholic churches in town and four Catholic schools, she said. Now there’s just one church and no schools. She said it with the resignation of someone who has known better times. I was Catholic back then, but now I’m a Methodist. After pausing a few seconds, she inquired, and what are you? Jewish, I said, disarmed by how easily she asked. Oh, she said, a noble religion. The last synagogue in a nearby town closed a while back. There’s a “For Sale” sign on the building. That’s the way it is everywhere, I said, holding up my end of the conversation. The kids leave for the big cities and there are fewer and fewer people going to church. I know, she said, but where are they going to learn morality?

It was a thought that would have to wait for another day. Her sister exited the smokehouse with her smoked purchase. She smiled, said a quick hello and goodbye and they both pedaled off.