Let’s Go to the Film Festival?

February 16, 2010

An article earlier this month in the New York Times about the Sundance Film Festival, held annually in January, and about film festivals in general asked: Are they still necessary?

I think it’s a valid question, though I certainly hope the answer is yes. Or that they are at least still considered a pleasant and worthwhile way to spend a weekend. I am coordinating four film festivals this March and April here in Wisconsin.

Ghostbird film still

"Ghostbird," the movie, will screen at three of the Making it Home Film Festivals. See film information on the Making it Home Film Festival Website at http://www.MakingWisconsinHome.org.

The festivals are called Making it Home, and they each will use a variety of films, from Wisconsin and around the world, to explore the many ways people and place affect one another. The first festival opens during Aldo Leopold days and the fourth and final festival takes place during the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The environmental themes of the Making it Home Film Festivals make it especially important to ask out loud: Should we all save the carbon output by staying home and ordering up movies on Netflix?

The Wisconsin Humanities Council strives to support strong communities with public programs that encourage the use of history, culture, and conversation. We understand that films are powerfully good at telling stories and giving people something to talk about. We also figured that communities around the state would enjoy seeing free films and that, considering the strong tradition of caring deeply about the Wisconsin landscape and its natural resources, Wisconsinites would be eager to see some of the latest, most exciting new films from filmmakers around the world.

Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute, which includes the annual festival and the Sundance Channel on cable, chooses to embrace technologies that allow people greater access to non-hollywood films. “Opening new vistas,” he is quoted as saying to describe his approach to the broad distribution of Sundance selections. He believes that the more access people have, the greater their overall appetite for independent film. The Making it Home Film Festivals draw from the Tales from Planet Earth Film Festival produced by the UW-Madison Nelson Institute in Madison.

Whats on your plate stars

The film "What's On Your Plate?" will screen at Making it Home Film Festivals, followed by family-friendly conversations about food! Film info at http://www.MakingWisconsinHome.org.

Ultimately, the goal and the appeal of film festivals like Making it Home and Sundance is to bring folks together to spend some time sitting still, in a darkened theater, to share the experience of a well-told story. Because when people gather, and feel moved or inspired, they are inclined to turn to one-another, friends and strangers, to talk.

The Making it Home Film Festivals, organized by the Wisconsin Humanities Council with local partners in Baraboo, Dodgeville, Milwaukee, and the Chequamegon Bay (Ashland/Bayfield), have been designed by and for those communities. Films were selected and events planned specifically to meet the interests of the people living in those regions, making the drive downtown to the main street theater worth the time (and energy). And while you can go to the Making it Home Website and watch trailers for some of the films, as well as short films made by Wisconsin filmmakers that will be interspersed throughout the festivals, I would agree with the Sundance fans: Attending a film festival is a life experience for which there is no substitute.

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Freedom Shrieker

January 14, 2010

William, Sarah and Ollie Greene, residents of one of the first Wisconsin rural African American communities, Pleasant Ridge.

African-Americans made up a tiny slice of the pre-Civil War population of Wisconsin.  Less than 1200 are recorded on the 1860 federal census, out of a total head count of 775,881.  It’s safe to assume that the actual number in residence was larger, since African-Americans—runaway slaves or documented free men and women–had plenty of reason not to consider any government agent a friend.

One man of color in Wisconsin who was not afraid to make his presence known was Byrd Parker.  He came to Oshkosh from North Carolina by way of Chicago where he had served as a minister in the “African” Methodist (segregated) Church. In 1855, with no pulpit open to him in his new home town, Parker and his wife Jane opened an “eating saloon.”

The newly-born Republican Party swept into state office on an anti-slavery platform in 1856. The  legislature placed a referendum on the ballot for November, 1857 asking if Wisconsin should recognize the right of  “Negro” men to vote. Parker attended a gathering in Racine held to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies where black and white activists also met “to adopt some efficient means to canvass the State in favor of equal suffrage.”

One of the “means” they adopted was to dispatch Byrd Parker on a lecture tour. The young man left Jane and their one year old daughter May in Oshkosh and hit the road in frontier Wisconsin. It was not necessarily hostile territory,  just a place where a black face was a rare sight and a well-spoken black man an exotic apparition.

By all accounts, Parker met the challenge. In Milwaukee, he was reported as “little inferior” to the well-known abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass and described as “a strong advocate in the cause of his oppressed people.” In Berlin, the crowd filled the meeting hall and applauded his words. In Menasha, he was praised for exposing the  “barren…doctrine [that] the blacks have no rights which white men are bound to respect.”

Parker was good, and his cause just but the time was not yet right. He could not persuade a majority of the all-white, male electorate to vote in favor of suffrage for black men. The referendum campaign ended, but Parker did not stop. He continued to speak out against slavery and in favor of equal rights for African-Americans.  After hearing him speak early in 1858, editor and Democratic Party leader “Brick” Pomeroy christened Parker a “freedom shrieker.” It was not a compliment, especially from Pomeroy, who became one of Wisconsin’s most committed anti-war, pro-secession and therefore pro-slavery advocates.

Parker did not live to see the Civil War, its terrible carnage , or the new birth of freedom it brought to African-Americans. Early in 1860, he was on the road, at a podium in the village of Randolph, shrieking for freedom, when he collapsed, felled by a congenital lung condition. He survived a few days and saw his family before he died, leaving Jane a widow at age thirty with three children: May, five; Ida, three; Byrd, Jr., one year old.

In the century that followed other freedom shriekers came in Byrd Parker’s wake and other young mothers came to know Jane Parker’s pain.

We are sad for the pain they bore, fortunate they were not silent.

Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

–Michael Goc

The Year In Review i.e. 1909

December 22, 2009

As the year draws to a close, bloviators throughout the media universe strive to list the most significant events of the previous twelve months.  We are not immune to this pastime, but with a slight alteration. The past year we’d like to examine is a century old.

1909 was a year like any other year except when it was not.

In politics, the state legislature elected  Isaac Stephenson to the United States Senate despite critics who claimed the lumber baron from Marinette used his wealth to buy the seat.

Progressive state senators passed a resolution recognizing the right of women  to vote in all state elections, but conservative assemblymen did not. So, as they had for years, Wisconsin women  voted in local school board elections, based on the premise that education was for children and women tended children and therefore…..

Also in 1909,  the first airplane to fly in our state took off and landed intact at Beloit.

Significant surely, but I think the most important event of 1909 occurred at the  Dells of the Wisconsin River.  After five years of construction the largest hydroelectric power station yet built in our state was completed–dam, diverson and dynamos.

Kilbourn Dam and Powerhouse. Photo: H.H. Bennett Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society.

The Dells station was the latest turn in a decade long transformation of the power in Wisconsin rivers from the sawing, grinding and milling of lumber and grain to electrical generation.  It was cutting edge technology, with an impact as profound as any of the high-tech innovations we’ve experienced in the last thirty years–and basic to them. You can’t have electronics until you have electricity.

Although one of many new hydropower stations in Wisconsin, the Dells was different.  No local market existed for the ten megawatts of power it could generate. Like the field of dreams, if  it was built, they would come. They being factories in need of power.

The Dells station was also different in that it was the first major alteration of a Wisconsin river to face opposition on environmental grounds. The not-yet-renowned photographer, Henry Hamilton Bennett, attempted to stop construction of the power station dam because it would raise and hold water levels upstream by as much as nineteen feet. Many of the geological wonders he had captured on film would be drowned forever and the towering rock formations he knew and loved would not be as tall because the water below would lap higher up their flanks.

Hamilton rallied some support from conservationists around the state, but hardly enough to halt construction of the dam. His neighbors in the village of Kilbourn considered him to be a cranky old man trying to stall the wheels of progress.  It was the 20th Century, after all, the age of electricity had dawned and the Dells dam would bring power and prosperity.

It didn’t. No industrialist relocated to Kilbourn no matter how bright its new electric lights did shine.  The power generated there had to be sold at a loss and transmitted miles into the  grid of the greater Milwaukee electric railroad company.

The village of Kilbourn did not begin to develop into the vacation mecca we know as Wisconsin Dells until the first wave of automobile tourism began in the 1920s. After World War II, Wisconsin Dells became the number one tourist destination in our state.

By then, the power station was part of the riverscape, its electricity running the amusement park rides and charging the neon in the signs.  Visitors riding the boats past the tall rocks did not know that they once stood taller and what natural wonders lay beneath the deep water below.

Wisconsin Dells

Photo: H.H. Bennett Studio. Acquired by the author from the Dells Country Historical Society.

–Michael Goc

How To Do Local History

December 4, 2009

They know how to do local history in Winneconne. (long e’s, unless you’re a tourist). The village of 2,400 souls on the Wolf River northwest of Oshkosh has a preserved railroad depot/museum like many another community. It also has a 19th century house furnished in period style, also like many another place.

What Winneconne has that other places don’t is the Kay Wilde Doll Cottage, a picturesque stone cottage filled with antique dolls; and the Steamboat Museum, which is the real thing, at least in part. It consists of the main deck and pilot house of a genuine steamer that once plied the waters of the Fox and Wolf Rivers, refurbished and looking like it’s ready to make the run from Butte des Mortes to Orihula.

All these items fill a corner of the village park on the edge of town. To find more and arguably the best part of Winneconne’s historical cache, you have go downtown to the library.

There in a room specially- endowed is found the book collection of James P. Coughlin. A political leader who served as village president longer than most citizens can remember,  Coughlin was also a Winnebago county supervisor, board chair and county executive.  Politics was in his blood, but history was his passion. After retiring from county office in the early 1990s, Coughlin exercised his passion by collecting books.

His goal was to assemble the largest library of books about Wisconsin and/or by Wisconsin authors in the state, if not the USA. He wasn’t interested in big selling authors with a Wisconsin connection. Sorry David Maranniss, Jane Hamilton and Lorrie Moore.

No, he wanted the work compiled by, for example, the history committee of Mellen in Ashland County. These hard-working folks published two volumes in 1986, well over 1,000  pages, detailing the story of Mellen, population 300. They have roughly four pages of book for every person in town

After you’ve finished Mellen you can read the history of Alma on the Mississippi, Port Wing on Lake Superior, Oconto on Green Bay, or South Milwaukee on Lake Michigan. Just go to Winneconne.  Care about St. Bronislava parish in Plover, Trinity Lutheran in Arkdale, the Frei Gemeinde in Sauk City.? Their books are in Winneconne, too.

How about biographies? Of Senator Philetus Sawyer, General Joseph Bailey, or the thousands of lesser lights profiled in the hundred volumes of county histories on the Coughlin shelves.  Military history? How about the book on the Fourth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, the story of the battleship USS Wisconsin, or of World War II air ace Richard Bong?

Pick a subject. Obscurity is not an obstacle: public statuary in Green Bay, the county highways of Winnebago, trout fishing on Green Lake,  the Sauk County hops boom, the Italian community of Iron County. It’s in a book in Winneconne.

The Coughlin collection is testimony to the man, but also to the thousands of  researchers, compilers, genealogists, news article clippers, obit snippers, the grabbers and holders of our local heritage. For the majority, this is their book, the only one they will ever publish.  Jim Coughlin understood and respected their work.

He died about a week ago.  His passion survives, along with that of the authors he honored by placing their work on the shelves of his library in Winneconne.

–Michael Goc

Ghostly Travels

October 30, 2009

Visiting ghosts in the local graveyard has been a popular activity for community historical and theatrical organizations for a few years now.  Many of us can’t resist the temptation to spend a bracing autumn morning or darkening fall evening midst the tombstones of our forebears.

The Adams County Historical Society held its Annual Cemetery Tour last Saturday.  I’ve served as researcher, script writer, tour guide–and ghost–for the Adams County tours for five or six years now.


Headstone of 19-year-old Lewis Knight, one of six men of Company E, 16th Wisconsin, who died at Shiloh in 1862. Strong's Prairie Cemetery, Adams County.

Our county has always had a small population spread over a large area, which means we have several dozen cemeteries located throughout a couple dozen towns.  Our modus operandi, therefore, is to load up a school bus full of ghost hunters, travel to two country cemeteries, meet five or six ghosts in each, then adjourn to a nearby country church whose members feed us a home cooked dinner that is worth the trip all by itself.

At the cemeteries, our tourists find ghosts poised at their graves, in period clothes, waiting to come to life and tell their stories.  Given the right story and the right ghost, they/we are transported to the past. The setting eases the journey. There is something about a graveyard that prompts reflection, opens us to past lives, our own and others.

Selecting ghostly storytellers can be a challenge.  As it is among the living, the population of our county among the dead is rather small.  Records are often absent. Memoirs few, and the editors of our weeklies did not pen lavish obituaries on everyone who passed, even in the era when such obits were standard newspaper fare.

So the first rule of selecting ghosts is that we actually have to know enough about a person to tell their story. No fiction, at least not deliberately, although this writer is sorely tempted not to let the facts impede the telling of a good story.

In part because records are available, but also because the sacrifice was so great, we visit with the ghost of one Civil War veteran each year.  In proportion to its population Wisconsin suffered more casualties in the Civil War than just about any other northern state. Evidence of that sacrifice is found in our cemeteries.

Of course, we visit the graves of the conventionally significant–the “firsters” who founded the towns, left their names on the map, acquired a measure of wealth, fame or infamy.

We also try to find the ghosts of  ordinary folks, or at least those generally perceived as ordinary, even though we know every grave in every cemetery marks a life unique unto itself.

So we find the 19th century farm “wife” remembered as the mother of six, eight, a dozen children, who invariably lost one or more in infancy. The tiny stones of the babies flank  her marker like children gathered round to hear her tell a pretty story–as perhaps she once did in life.

We also look for the long-lived. On our last tour, we visited the ghost of a woman born in 1899 who died in 2001. She, and we, were able to reflect on change over three centuries.


Headstone of Alson Kent at the foot of the only oak tree in Strong's Prairie Cemetery.

Occasionally we have a touchy moment, when the descendant of a ghost appears and wants to be sure we have grandma’s or grandpa’s story straight. We do, usually.

We can’t talk about ghosts without mentioning at least one sort-of eerie experience. In 2008 we told the story of Alson Kent, a seventeen year old boy who died in a logging accident. A huge oak tree he was felling snapped unexpectedly, kicked back off the stump, and crushed the youngster before he could escape.  Coincidentally or not, Kent is buried at the foot of the only large oak in the Strong’s Prairie Cemetery. It matches the newspaper description of the tree that killed him.

See you on the next tour.

–Michael Goc

Arts vs. Athletics

October 16, 2009

football picSometimes in a small town in the upper midwest, it seems on a Friday night that the town has emptied out. The streets are quiet, the bars are empty, and the televisions are silent. The town isn’t really a ghost town. It’s just that between 7PM and 10PM the entire town is at the local high school football stadium cheering on the 11 boys in uniform on the field and the other 50 uniformed boys on the sideline. It doesn’t bother me ; it’s a bonding experience for all generations. But, it can but a damper on the local Friday night art scene. Bringing in an out of town performer is risky and potentially financial suicide for a small performing arts center. And yet, those art loving individuals continue to dream and book the acts.

Here in Hayward, Wisconsin, we are the proud owners of the Park Theatre. Now when I say we, I’m not talking my husband and I. I’m talking about the small non-profit that envisioned a thriving performing arts center resurrected from the old original movie theater. It seats just over 200 and is slowly undergoing a metamorphosis ParkNiteMarqueeEditas the money trickles in. Monthly, there are small but perceptible alterations –enlarged stage, new lighting, new sound, a paint job. Occasionally there is a packed house but more often the audience is … intimate. It can seem more like a house concert or a simple gathering of friends than a public performance. And yet, those art loving citizens continue to dream and book outside performers hoping to beat the odds and perhaps even make money on a concert.

Such was the environment a week ago: a football Friday night in the midwest. Not just a football Friday night but a cold dreary Friday night. Don’t worry, cold and dreary does not stiffle the football crowd but it can damper the spirits of the art crowd. On this particular night, however, Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard were in town. For those of you who do not know of Prudence, a beautiful jazz singer and her pianist and accordian player Dan, you are missing out on one of the great joys of life. Her voice can be smoky and thick and sultry one moment and silky smooth the next. Close your eyes and you are transported back to the 1930s in line with her songs of Hoagy Carmicheal and  Ira Gershwin. Despite the reputation of the performers, it was still a risky proposition to host them on a football friday night in the upper midwest.mooncountry150

I have to admit that I held my breath that evening as I rounded the corner to enter the theater. I was in a “sit in the back of the theater” kind of mood. A “sit quietly and escape from life” kind of mood. I was somewhat worried that based on the size of the crowd I would need to move up front in order concentrate the audience; a request I have heard more than once. Truth be told, I shouldn’t have worried. I probably didn’t even need to sing “Impossible” from Cinderalla all the way to the theater. When I walked through the door, the place was packed. It was close to standing room only. It was then that I realized that our little town and its desire to nuture an arts community is not only succeeding, it is beginning to thrive. Although I doubt I will ever experience the day when athletic events are scheduled around the performing arts schedule, it is nice to know that we no longer need to take the back seat.

–Dayle Quigley

Lineman, Lawyer, Ojibwe

September 24, 2009

Football season is upon us and it prompts me to write about my favorite National League Football team. No it’s not the guys in green and gold from the city by the bay. It’s a team from the earliest days of the NFL that–as far as I know–never played a game in Wisconsin, but had several Wisconsin natives on the roster, and that went by the unlikely name of the Oorang Indians.


Oorang Indians, 1922. (No. 1) Alex Bobidosh, (2) Jim Thorpe, (3) Ted St. Germaine, (4) George Vetternack. (Ben Guthrie Collection, Lac du Flambeau).

In the fledgling days of the NFL a dog breeder named Walter Lingo wanted to boost sales of his line of Airedale dogs, known as Oorangs. He concluded that, if a Green Bay, Wisconsin meat packer could sponsor a football team to push pork chops he, a La Rue, Ohio dog breeder, could field a team to peddle puppies. He needed a marketing gimmick and found it in an unlikely place.

The boarding schools established by the federal government to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into the majority, white culture included comprehensive sports programs wherein Indian kids learned to play basketball, football and of course, “the national pastime” of baseball. By the opening years of the 20th century, “institutes” such as Hampton in Virginia and Carlisle in Pennsylvania were turning out “All-American” caliber athletes, most notably 1912 Olympic champion and the “World’s Greatest Athlete,” Jim Thorpe.

Lingo filled his roster with Indian school alumni and hired the aging but still famous Thorpe as player-coach. The Oorang Indians first took to the gridiron for the NFL’s 1922 season. On the roster were three young men from the Ojibwe reservation at Lac du Flambeau–George Vetternack, Alex Bobidosh and Ted St. Germaine.  Of the three, St. Germaine was the standout, but not for his ability with a football. Born in 1885, he left Lac du Flambeau to attend the University of Wisconsin, but found the atmosphere more friendly at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where he played football and earned his bachelor’s degree. Then it was on to Howard University and Yale where, in 1914, he acquired a law degree. Even with a degree from Yale, he soon learned that he was more likely to find a job on an Indian college coaching staff than in a white attorney’s office.

He was already thirty-seven years old when he suited up as a lineman for the Oorangs. When he strode onto the field in 1922, Ted St. Germaine became the first and probably the only attorney at law to play for an NFL team and certainly the only Native American lawyer to ever knuckle down on an NFL line.

The Indians were not much of a marketing gimmick and were even less of a football team. They survived two seasons, won three games and lost sixteen. When the 1923 season ended so did the team. The Flambeau men came home to their reservation. Bobidosh became a renowned master of Ojibwe traditional bark craft and, in the 1950s traveled, along with a supply of saplings and birch bark, to Anaheim, California, to build an Ojibwe long house at a new style amusement park called Disneyland.

Coach Jim Thorpe and lineman Ted St. Germaine, Oorang Indians, 1922. (Ben Guthrie Collection, Lac du Flambeau).

Coach Jim Thorpe and lineman Ted St. Germaine, Oorang Indians, 1922. (Ben Guthrie Collection, Lac du Flambeau).

St. Germaine became a tribal judge and, in 1932, was the first Native American admitted to the bar in Wisconsin. When Franklin Roosevelt initiated legislation to end the assimilation and allotment policies that had, one, taken children away from their parents and forced them into boarding schools and, two, carved up communally-owned reservation land into individual holdings, Congressional hearings were held around the country. The spokesman for the Lac du Flambeau delegation at the Hayward, Wisconsin, hearings, was Ted St. Germaine. He argued for Indian self-government and tribal control of natural resources as stipulated in the treaties of the 19th century. Some of these concepts were incorporated into the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, but the Ojibwe’s treaty rights governing natural resources were not recognized in Wisconsin until the 1980s.

Ted St. Germaine was long gone by then, as were the Oorang Indians, and the well-intentioned but inhumane policy that brought them together.

The pigs know…it’s all about dirt

September 23, 2009

A friend of mine just started farming his parent’s land and he invited me out to help dig potatoes last weekend.  Before we got down on hands and knees in the dirt to unearth the tubers, he said the pigs needed a shower.

The three dudes, as he calls them, were weighing in around 200 pounds after about 8 months of eating. On Sunday, when I arrived, they were lumped together in the shade. Pigs don’t sweat, my farmer friend told me. When he got the hose out, they came trotting out in a hurry to splash around and get their snouts down in the newly created mud puddle.

As I spent the next hours harvesting purple, red, and gold potatoes, all found like prizes hidden within the rich soil, I thought about Will Allen.

Will Allen is a very successful farmer in urban Milwaukee. Will inspires people to garden, to grow food, and to improve their landscapes and lives. And he says, with impressive conviction, that to grow food in poor or tainted soil is irresponsible.

His main message is this: It’s all about the dirt.

Will Allen bought the last parcel of agricultural land in Milwaukee and, back in 1993, connected with teens from the surrounding neighborhood to provide work restoring the soil and the greenhouses to grow food. It was an area of the city where people needed jobs and that offered residents no other options for fresh veggies. That was the beginning of Growing Power.

To hear Will go through a brief history of the past sixteen years is jaw-droppingly inspiring. Now he travels the world sharing his techniques for creating huge quantities of high quality soil, putting it to high-density use, fertilizing it with worm castings, and changing the landscape for the better.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council brought Will Allen to Madison last week as a pre-event for the Wisconsin Book Festival (October 7-11 in Madison). The room at the Goodman Community Center was overflowing with fans, followers, and some new faces (now known as the recently converted). Forget about fire code, people were crammed in there! By the end of his talk, Will had everyone happily yelling “Soil!” when he asked, “What is the key to feeding everyone healthy food?”

And what do soil, dirt, and farming have to do with the a statewide cultural organization like the Wisconsin Humanities Council?

Dena Wortzel, the director of the WHC, may have said it best when she explained, “For our part, what we hope to do is help folks in Wisconsin use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone.”

The event was planned to bring people together to talk about what’s going on, what people are excited about, and how new ideas can be realized. This conversation, on-going and building, is part of a history, heritage, and legacy in Wisconsin.

“I don’t know if it is in the air, the water or the soil,” Dena continued, “but for more than a hundred years, Wisconsin has been home to visionaries of land and community, from John Muir to Aldo Leopold, to Will Allen – as well as less publicly known, but equally passionate people like all of you.”

I’m with Will on this one: it must be in the soil!

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

On the Seat of a Yellow Bus

September 9, 2009

One room school, Eau Claire county, 1930s (Wisconsin Historical Society).

We no longer think of yellow school buses on country roads as signs of progress in education but, in the 1950s, they stood for more than transportation. Buses,  not  yet painted yellow,  marked the demise of the thousands of one room schools that had served country kids for a century.

Wisconsin, like other northern states, made an early commitment to creating a public school system accessible to all children–rural and urban, native and foreign born.  Any resident between the ages of four and twenty could attend public school.

Since the state’s population was predominately rural until the 1910s and local transportation moved no faster than a horse could walk, even  mid-sized counties like Sauk, Winnebago and Chippewa had schools by the hundreds.

Each school was supervised by a citizen board that built and maintained the school house,  purchased furniture and equipment, hired the teacher and levied taxes on themselves and their neighbors to pay for it all.  Their work was overseen by a superintendent elected by county voters. Some were county seat politicos with little interest in the job except that it was a job.

The large majority–as an examination of the annual reports they were obliged to submit reveals–were hard-working, conscientious apostles of education who traveled the back roads  to cajole, exhort, persuade local boards to improve their schools and, when necessary,  threaten to withhold county and state funding from those that failed.

They must have succeeded. By the turn of the 19th century, Wisconsin, again like other northern states, had one of the highest literacy rates in a country that itself possessed one of the largest percentages of literate residents in the world. And this was in a nation of immigrants for whom English was a second language mastered largely at school.

Times changed and schools had to respond. The basic readin’, ‘ritin and ‘ritmetic of the rural school curriculum was not adequate for the mid-20th century.  Fewer than one half of rural school students went on to complete high-school.

The long and difficult battle to create the “integrated” school systems  our children attend today was not completed until the early 1960s.  The one room school became a revered icon  of nostalgic musing, but its time had passed, as if carried away on the seat of a yellow bus.

–Michael Goc

New Tool

August 31, 2009

I’ve written before about economic development strategies aimed at small business.  Micro-enterprises are the backbone of many economies, especially in neighborhoods and rural areas.  The arts, local foods and other emerging “industry clusters” are starting to be recognized as viable economic engines, as well they should.

Recently, a new tool has emerged that may prove a useful addition to the community developer’s tool belt.  Consider a marriage between a Community Foundation and economic development organization.

Wisconsin has many excellent Community Foundations, and they come in various shapes and sizes.  In a nutshell, these organizations help invest local donations to earn the best possible return.  Communities can then grant proceeds while never touching the principal.  For years, much good charitable work has been funded through Community Foundations, but bolstering business development is not all that common in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s “Strengthening Rural Families” policy team saw an opportunity there and identified community philanthropy as a growing opportunity for rural areas to maintain and grow local wealth and to put that wealth to use in enhancing the local economy.

Recently leaders of two areas in Wisconsin met to study how Community Foundations and local funds can target resources to spur local economic development.   Wisconsin Rural Partners, a statewide non-profit organization that works to build networks, leadership and voice for rural areas of our state, brought Don Macke of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RURPI) to Wisconsin to work with these groups.

Don is an old hand at many things that fall under the “community development” umbrella and is fluent in both the Community Foundation and economic development aspects of the equation.  The organizations he works with are worth some study.  The RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship is a focal point for efforts to stimulate and support private and public entrepreneurship development in communities throughout rural America.

Hometown Competitiveness is a partnership between the Nebraska Community Foundation, RUPRI and the Heartland center for Leadership Development.  The program provides a long-term approach to community sustainability through four interrelated strategies: Developing Leadership; Energizing Entrepreneurs, Engaging Youth and Charitable Giving.

Urban as well as rural leaders can benefit from some of the strategies and models these organizations offer.

Back in Wisconsin, the “Northwoods” region team includes a diverse group of University of Wisconsin Extension agents, business leaders, and the Northwoods NiiJii Enterprise Community, a unique and highly effective community development corporation.  (NiiJii is a partnership between the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and the Sokaogon Chippewa Community of Mole Lake, together with eight municipal partners in northern Wisconsin.)

The team from Crawford County got an early start and is off and running.  Less than a year old they have aligned with the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin to start a county-wide fund.  A board of the county’s shakers and movers was formed, and, in short order, met a challenge grant from an anonymous donor.  Recently they gave $5,000 in grants for very nifty purposes, and these give a good indication of what this “marriage” is all about:

  • A feasibility study for a community commercial grade kitchen to be used by local food producers to help get their products to market;
  • Coupons for food pantry clients in Gays Mills, Ferryville and Prairie du Chien to be used for locally grown fresh produce sold at Farmers Markets ;
  • Kickapoo River log jam clean-up project to help promote tourism.

There are a number of advantages to adding this new tool to a community’s resource chest.  Oftentimes the endowment is invested through local institutions, which helps strengthen the entire community and endowments are ideal for situations where you’re in it for the long haul.  From the donor standpoint, a gift to an endowment is forever.

When a Community Fund works with economic development leaders, it helps to build a better entrepreneurial climate.  Creative people often look for communities – urban and rural – that have outstanding quality of life factors, other innovative folks and an acceptance of things that are new and different.

Many of the more successful communities doing these things have strong local control, but still view themselves as part of a greater region.  Thinking and acting like a region is getting popular because many communities are finding that it can be a win/win situation.  Both teams I mentioned above are taking a regional, multi-community approach.

If you’re interested in any of this, a great example from Wisconsin is the Community Progress Initiative, a partnership of the Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County and the Heart of Wisconsin Business and Economic Alliance.  Check out all they do – it’s impressive.

You can also visit the Donors Forum of Wisconsin for information on Community Foundations or look-up info on Hometown Competitiveness or the RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship.

We’d especially like to hear from you if you know of some successful marriages between Community Foundations and economic development.

Ricky Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)