Monday, December 18, 2006

Challenges of Rural Counties

Clark County, WI (population 34,098) is a large (1,215 square miles--larger than the entire state of RI) in west-central WI. There are 12 towns in the county, ranging in size from 203 in Curtiss to 2,731 in the county seat of Neillsville. Sheila Nyberg, Executive Director of the ED Corporation gave me a sheet of the towns that used to exist in the county explaining, “We used to have 71 communities in the county. Today 48 of those are ‘ghost towns’, 11 are unincorporated and we still have 12 towns.”

It was quite sobering to look through that list and to contemplate the dreams of the people that started those 48 settlements that didn’t quite get up to the critical mass of becoming towns and ultimately dwindled away into obscurity. Why did places like Eldsvod, Sterling, Reseburg, Bright, Romeo, Snow and others not make it? How many other small towns will follow them? How can we do more to educate, motivate and inspire keeping more small towns in existence?

I spent three hours driving around the county, visiting seven of the existing towns. Several are going through growth spurts and have some very interesting natural attributes. Clark County is a beautifully scenic area whose geography was shaped by the glaciers which left some wonderful rolling hills and incredible glacial moraines. Hundreds of miles of various trails wind through the entire county.

Ken Dix, president of the County ED Corporation told me, “One of our biggest challenges is that 51% of our high school aged population is not going to high school. We have such a high percentage of Amish youth, coming out of their 44 one-room schoolhouses, that don’t go onto high school. They believe that an eighth grade education is just fine.” We passed many Amish children walking home to their farms from those one-room schools in our tour.

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