Just got back from our annual early October trip up to the Northwoods to close our fishing cabin for another season.
My buddy, Paul and I, have known each other for more than 60 years, having met in third grade when my family moved off the farm and into town. Paul, I, and my wife Sue pooled our resources back in 1972 and bought five acres of wild land along the South Fork of the Flambeau River up in Price County, Wisconsin. Camping got old after six or seven years, so in 1980 we bought a fishing cabin a couple miles north of Park Falls—then, as now, Price County’s largest municipality—on Butternut Lake.
We open the cabin each spring so as to be ready for opening day for walleye season on the first Saturday in May. And since it’s a three-season fishing cabin, we close it down for the winter each autumn, generally around Columbus Day.
As I sat out fishing with Paul as our annual autumn trip drew to a close, I started thinking about the big changes we’ve seen in northern Wisconsin, as well as the changes in my hometown of Oswego here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley. In both cases, those changes have been profound, generally in a good way for Oswego but not so much for Park Falls.
Park Falls, like most of the municipalities in Price County, was established during the lumbering boom of the late 19th Century, growing faster than its neighboring villages when a paper mill was built there. It was not only the industrial center of the surrounding hinterland, but was also the agriculture market center for nearby farms, which were mostly dairy operations. Today, the paper mill is still busy, turning pulpwood harvested from the surrounding managed forests into paper.
The town’s businesses and industry led to construction of a large stock of housing, smaller worker’s cottages for industrial workers and retail employees, with larger homes built by executives and successful merchants.
But like so many small towns in overwhelmingly rural areas like northern Wisconsin, Park Falls has seen its population decline sharply over the years. When we bought our fishing cabin back in 1980, Park Falls’ population stood at its historic peak, 3,192. The town’s downtown sported a stock of substantial brick storefronts that housed two grocery stores and a fair variety of retail businesses.
That same year, Oswego’s population was reported by the U.S. Census Bureau at just slightly below Park Falls’, 3,021. Oswego was still the market town for the surrounding agricultural hinterland, but was rapidly changing into a suburban bedroom community. Residential and commercial development took a breather during the 1980s, but then in the 1990s it began again, surging strongly into the early 2000s. In fact, during that era, Kendall County, in which Oswego is situated, became (in percentage terms) the fastest growing county in the entire nation.
Meanwhile, Park Falls and Price County were steadily losing population. Young people graduating from high school found decreasing opportunities for economic advancement, leading to a population drain.
The paper mill continued to provide jobs, but increasing automation meant there were fewer of those available. Then in 2006, the factory closed, shocking the entire community. But with private and governmental economic cooperation, it reopened after a few months, and has continued operating since. In addition, St. Croix Rods opened a manufacturing plant in Park Falls for high-end fishing equipment, and later, the Weathershield company opened a state-of-the-art window factory in town, providing more relatively good-paying jobs.
Even so, the community’s population continued to decline. The 2016 population estimate for Park Falls was just 2,292, a decrease of nearly 30 percent since 1980.
In comparison, Oswego’s population surged during that same period, growth fueled by northern Illinois’ powerful economic engine. In 1990, Oswego’s population had grown, but not sharply, to 3,879. But then the frenetic growth of the 1990s and early 2000s hit and by the new millennium Oswego’s population had grown to 13,326. The growth explosion continued through the 2000s, despite the Great Recession of 2008. By 2010, the village’s population stood at an astonishing 30,355. Between then and 2016, population went up another 10 percent or so to an estimated 34,571.
Not sure what all this proves, other than the old cliché that the three most important factors contributing to real estate values is location, location, and location.
Park Falls’ population declined by nearly 30 percent during the same period when Oswego’s population grew by 10 times, mostly, but not entirely, based on where the two towns were situated, Park Falls largely isolated in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, Oswego adjacent to the Chicago suburban economic powerhouse.
Those of us who have lived through Oswego’s growing pains often grumble about the area’s extreme changes. But all things considered, it’s been a lot better watching a community grow and prosper rather than slowly evaporate as its young people leave for places where there are opportunities to make a successful family life.