A Transplant’s Impressions of the Driftless Folk
“People in Hillsboro are smarter than people in Chicago. Do you know why?”
Since I had just moved to Hillsboro from Chicago, I took the bait. “No idea,” I said to my new neighbor, “Why are people in Hillsboro smarter than people in Chicago?”
“Because,” he said, “everyone in Hillsboro knows where Chicago is, but no one in Chicago knows where Hillsboro is.”
A great sense of humor is just one of the characteristics I have observed in people of the Driftless Area since I arrived here twelve years ago. I would like to share some of those observations with readers of Driftless Now who, as natives of this area, may have taken for granted the special people and places in their own back yard.
Looking to escape the hubbub of the city upon retirement, my wife and I had been considering the mountains of Colorado. A visit to friends in La Valle changed our mind; we discovered the Driftless Area! This was not Wisconsin Dells, Lake Geneva, or Minocqua, places overrun with vacationing families from Chicago in the summertime. Screaming, sunburned kids, stressed-out parents, and driving habits cultivated on Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway faded from our rear-view mirror as we drove west on winding back roads into the Driftless. The hills, ridges, bluffs, and rock formations announced that we were entering a landscape unique to the Midwest: God’s Country. There would be no need to move 1,000 miles across the country to retire in Nature’s splendor.
We soon found a house in Hillsboro that ticked all our boxes and negotiated a sales price—a fraction of what a similar property would cost in the Chicago area. I told the owner that I would have my lawyer draw up a contract. “Aw, we don’t need a contract,” he said, as he just wrote out a few lines on a yellow pad of paper. Having had experience in real estate sales, I was flabbergasted. When I called the bank holding the seller’s mortgage, I was told that no contract was necessary. Even the Reedsburg attorney I contacted said the same thing. At the closing, the seller assured me that he would pay the current year’s real estate taxes in full when the bill became available. Sure enough, he delivered the receipt in December. All the parties involved operated on a handshake. It was then that I knew I was “not in Kansas anymore.”
Still recovering from the shock of a no-stress real estate transaction, we moved in. The seller had left a bed and supplies for our convenience, so we wouldn’t have to unpack our U-Haul the evening we arrived. The next day, he and some friends, Amish and English, showed up to help us unload the truck. When we had lunch at the local restaurant, our waitress seemed to know us: “You’re the Potters, the new folks in town.” We had lived in our suburban Chicago home for eleven years without knowing our neighbor’s name.
Our next lesson in small-town ways came the following day, when my wife and I were inspecting our new front yard. A car passed, and the driver waved. “Oh, you made a friend here,” Barb said.
“No,” I replied, “I thought he was waving at you.” We were to soon learn that in the Driftless Area, everyone waves at one another. And when a driver waves, unlike in Chicago, he uses all five fingers!
If we thought we had only purchased a house in the beautiful hills of Southwest Wisconsin, we were wrong; we had acquired a whole new way of life.
Eager to become part of the community, we volunteered for civic groups: Lions, Woman’s Civic Club, library, hospital, school, etc. In small towns, newcomers are welcomed, especially if they are willing to help out. Volunteers wear many hats, and organizations work together for the common good. Likewise, students in small schools typically take part in multiple sports and other extracurricular activities.
As a substitute teacher in the Hillsboro schools, I observed that students are unusually kind to one another, for they go through twelve years of school with the same two dozen or so classmates. That attitude carries over to the general population. In a town of 1,400, one lacks the anonymity of a big city; it behooves one, therefore, to be honest and honorable.
Are people in the Driftless smarter than people in Chicago? Yes, I believe that in many ways they are, on average, smarter. My experience, working in corporate and academic environments, is that large organizations, with thousands of employees, tend to pigeonhole people into narrow job descriptions for efficiency. An accountant may specialize in Medicare recipients in assisted living facilities; an electronics technician may be assigned to repair storage oscilloscopes; a professor may teach introductory physics for 40 years. Yes, such specialists do get pretty good at their jobs, but they may become robotized. Their daily commute—fighting traffic or riding mass transit-their cubicle with its blinking computer screen, and their suburban tedium lead some to the apparent insanity of weekend trips to Wisconsin Dells.
By contrast, life in the Driftless Area is more laid back. Because there are fewer inhabitants, the average person must have a broader skill set. Farmers must be scientists, mechanics, accountants, computer experts, etc. just to survive. Other workers must be more flexible, as there are only so many jobs to go around. Is Kwik Trip hiring? Go for it! If you can weld, wire up an electrical panel, or put a carburetor together, you can make a very good living. Opportunities in agriculture, business, healthcare, and education abound if you are multi-talented and willing to work. I have observed a lot of people in the Driftless Area who fit that description to a T.
Perhaps the sense of place enjoyed by residents of the Driftless Area contributes to the serenity I see in my neighbors. They have roots here; they have family ties. They are part of a community. People work together for the common good, and they help one another when the need arises, such as serious illness or the disastrous floods of last August.
They are surrounded by the extraordinary beauty of the Driftless Area. If the serenity of the folks I observe is not the definition of “smart,” then it is at least an indicator of mental health.
Obviously, I am being a bit facetious in drawing such a stark contrast between the lifestyles of my home town and that of my adopted home in the Driftless.
In the end, people are people, wherever they are, and it would be unfair to say that Hillsboroans are smarter than Chicagoans. I will say, however, that choosing to retire in the Driftless Area is one of the smartest moves my wife and I have made.
Robert Potter is very interested in documenting the lives of area residents for Driftless Now. If you have a story you are willing to share with readers, please contact Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org.