‘A Slow Healing Process’: Slammed By the Dairy Crisis, Shuttered By the Coronavirus, Small Towns Forge Ahead
Roger Rueth does his evening milking Wednesday, April 29, 2020 on his farm east of Loyal, Wis. Ruth, who became seriously ill with a mold infection in his lungs, should be wearing a mask, but he ran out of them. Clark County in central Wisconsin has a population of about 35,000 people and about 160,000 head of cattle & calves, including dairy and beef cattle, plus calves. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
LOYAL – At 5:30 in the morning, a lone trucker wandered into Grandma’s Kitchen, sliding into a seat near the front window. A cup of coffee arrived momentarily; the waitress had no one else to worry about. It was the first day the dining room had been open in months, but the usual crowd of early risers wasn’t filing in to mark the occasion.
Next door, the Star Lodge Motel was nearly empty, too. And across downtown Loyal, “Closed” signs hung on darkened storefront windows, each a testament to the impact of COVID-19 and Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order this spring. Some were handwritten on scraps of cardboard, taped to the glass, as if the owner left in a hurry.
These days, scores of small towns like Loyal are assessing the economic and social consequences of the coronavirus in a recovery that could test their mettle in ways never before imagined.
“I believe most of the businesses in Loyal are going to survive, but they are going to survive in a very dire environment for quite a while,” said Michael Smith, owner of Grandma’s Kitchen and the Star Lodge Motel. “I think it’s going to be a slow healing process.”
Loyal didn’t have a single documented case of COVID-19 during the safer-at-home stretch, according to city officials. Yet the town’s economy — the taverns, the hair salons, the bakery and other shops on Main Street — took a major hit practically overnight. The schools, the American Legion hall, the churches, shut down as well.
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The timing could hardly have been worse for the 150-year-old city. It’s in Clark County, the heart of dairy country, with twice as many cows as people. Five years of low milk prices and an ailing farm economy have taken a brutal toll.
Hundreds of towns across the state are in a similar predicament. They’re fueled by the money that farmers spend at equipment dealerships, feed mills, hardware stores, cafes and scores of other businesses. Each dollar of net farm income results in an additional 60 cents of economic activity, according to University of Wisconsin research.
When dairy farmers stumble, businesses in Loyal lose their balance, too.
“A farmer will spread manure in the morning, and in the afternoon he comes to town and spreads money. But if he hasn’t got the money to spend, he’s not going to be here,” said Dave Lucht, who owns C&J Auto and Machine, an automotive parts and hardware store on Main Street.
The pandemic accentuated the damage.
Some Loyal residents are nervous about returning to business as usual even though all of Clark County has documented fewer than 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and only four deaths.
“The virus is not over yet, and I hope we don’t get it back because we reopened too soon,” said Carol Hubing, who’s had a hair salon in Loyal for nearly 60 years.
She feels bad for the business owners who fell behind on their bills, and for those who were just getting started on Main Street.
“If I had a mortgage, I would be in deep trouble,” Hubing said.
Shelby’s Pub owner Michele Carter said she lost 80% of her income during safer-at-home. She kept the pub open for takeout meals, even prime rib steak dinners, but it wasn’t enough to cover the bills. “You just kind of lick your wounds and say goodbye to all the money you lost and that you had to take out of savings,” she said.
When the bar reopened, it was quiet. There was no wild celebration like what took place at some of the bars in Neillsville, the county seat.
“A lot of people are very scared of the virus, for good reason,” Carter said.
Still, she was relieved to see folks coming back, even if not in droves.
“Maybe I’ll be busy all of a sudden and will have to separate people. I don’t know,” Carter said. “But if people can’t live at least somewhat the life they want to live … there’s just no point in being on this Earth as far as I’m concerned.”
A block off Main Street at the American Legion hall, manager David Jacobson said safer-at-home cut deeply into that organization’s finances. For a while, there were no “steak feed” dinners, wedding receptions or other events at Post 175, which has been a popular gathering place for decades.
“It stopped everything. And we still have bills coming in,” he said.
Hoping something positive comes out
Michael Conard, a physician’s assistant, was furloughed when business slowed at the medical clinic where he works. He’s also felt the sting of COVID-19 at the Lions Club, where as a member he helps with fundraisers for local scholarships.
Normally, Loyal would have been bustling with brat sales and pancake breakfasts to support local charities. But not this spring, and the shortfall in revenue could be felt throughout the year.
“We are not going to be able to make it up this summer,” Conard said.
Still, he remained optimistic that something positive will come out of the sweeping changes brought on by the pandemic.
“I’m hoping it’s going to give everybody a new appreciation for just how important we are to each other. We don’t live isolated lives. We have to protect and take care of each other, and we have to do things differently now,” Conard said.
Holly Rohde, a U.S. Navy veteran, had turned a former BP gas station into a dance studio after years of studying dance in California, Hawaii and Florida. She was planning her students’ first major recital when COVID-19 forced her to hang the “Closed” sign in the front window and move classes online.
“I think for the first time, the majority of Americans feel what it’s like to not be completely free, and that’s huge,” Rohde said. “I’ve never questioned my freedom before, and now I question it every day I wake up.”
Not far away, in the city of Abbotsford, those kinds of questions took a different shape.
“Think of COVID-19 as the Devil. We are not supposed to fear the Devil; faith in God should prevail,” Police Chief Jason Bauer wrote in a letter to Gov. Tony Evers, protesting the safer-at-home order in place at the time.
“I do not fear the Devil, nor COVID-19. I believe COVID-19 has some politicians scared, resulting in bad decisions. Government cannot protect everyone from COVID-19. … For those who are afraid, keep practicing social distancing. For those of us not afraid of the Devil, life should return to some sort of normalcy.”
‘I’m scared. I really am’
People in the countryside near Loyal worry about COVID-19 and the farm economy, which has been made worse by the pandemic.
“I’m scared. I really am,” said dairy farmer Roger Rueth.
The 64-year-old farmer contracted an illness from mold that leaves his lungs especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
“I have to be very, very careful,” he said. “I don’t go many places unless I have to. We’re pretty much homebound here.”
His wife, Alora, was laid off from her job as a training assistant at the Marshfield Medical Clinic when COVID-19 upended the facility’s budget.
It’s been hard on the family, especially after they took out $300,000 in loans for the farming operation, and last year barely squeezed out a profit of $533.
“We’re going to have to borrow more money to stay in farming,” Alora said.
Still, the Rueths wouldn’t give up the farm easily.
“I love it out here. I could never see myself as an urban boy,” Roger said. “I’ve got that dirt under my fingernails. … I wasn’t even done with high school and I was 25% owner of the farm already. I’ve worked here all my life.”
They’ve got a 250-cow operation that’s been around since 1948. Clark County is home to hundreds of smaller dairy farms — more than any other county in the state — including Amish and Mennonite families that shy away from modern technologies.
“I think our morale is good, given the circumstances. We’re not confined like some would be in the city,” said Pastor Robert Zimmerman with Unity Mennonite Church, about 15 miles from Loyal.
During safer-at-home, his church held Sunday services over a telephone conference line. And while parishioners don’t use email, they kept in touch with handwritten letters.
“It’s been very interesting to see how people have come to know each other in a different way through writing,” Zimmerman said.
He sees the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen spiritually.
“We want good to come from this, and we believe it can because God doesn’t let things happen randomly,” Zimmerman said. “He’s going to make the best of the situation, and He’s going to help us do the same thing.”
Shifting gears to survive, even prosper
Some manufacturers in Abbotsford have found there’s money to be made from COVID-19 as their other businesses remain stuck in low gear. One of them is Decorator Industries, which until the pandemic made draperies and bedding for hotels.
Practically overnight, the company switched its entire production line to cloth face masks. Then it was in talks with a Minneapolis customer to produce a half-million masks, and orders kept pouring in from all over the country.
“Once you get started on this thing, it’s a monster. I originally thought it was going to be a four-week deal, and now we’re looking at a year, maybe even 18 months,” said company President Dan Hannula.
He and his wife, a medical doctor at a state prison, spent a weekend making prototype masks, snatching up all the materials they could find at area fabric stores. Hannula sees the sudden response by companies as a warlike effort, and COVID-19 is the enemy.
“There’s a lot of squawking at the top, by the politicians, but the people are pulling together and we’re going to beat this thing,” he said.
But in downtown Loyal, Sheila Nyberg, Clark County’s economic development director, only has to glance out her office window to see how quiet everything is on Main Street.
She’s passionate about small businesses, the “smalls,” as she calls them.
“To help these companies survive is our number one focus right now, one business at a time, one doorway at a time, down the avenue, into the countryside,” she said.
Nyberg doesn’t yet know how this story will be recorded in history. “We’re too busy living it right now. … This is the test we’ve never had to face before,” she said.
Loyal got its name for being loyal to the Union in the Civil War, where nearly every man went off to battle and many didn’t return.
Downturns in the economy are nothing new to this — or any — dairy community. But the fallout of COVID-19 has brought new hardship.
“This is unreal. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mayor Carmen Englebretson.
“I’ve seen my friends starting to struggle,” she said on the front porch of her home, wearing a sweatshirt that read “SMALL TOWN USA. Loyal, Wis. Est. 1870.”
At the city’s food pantry, a steady stream of needy families from all over the county comes in for groceries. It’s been that way for weeks, and manager Cherilyn Hare says she expects it to continue as more people lose their jobs in the pandemic.
The pantry has relaxed some of its paperwork requirements for first-time customers.
“We’re just giving people food. If they’re coming in, they must need it,” Hare says.
She owned a business in Loyal for more than 50 years and knows how tough it can be to make a living in rural Wisconsin, even during good times.
“These small towns don’t have a lot to start with,” she said.
Still, before the pandemic, Clark County was doing well enough, according to Nyberg. Some older people were selling their shops, but younger folks were moving in.
“It was like, ‘Holy cow,’ they were going to take their chances and start their own little businesses. They were feeling good,” she said.
Many of the small shops were forced to close during safer-at-home because they weren’t considered essential. Meanwhile, big stores like Walmart remained open and business flowed their way.
“It was a real fight in your mind, and in your heart, that you had to help the big get bigger. You stood back and choked on it,” Nyberg said.
The trillions of dollars in federal COVID-19 assistance hasn’t found its way to small towns like Loyal very well. One business Nyberg tried to help, for example, found out it was only eligible for $84 — and that was after filling out reams of paperwork.
“It makes you even sicker and sadder,” she said.
Still, she’s impressed with how people have rallied to help each other, like when they hung banners along Main Street to honor recent high school graduates who didn’t get to have their regular graduation ceremony.
“I believe that’s what you get with small-town character,” Nyberg said. “People are taking pride in what they’re doing, but nobody wants kudos for it. They just want to do their part. That’s the real world of towns like Loyal, Wisconsin.”
Smith, at Grandma’s Kitchen, agrees.
“Today, we are seeing examples of Americans at their very best. They’re supporting each other and doing selfless acts for others. That’s the true spirit of being an American, and it’s very much a part of this town.”
He suspects Loyal won’t realize the full impact of safer-at-home until later this summer.
“I understand why it had to happen, but the truth be known is every one of these businesses has bills, responsibilities, debts, and those didn’t get closed off,” he said. “People are suffering. Businesses are suffering. The economy is suffering. I don’t think anyone has a crystal ball to peer into and say this is how it’s all going to turn out.”
This story is part of a joint project between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Milwaukee PBS exploring the struggling dairy industry and its impact on rural Wisconsin. The Journal Sentinel maintained editorial control of the reporting, which is supported by grants from the PBS series FRONTLINE and the Pulitzer Center, a nonprofit journalism organization.
This story is also part of a collaboration with Milwaukee PBS through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.