''Always I have felt sorry for boys and girls who haven't spent
the first sixteen years of their lives in a small American town.
There one finds a nice balance of leisure and society which makes for
richness in living.''
-- EDNA FERBER
A Peculiar Treasure
Appleton, once the home of Harry Houdini and Senator Joseph
McCarthy as well as the Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber, is located
in the northeastern part of Wisconsin, two hours north of Milwaukee,
30 minutes southwest of Green Bay. It's not really a small town
anymore. Its population now exceeds 60,000, and more than 155,000
reside in the Chamber of Commerce-designated area known as the Fox
Cities, of which Appleton is the crown jewel among 10. ''I'd call it
middle-sized America,'' says Jack Fischer, an Appleton architect.
Says J.R. Hammond, an executive at Kimberly-Clark in Neenah, the
second largest Fox City, ''There's enough size to have a certain
anonymity, yet not enough to lose a certain intimacy.''
We have come to Appleton to examine the sporting life, and life in
general, of an American town, a town without a major league team or a
major league garbage strike, a town that breathes clean air, sips
fresh lemonade, does its shopping downtown and, with considerable
relentlessness, pursues recreation when the workday is done. We hope
to find in Appleton the essence of sport in mid-sized American towns,
an essence that has little to do with the big-time, big-dollar
variety that dominates the headlines.
Of course, Appletonians motor to see the NFL Packers, the major
league Brewers (''the Packers all the time, the Brewers only when
they're winning,'' said one trip organizer) and the University of
Wisconsin football team, but they can find much of what they want and
need right in town. They participate in sports and, even when they're
watching, they are in a sense participating, because they often know
the players personally.
Appleton is a place where high school athletes are still heroes
and where summertime baseball is both a pastime and a continuum of
generations. A boy plays ball for the same team his dad played for --
and perhaps his grandfather before that. That may be the secret of
smaller towns: Nothing changes very much. There is an equilibrium to
''We have a lot of people who like to get together and celebrate
being alive,'' says Appleton mayor Dorothy Johnson, a Salt Lake City
native who moved to town 14 years ago from Fort Wayne, Ind. ''We like
to cheer each other, to see each other succeed.''
They also like to help each other out. Appleton is still enough of
a small town to produce the scene witnessed a few weeks ago at an
American Legion baseball game at Legion Park. A boy of about 10 went
to buy a Coke for himself and popcorn for his mother. He left his
change, a nickel, at the concession stand. When he returned to his
seat, his mother asked for the change, and the boy, thinking he had
dropped it, started looking around in the grass. Suddenly, the woman
from the concession stand appeared, chuckling. ''You wouldn't be
looking for this, would you?'' she asked, holding up the nickel. She
had followed the boy some 90 feet back to his seat to return it.
It would be simplistic, of course, to think that everyone in
Appleton steps, freshly scrubbed, out of some turn-of-the-century
Midwestern mold. ''Why, there are just as many kinds of people in
Kokomo as there are in Pekin,'' said the central character in the
Harry Leon Wilson-Booth Tarkington play The Man from Home, and so,
too, is there diversity in Appleton. But, all in all, one finds here
a singularity of purpose, an affinity of values and a commitment to
the idea of community that seems atypical in the 1980s.
''It's easy to become comfortable here,'' says Bob Lowe, city hall
reporter on The Post-Crescent, the Fox Cities daily newspaper. The
comment is revealing since Lowe, whose presence in town contributes
heavily to Appleton's .1% black population, has been mistaken on
the street for everyone from James Lofton to Mr. T. Perhaps that's
why Lowe, when he's out for a run, often wears his favorite T-shirt,
the one that says APPLETON, AN ALTERNATIVE TO REALITY.
It just may be.
From the roof of the 10-story, 220-foot Aid Association for
Lutherans building, the tallest building in town, you can see the Fox
River winding like a Christmas ribbon through the valley. On the
banks of the river were built the paper mills that still dominate the
valley economy. Originally the Fox was filled with rapids at Appleton
and must have been quite beautiful, but now the muddy waters are
crossed by four locks, built in the late 19th century to tame the
river for trade. Appleton, the seat of Outagamie County, was the
first hydroelectric-powered city in the world, and the first
hydroelectric-powered house -- dating from 1882 -- still stands on
the west side of town. The Fox was once badly polluted, but a new
state-of-the-art municipal waste-treatment plant made the water
acceptable for swimming and fishing. Almost any morning in the spring
and summer, fishermen, rods in hand, can be found hovering at the
edge of the river, trying to land the walleyes, white perch and white
bass that inhabit the waters.
Six miles outside of Appleton, in Neenah, the Fox flows north from
Lake Winnebago, ''the nation's largest freshwater lake contained
within one state,'' as residents will tell you almost liturgically.
On a warm, summer Sunday, Winnebago may host a walleye tournament, a
sailing regatta and a powerboat race more or less at once. On a
recent day, Harold Lovdahl, a 69- year-old sports enthusiast who has
lived in Appleton for 40 years, was spotted on the shore rigging the
sail on a sailboard. ''Tried just about everything else,'' he said.
''So thought I'd give this a go.'' He did, too.
Today, the main focus of Appleton is not the Fox, but College
Avenue, the town's main street in every sense of the word. Take
College west all the way to the Outagamie County Airport; take
College east all the way out of town until it turns into County Road
CE. Cruise College at night when there's nothing else to do. Close
College to traffic on a summer afternoon and hold a sidewalk sale.
Fight for a spot on College during the Flag Day parade, said to be
the largest in America. Step out onto College on a Sunday night at 10
o'clock, when it is quiet, and you may hear a train whistle blowing
in the distance.
College is the home of Lawrence University, an impossibly
placid-looking institution of great lawns and classical buildings on
the east side of town. The second coeducational university in the
nation, Lawrence would probably still be quite acceptable today to
Amos Lawrence, the proper Bostonian who founded it in 1847 and who
gave his wife's maiden name to the city that was built around it.
Playing an NCAA Division III football schedule against schools like
Ripon and St. Norbert, the Lawrence Vikings were 7-2 last season. On
a crisp, clear autumn Saturday, the thing to do is sit on the hill
overlooking Lawrence's exquisitely manicured Banta Bowl and wash down
a couple of bratwursts with some Old Style beer. The football score
will become almost irrelevant.
The city has two outstanding hospitals, and schools that
consistently rank among the best in Wisconsin. Yet College Avenue
seems locked in a '50s time warp. Family businesses dominate: Holz
Sewing and Fabric Center, Kafura Electric, E.W. Shannon Office Supply
Co., Scanlan Jewelers, Heid Music Co., Moderson Paint & Supply Co.
The presence of three battling formal-wear stores on College alone
confirms that those little milestones of life, weddings and proms, go
on and on in Appleton.
Yet, it's 1986 on and around College Avenue, too. Exotic World
News, a high-minded name for an adult bookstore, has moved onto the
500 block of College. A mile north, Caesar's Retreat has changed its
designation from ''massage parlor'' to ''sex counseling clinic,'' in
deference to city ordinances. Jams, skateboards and some
mellow-looking punkers are visible downtown, too, often hanging
around a town square dedicated to a local kid who went into show
business and made it big: Ehrich Weiss, otherwise know as Houdini.
Appleton proper spills out unobtrusively in all directions from
College Ave. The city planning seems impeccable, with a
well-maintained park or playground in almost every neighborhood. The
homes themselves are remarkably unremarkable, mostly single dwellings
with manicured lawns, trimmed hedges, smooth sidewalks, basketball
hoops over the garage doors. Decent, unassuming, middle class.
Appletonians are largely of German and Dutch origin, the
descendants of 19th century immigrants. It was those sturdy
ancestors who instilled a love of beer and bratwurst and sports in
today's townsfolk. Many of these hard-playing Germans also labored in
the paper mills that lined the Fox River. There are about 20 paper
companies in the area now, with mills ranging in size from Neenah's
huge Kimberly-Clark facilities to the George A. Whiting Paper Co. in
Menasha, known as the world's smallest paper company. If College
Avenue is the heart of Appleton, then the mills are its soul.
Like their ancestors, the people of Appleton play as hard as they
work. ''People are active, participating, enjoying nature,'' says
Larry Dawson, manager of the Appleton Foxes, the local Class A
baseball team (page 38). ''It's the Wisconsin in everybody.'' Dawson
delivers this thought as a lament -- the active nature of
Appletonians keeps them away from Foxes games in droves. Even the
grueling Wisconsin winter apparently doesn't drive the locals indoors
and turn them into mere spectators. The Wisconsin Flyers of the
Continental Basketball Association, based in Neenah, drew so poorly
last year that they'll play next season's home games elsewhere.
One of Dawson's problems is that there's just too much for the
local people to do. The Fox Cities have 13 golf courses, eight
public, and the area ranks fourth in the nation in bowling lanes per
capita (two gutters for every 540 citizens). Feel like pitching some
horseshoes? In the village of Combined Locks, smallest of the Fox
Cities (pop. 2,500), you can pull up to Jerry Kamps Kovered Kourts,
dip inside for a 40-cent draft and come back out for a game on one of
Kamps' gooey blue clay courts.
How about a workout? The sign outside the Appleton YMCA says 7,502
MEMBERS, and it is assuredly one of the best-equipped Y's in the
country: three gyms with five courts for basketball and volleyball,
an indoor track, seven handball courts, two fitness centers, weights
and Nautilus equipment, and three pools. And there aren't many
better corporate health facilities than Kimberly-Clark's $2.5 million
jewel in Neenah.
For the outdoorsman, there is good deer hunting in the woods of
Waushara County west of Appleton, and trout fishing in the Mecan
River to the southwest and Emmons and Radley creeks to the west.
Even on the coldest days of January, when the mean temperature is
about 16 degrees, ice fishermen pull northern pike from Shawano Lake
or spear sturgeon on Winnebago. Such hardiness might have something
to do with the fact that Wisconsin, with just 2% of the nation's
population, consumes 20% of its brandy.
There is an order to sport in Appleton. Dave Vercauteren, 17, says
he began organized tee ball when he was four years old; he just
finished four years on the baseball team at nearby Freedom High.
Jim Retza, 14, says he started playing Pop Warner football in the
sixth grade; this year he'll be playing football at Wilson Junior
High in Appleton. ''Sports is just something everybody grows up
doing,'' says Retza. ''Everybody gets involved in something.''
No wonder. Appleton sponsors youth programs in at least a dozen
assorted sports, from archery to weightlifting, from badminton to
flag football and ice hockey. About 1,500 kids play organized soccer,
2,426 are in the city's baseball program and another 630 are Little
Leaguers. Much of the summer action in Appleton takes place at
Memorial Park, a 138-acre spread that includes one baseball and five
softball diamonds, each with dirt infield and grass outfield, each
enclosed by its own tidy cyclone fence. From Sunday through Thursday,
there are five games per night on each of the five softball fields
and five at a Telulah Park diamond, two miles away. Some 4,000 men
and women suit up on Appleton's 270 softball teams every week, and
many of those who don't, come out to cheer for a dad or an aunt or a
And they care. My, how they care. One evening this summer, as the
6:30 players made way for the 7:30 shift, a young couple was seen
slowly walking back to their car, he in his uniform, carrying a bat,
she looking as if she might give birth any minute. The woman, about
20, was a real sport just to be out there watching him play. But her
husband's team had lost, and he seemed rather melancholy. They walked
along in silence until she finally said, matter-of-factly, ''You were
safe at second.'' He thought about that for a moment, then replied,
''Yeah, well, that happens sometimes. They played good ball.''
In fact, as Charlie Pond says, ''Appleton is about as good a
baseball community as they have in this state.'' Pond likes it that
way since he owns Pond Sport Shop, located in the same spot on
College Avenue where his father opened the store in 1932. Appleton
softball players take great care with what they wear, and they go for
the works -- matching uniforms, batting gloves, cleats, flip-down
sunglasses and, sometimes, even eye black. ''The feeling around here
is that if a team looks professional, it plays better,'' says Pond, a
large part of whose annual sales come from softball haberdashery.
Pond sells 20 to 25 sets of uniforms and 200 to 300 baseball gloves a
year, and has one of the great in-stock mitt supplies in the nation.
It is an olfactory treat just to walk into Pond's.
Many years ago, in what seems like a scene out of a Doctorow
novel, Ferber, then a young reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent,
interviewed Houdini, the returning hometown hero. Wouldn't it be nice
to get them together again? They could stroll down College and visit
Houdini Plaza with its sculpture entitled Metamorphosis, named for
the famous Houdini trick; order a fish fry at Trim B's on South
Walnut; browse through the shelves at the public library, just named
one of the nation's best. Chances are Edna and Harry would have gone
home happy and tired and just a little proud of Appleton.
No, everything's not perfect in Appleton. A bronze bust of
McCarthy greets visitors to the county courthouse, and a recent
suggestion to move it was hooted down in The Post-Crescent's letters
column. The spirit of Tail Gunner Joe lives on here, the nation's
grim memories of blacklists and witch hunts notwithstanding. Appleton
is hardly in the forefront of enlightened race relations, either. To
many Appletonians, blacks are still ''coloreds,'' and the Hmong, a
group of about 1,650 Laotian refugees living in the area, are
treated almost as if they weren't there. ''It's a good place to be
paranoid,'' says Bob Lowe, who isn't.
Things aren't always smooth in sports, either. There has been
grumbling that Mayor Johnson is anti-sports, for example, mainly
because she is tight with funds for new playing fields and charges
stiff users' fees for the ones that exist. ''They don't come to me
anymore and say, 'Government, give us money,' '' she says with
pride. ''If you want to play in a league, you have to pay for it.''
So they do. In May, for instance, the local Little League raised
$13,566 in a week by selling 1,000 cases of candy.
Such resourcefulness in a place like Appleton shouldn't be
surprising. Jack Grafmeier, who was responsible for bringing the
World Fastpitch Softball Tournament to the Fox Valley last year, sums
it up when he says, ''Show me a town that's dead in sports, and I'll
show you a dead town.''