"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."
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 relentless-ness, 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 the place.
"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 APPLE-TON, AN ALTERNATIVE TO REALITY.
It just may be.