Living in Lake Superior’s shadow and walking its windy shore in Ashland didn’t sound like much of a life plan to Sara Hudson.
But 16 years ago, when her husband got a job here, the young couple moved to what seemed like a remote place.
“When we moved here, I was still like, what are we doing here?” Hudson said. “I had a friend that cried for a year straight.”
Around that time, an outsider could be forgiven for having a grim view for the area’s future.
Iron ore shipments from Ashland, a backbone of the community, had stopped in the 1960s.
The paper mill had just shut down and laid off hundreds of workers.
But sometime between then and now, Ashland made a pivot, one the city hopes might serve as a template for other northern Wisconsin communities.
Hudson saw it firsthand.
“We’ve kind of made that turn within our standpoint of that, industry probably isn’t going to come here, and if it does, it’s not going to be the main economic driver as it was until the 1970s,” she said.
Ashland’s leaders started to turn to the city’s quiet, reliable neighbor, Lake Superior, and view it in a new light.
“One hundred years ago, this was all industry and other things that were here. The lake really wasn’t thought of as a resource. It was a tool in other shapes,” Hudson said. “In than 100 years, that has switched, now, that the lake is the draw.”
Hudson is now one of the biggest cheerleaders for the lake and the city as Ashland’s Parks and Recreation Director.
She’s joined by Betsey Harries, who heads the Ashland Area Development Corporation, in viewing the lake as Ashland’s premier staple.
“This is crazy-attractive to a family,” Harries said.
Harries doesn’t spend much time trying to lure major businesses to Ashland, which used to be the playbook for economic developers.
Instead, she sells the lake, outdoor recreation, low cost of living, and a supportive community to families and small businesses.
“My phone has been ringing again, a lot, from entrepreneurs in the area and outside the area looking to invest in Ashland,” Harries said.
That sounds like a pretty good formula to Dirk Wierenga, who is working on a documentary film about the people and communities along US Highway 2 from the Upper Peninsula to Montana. It’s highway that passes through Ashland and countless other towns like it.
“It covers the booms and the busts,” Wierenga said. “US 2 is nothing but booms and busts.”
Booms and busts in logging, mining, agriculture, and oil are all along the route.
Because of that, many of Wierenga’s interviewees have told him about the “talk” they have with their children.
“The talk to a rural child is, ‘someday you’re going to have to leave here,’” he said.
A loss of young people for lack of opportunity hurts communities, of course.
Even so, the old economic blueprint that created a certain town’s prosperity is difficult to get past.
“When you look at those towns now, there’s a real feeling of loss that I don’t think they ever worked through,” Wierenga said.
But Ashland, according to Wierenga, is one of the best examples of boom-and-bust towns with an eye to a new future.
“It’s got the right spirit. It knows where it wants to go. It knows what’s going to fit. It knows what its strengths are. It’s going to get to where it needs to go,” he said.
Perhaps a hunk of concrete jutting a quarter-mile into Lake Superior is a beacon for where Ashland is going.
It’s the base of the last remaining oredock, which has been out of commercial use for a half-century.
But the oredock has a planned future as a community gathering place, a spot for fishing, and keeper of history. Access to its full length could be available by 2022.
“It’s acting as a bridge emotionally and transition-wise for our community, because it’s acknowledging and recognizing what an important part of our history this was, but it’s also opening the community up to the future potential and allowing good changes to come that people are actually looking forward to,” Harries said.
Harries, an Ashland native, caught her first fish off the oredock as a young girl.
But now, her thoughts for this place and this city drift not toward what happened here, but what’s next.
“It’s kind of a wide-open future for us here, and I’m really excited about it,” she said.
And Sara Hudson, who so reluctantly came to Ashland 16 years ago?
She and her husband are raising a family here and couldn’t be happier about it.
“It’s home,” she said. “It’s a community. It’s more than I’ve ever experienced.”