Park Time

In 1946, the people of Viroqua, Wisconsin decided the moment they were in was worth remembering. Atop the rocks of a small cliff in the only public park of note in their town, they stationed a simple yet imposing concrete box. Its utilitarian design is distinguished only by a small metal plaque, which reads, “historical records — centennial 1946 — not to be opened until the Viroqua bicentennial 2046.” Half a century later, halfway between the box’s sealing and its projected opening, my family created a time capsule of our own. We giddily filled a glass bottle with tracings of our small hands and letters to our future selves, then planted it between the pines behind our old farmhouse. Our decision to create a time capsule and Viroqua’s decision to create one years ago betray an anxiety about change, a worry that the future may be radically different, that the past to which the future is irrevocably tied will be forgotten. Yet, in a small town, where countless memories permeate the handful of streets and spaces, forgetting the past can seem impossible.

The city’s time capsule sits in Eckhart Park, which is one of the only vestiges of Viroqua’s past which retains its original purpose. The old train station sits empty, the former hotel hosts a variety of ventures — a fair-trade shop, the democratic party headquarters, an underground theater — and the old tobacco warehouses hold a flea market and a used bookstore. Yet although the town has changed around it, Eckhart has remained the same for decades. The park’s main feature throughout those decades has been a grassy hill dotted with statuesque lamp posts. My high school English teacher liked to say that Viroqua’s one minuscule appearance in acclaimed literature was its implicit presence as “the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations” Gatsby watched through train windows. While our now-defunct train station rests a few blocks from the park, I like to imagine that Gatsby would also have adored the lights shining from Eckhart’s hill.

At the bottom of this hill lies a whimsical wooden playground, large enough to feel sprawling to its young patrons. The playground is accompanied by two picnic shelters and a monument made by a middle school art class, covered in colorful tiles expressing a vague hope for “world peace.” Beyond the lamp posts, on the opposite side of the hill, lie dense woods. Their ground is carpeted with rust-colored dead pine needles, which makes slipping down their steep slope almost inevitable. The woods conceal a cave rumored to connect to the school’s basement, yet they’re too small and too familiar to feel menacing. I know every corner of those woods and of the entire park, but not because I ever chose to.

In a town of 4,000 people, there simply aren’t many places to inhabit. The ones that do exist become backdrops for countless memories and, for many people, boundaries of the future. Eckhart Park is no different. If you don’t count the cemetery or the Walmart parking lot, it is the only real gathering area in town. Public and private, planned and unplanned — if something is happening, there’s a good chance it’s happening at Eckhart Park. The harvest parade, a playful procession celebrating the agriculture that sustains our town, proceeds down Main Street and ends at the park. The Driftless Music Festival, comprised mostly of bluegrass and polka, fills the space between each lamp post with folding chairs and picnic blankets.

Beyond these community-wide events, though, the park pervades the town’s consciousness in the countless private memories we each hold. My family moved to a farm outside of Viroqua when I was 12. My parents, eager to leave the suburbs for a “country lifestyle,” chose Viroqua based largely on a magazine article and the fact that it was the home of Cloud Cult, their favorite indie band. In the six years my family spent on the farm, before they moved into town and I moved away for school, we spent countless afternoons in the park. Some were planned, like church potlucks, homeschool group get-togethers, birthday parties, and funerals. The best ones, though, were the most spontaneous. There was the time we came back late from our tennis match and took Homecoming photos in the dark, the flash of the camera bouncing off of the wooden posts of the playground fence. Another night, my siblings and I raced through the dark to hurdle over that same wooden fence, trying to squeeze in a relay race before Wednesday Night Class at our nearby church. Or, there was the day my sister, brother, and I walked past the brick shed on the edge of the woods and my brother asked, “what’s… fook?” Panicked, my sister and I quickly ushered him away from the expletive-laden wall.  

In a place as versatile and frequently-visited as Eckhart Park, memories seemed to gather, collected in clumps around the picnic tables and dispersed across the weed-filled grass. The giggles of a preteen sneaking an extra La Croix with her sister at a potluck. The confusion of a real teen receiving an intensely thoughtful Christmas present from a boy she didn’t quite love. Stepping into the park, even walking past its entrance, means stumbling into countless permutations of an old self, an experience all residents of Viroqua inevitably share.

Living in a small town lends life a sense of predictability, an assumption that each day offers a finite set of possibilities. As limiting as that can be, a shared faith in the value of this repetition is the thing that has built and sustained Viroqua. We are a community dependent on farmers, on their commitment to revisiting and existing in the same place for decades. A century ago, when machinery couldn’t cultivate the hilly fields of southwestern Wisconsin, Viroqua became the center of Midwestern tobacco farming. Tobacco is a crop that cannot be grown by machine. Instead, it is tended entirely by hand and, after harvest, dried in drafty wooden barns with slatted walls. These barns are still scattered across the countryside, and along with the old tobacco warehouses on the edge of town, serve as constant reminders of the source of Viroqua’s early sustenance.

While machinery has advanced and the farmers of Viroqua are no longer limited to growing tobacco, our town’s continued dependence on agriculture means that we are still bound to the land and the seasons that reliably pass through it. Each spring, farmers plant their seeds and fertilize their fields with faith that in the summer, the storms will come, the sun will shine, and their plants will grow. They have this faith, of course, because they have witnessed this cycle countless times, just as their parents did. Viroqua’s farmers are good at what they do in part because this cyclic lifestyle provides abundant opportunities to perfect their craft.

Still, this repetition inevitably begets stagnation. What chance is there for growth in a community dependent on a lack of change? Perhaps the resistance many residents of Viroqua feel, to change and to the future, comes from a truth they have been taught each year of their lives: repetition works, and things are done in certain ways for certain reasons. Comfort in this repetition is undeniably steadying, but it is also stifling.

My family only farmed for a few years, so I will never fully understand what it means to live the cyclical life of a farmer. Still, every day I spend in Viroqua, and each time I step into Eckhart Park, the memories compound, growing and accumulating in the few homes they find throughout the town. When I walk down the winding dirt path to the time capsule, I first remember walking down that same path with pop for my sister’s birthday party. But, as I continue, I also remember having perched on the nearby rocks to evade chaotic homeschool gatherings and the day we wandered up to the capsule after a game of ultimate frisbee among the lamp post obstacles. The presence of the time capsule in the park is almost redundant. While the “centennial records” inside the capsule may one day remind Viroquans of our distant shared past, the weight of the more recent past is ever-present.  

While middle-school Anna couldn’t have been more furious about her parents’ choice to move to a random Wisconsin town, college Anna is constantly counting down the days separating her and the Driftless Region. Contact her at anna.kane@yale.edu for potlucks, tea parties, and to put Midwest nice to the test.

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