If there is a capital for the Wisconsin portion of the Driftless region, the friendly town of Viroqua fits the bill. (Within 15 minutes of arriving, I’m offered a place to stay.) Home to the Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School, the town also features a public radio station (WDRT) that boasts its own version of A Prairie Home Companion. Broadcast live out of a 1908 tobacco warehouse that also happens to house a 250,000-volume bookstore called Driftless Books, the daily show often begins with a community potluck and goes on to feature music, skits and monologues. The warehouse, owned by Eddy Nix, the president of WDRT’s board of directors, also contains three other businesses — a music-instruction school, a bakery and a graphic-design/printing shop.
Nix, who named the three-floor, 25,000-square-foot building the Forgotten Works Warehouse, sees it as a center of slow media. “What we’re trying to do here, I think, is be a bit of preservation for both this building and some of the old ways: old songs, old books, obviously; and old ideas that are just perennial and more important now than ever [before] with the dissembling, the unraveling around us,” he explains.
“I think we’re in a unique position here to deal with [what’s happening] today, because, economically, it’s not the most affluent area. People have had to survive in a lot of different ways, and a lot of people around here have consciously made the choice to survive on less.”
Such as Robert Schulz. For eight years, Schulz has lived off the grid on a 40-acre farm near Hillsboro with his wife, who’s a massage therapist, and their two children. “We don’t have a lot of luxury. We depend on our friends for entertainment,” he says.
Just 36 years old, Schulz’s hands reflect an older, workingman’s hands — each knuckle bruised and discolored from shoveling, cutting wood, scraping down maple trees and blacksmithing (a trade he teaches). Having attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Schulz is one of the co-founders of the 6-year-old Driftless Folk School, which specializes in practical learning.
There are no school buildings, nor is there a school campus; instead, classes are held in the homes or on the farmsteads of the instructors. Consensus is the prevailing business plan, and the most popular subjects that the school offers are organic agriculture and organic cooking. The Spring and Summer 2012 catalog lists such courses as Scything, Grafting, Introduction to Permaculture, Home Cheese Making, Chicken Butchering, Blacksmithing and the Art of Pickling.
“We teach arts and crafts and very practical courses, [like] hand woodworking. Blacksmithing is very strong. We have a music and dance program. That’s anything from fiddle, banjo, guitar, classical folk style, old-time or bluegrass. We hold community dances that are well attended.”
Five years ago, the school launched a work-study program, where applicants come and stay at host farms such as Schulz’s to work and take classes. Participating students get room and board and a small monthly stipend. Schulz says the number of inquiries into the program have been incredible.
“People are seeking that type of learning. They’re disenchanted with college. They fully appreciated their college years and the intellectual side of things, but they just feel like with what’s going on in the world right now, they want skill, independence and to be inspired.”