Nestled at the tip of Chequamegon Bay, Ashland has the look of a former lumber-and-iron mill town.
There’s the old shipping dock for iron ore, unused since the 1960s and now the focus of an effort to open it to the public for fishing and tourism. Some environmental clean ups are working through the process. A few big box stores sit on the town’s outskirts.
But its future may be as a Midwestern college town, built with the graduates of Northland College.
When Blake Gross walks from his new downtown law office to a coffee shop, he passes the iconic murals among a lot of businesses owned or managed by his former classmates at Northland College. “A great number of businesses in town, and businesses I work with, are people I went to school with,” Gross said.
Gross, who came to school at Northland “sight unseen” from northern California, later practiced law in Nevada but moved back to Ashland a few years ago for the lifestyle, opening a law office. He attended Northland in the 1990s. It seemed to him that people were waiting, “holding their breath,” hoping for industry to come back. Now, he believes the city realizes its strengths come from natural beauty and a quiet pace of life. And students are finding ways to stay and make a living.
Northland annually brings 600 students to Ashland, which has a population of about 8,000. It’s a major employer in town; in 2020, it had 145 full-time employees, ranking it in the top 50 private employers in Northwestern Wisconsin. The Congregational Church established Northland College in Ashland’s frontier days, and now alumni like Gross and his fellow classmates are a source of energy not normally seen in former mill towns.
Steven Conn, an historian at Miami University in Ohio and author of Americans against the city: Anti-urbanism in the twentieth century, told BusinessNorth that the relationship between Northland College and Ashland may be the key to the town’s success. “Small colleges in small towns across the Midwest may well make the difference between towns that survive and those that fade away. … These towns very well may find that their futures are built with and by the students, faculty and alumni of their colleges.”
As jobs shift from natural resources and manufacturing to education and manufacturing, he said, small college towns have an advantage when recruiting young people.
“Youth … is particularly important, it seems to me, because so many small, rural towns are graying so quickly; some element of socio-economic diversity (is) a positive good any way you slice it in contemporary America,” Conn said.
Carver Harries, executive director of the Ashland Area Development Corporation, said Ashland is making the switch from its industrial past, although perhaps a bit slowly. The old mill town lifestyle – graduate from high school, get a union job in the mill, and make your way through a middle-class life – has died slowly. Perhaps Ashland “held its breath,” but that time may have helped, Harries said.
Part of Northland’s mission focuses on environmental disciplines, and it works with area agencies and organizations to further this effort. It has opened operations like the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation, where students can complete professional-level scientific research, part of Northland’s education philosophy, which emphasizes practical experiences. Students also can get internships with institutions such as the Northern Great Lakes Visitor’s Center just down Highway 2, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Julie Winter, student career adviser at Northland College, runs many of those practical programs. Internships she oversees have placed employees with a number of local employers, and some graduates are in leadership positions now. About one-half of Northland’s students do an internship while in school.
Experiential education isn’t new at Northland, said Jackie Moore, alumni director. In its early frontier days, Northland had operations like dairy farms and printing shops. There are stories about students showing up with no money and working their way through school. Internships often are the gateway to a career, and increasingly those careers are local.
Sometimes those careers come as a surprise.
Moore came to Northland from Chicago to become a herpetologist, someone who specializes in the study of reptiles and amphibians. She got an internship right away, although in loon research. Early mornings and late nights and long hours on boats convinced her to change careers. So she went into sociology and found a way to stay in Ashland – working for Northland. She isn’t alone. Northland’s biggest concentration of alumni is in the Ashland area, ahead of its next biggest alumni group, who are located in the Twin Cities.
“More and more of the alumni I know would like nothing more than to find a way to live and work here,” Moore said.
Harries says one advantage Northland College gives the region is that students come here largely for the location instead of the curriculum at a big university.
“If they don’t have it when they come, they quickly develop a sense of place,” Harries said.
That sense of place helps bring people back, too. Karl Faber, a 1985 Northland graduate, took jobs in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, but always came back to Ashland to visit. Eventually, the Indiana native “bought himself a job” here. As the owner of Bay City Cycles, he’s still at it in the town he loves.
“I just loved the area,” he said. “Go 10 minutes out of town and you’re in the backcountry.”