BAYFIELD, Wis.—There are still no traffic lights. In fact, there are still no traffic lights in the entire county.
There's still no McDonald's, no Wal-Mart. The lake still sparkles, the beaches still squeak, the restaurants still serve those menacing whitefish livers."And," says the mayor, "we still don't have a wax museum."
Ten years ago, the Tribune went on a six-week search to find the Best Little Town in the Midwest. We drove more than 8,000 miles, checked out 139 towns, ate too much good and bad food, and talked to lots of people before settling on a little town on Lake Superior with its neighboring Apostle Islands.
"This," we wrote, "is Bayfield and the Apostles. This is not a rock group. This is paradise."
Ten years later, there's trouble in paradise. You can almost hear Robert Preston now.
"Wellll, either you are closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of . . ."
But first, the mostly good news.
What appealed to us in 1997 is still here.
The town hasn't lost its little-ness. The year-round population was listed as 686 then, and it's 611 now. Losing 10 percent of its year-round population within a decade might startle some people, but doctors ordered Larry MacDonald, in his sixth term as mayor, to avoid startles after a heart attack last year.
"Bayfield's population has been shrinking for a hundred years, as various industries disappeared," he says, calmly. The lumbermen, brownstone cutters and most of the commercial fishers all gradually went the way of the French traders and missionaries, the region's first Europeans, along with the support businesses that kept them fed and supplied and who quenched various thirsts. "And that's not peculiar to northwest Wisconsin."
It remains, as it has been, a haven for boaters and birders. Bicyclists continue to enjoy the quiet back roads. Hiking trails on the mainland and on some of the 22 Apostles continue to challenge and delight. If there's a prettier town park than the one on Madeline Island's Lake Superior shoreline, we didn't find it 10 years ago, nor since.
Pricier, but still beautiful
The artists -- this is a place of creative people -- haven't all been pushed or priced out of town. Not quite yet.
"Property taxes have skyrocketed," says Dede Eckels, who continues to craft pottery and other good, clay things in the studio her late father opened 47 years ago. "The water bills . . . it's getting more expensive to live in Bayfield. That's the downside.
"The good side: I can continue to make a living. It's still beautiful, and the type of people who choose to be here has not changed. The community is fabulous here."
Restaurants have closed, and restaurants have opened. Restaurants do that everywhere. Happily, the ones we liked best 10 years ago are still around, and at the Egg Toss, you still have to get there before 8 a.m. to avoid a long wait for your Crabby Benny.
Like the restaurants, some B&Bs have come and gone and come. The Old Rittenhouse Inn remains here, gloriously and deliciously. There are more condos facing the water than there were, but they haven't overwhelmed the place. In all, MacDonald says, room numbers and fashion are about what they were.
Ten years ago, the Big Top Chautauqua's summer season featured, among others, Johnny Cash, Arlo Guthrie and Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" road show.