Recollections: Airline and utility reflect can do attitude
By Thom Gerretsen
You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. It’s true for both people and communities. I’ve never forgotten some of my first thoughts of Marshfield after having moved here 40 years ago this week.
With 18,000 residents in the late 1970s, I was surprised by how much the community did for itself. My first apartment was near Wildwood Park, so I immediately saw that the city had its own electric utility. That’s no small feat, which I learned in 1977, when I ran a one-person newsroom at WPDR Radio in Portage.
I stayed up all night to report on an accident inside a 650-foot smokestack at the Columbia power plant south of Portage, owned by what is now Alliant Energy. Two workers were trapped near a lip inside the tower, about 400 feet from the ground. A Coast Guard helicopter unit spent several hours fighting darkness and low clouds to hoist the men to safety.
The late Portage Fire Chief Clayton Simonson led the rescue effort; he later followed me to Marshfield and served for a decade as this city’s fire chief.
The two ponds at Wildwood Park were once used to provide water to cool the inside of what was then the Marshfield Electric & Water Department’s former coal-fired power plant. It was located across from what is now Roddis Avenue near the lower pond. The city stopped making its own electricity in 1991, when other and more efficient production methods were taking shape. The current Marshfield Utilities now buys its power from elsewhere.
Many smaller cities and towns have airports, but I was almost blown away when I saw that Marshfield had its own airline with scheduled flights. The late Roy Shwery started Midstate Airlines in 1964 and its smaller aircraft provided service to Midwest cities large and small. My maiden flight was on one of those Midstate planes to Chicago. There, I took a larger aircraft to Cincinnati when I attended the national Associated Press Broadcasters’ convention in 1978, as the chair of the Wisconsin AP.
I later learned that Midstate had “Champagne Flights” on Friday nights between Chicago and Ashland — a novel way for upscale Chicago and Milwaukee residents to enjoy some peaceful weekends along Lake Superior, not far from Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands. But, eventually, more complex federal regulations overburdened Shwery’s airline, and he sold it to Sentry Insurance of Stevens Point in the 80s. His memory remains alive as private aircraft continue to use Roy Shwery Field at the Marshfield Municipal Airport.
The airline and the utility convinced me that Marshfield has a “can do” attitude that reaches higher than many cities its size. But no place is perfect. At the News-Herald around 2001, publisher Bill Heath and I were interviewing a candidate for a reporter’s job when he asked whether Marshfield had a Culver’s restaurant. At the time, we had to say no. He then told us he was no longer interested in our job opening.
This man needed his butter burgers and frozen custard, and as it turned out, he was just a couple years too early.