Oshtigwanegon is located right in the heart of the state of Winnemac. The small town is dwarfed by the varied surrounding landscape of lakes, hills, bluffs, caves, and wide swaths of farmland. It may not look like much, but to the 2,000 or so people who live there, it’s home. The town’s history is emblematic of the development of the American Midwest in general–before Oshtigwanegon, there were forests and lakes around which the local Native American tribes fished, farmed, and hunted. Today, their legacy is most apparent in the names of various places and landmarks throughout Winnemac, filtered through European settlers’ bastardizations of the original indigenous languages. Oshtigwanegon itself is named after an approximation of an Ojibwe word meaning “the skull,” a possible reference to the shape of one of the many rock formations around the nearby Mandible Lake.
A Town is Born
In the 1700s, French fur trappers spread to Winnemac and began the first European settlements around the future state. They were replaced by German and Scandinavian immigrants in the 1800s, who founded the first permanent settlements in the state. This included the town that would eventually grow into to become Oshtigwanegon. The town steadily grew over time, particularly when the nickel mine and refinery opened in the early 1900s.
Like many American towns, Oshtigwanegon prospered during and immediately following World War II. Former farming families moved to Oshtigwanegon to work in its refinery and new factories, which had been stimulated by wartime needs. The local nickel mine was operating at record rates to provide materials for making stainless steel and magnets. Oshtigwanegon was supported by the mass consumer spending spree of the early 1950s, as residents purchased new homes, cars, and household goods. In a short time, its population grew tenfold. Baby Boomers were born and new families came to town. In all, Oshtigwanegon was a quintessential middle-class working American town, with content and pleasant residents.
Prefab homes were built by the dozen, and families were delighted to move into developments that gave them the feel of suburban living. The downtown, originally built in the 1920s, expanded greatly as new businesses were built to serve the growing population. The iconic Schmidt’s department store was extremely successful, and Oshtigwanegonians frequented its sales aisles and lunch counter.
In short, the 1950s and ‘60s were pure bliss for Oshtigwanegon, and residents who still remember that time look back on it with great nostalgia.
In the late 1960s, Oshtigwanegon’s population peaked at roughly 10,000 citizens. Business was bustling, and residents expected that “it doesn’t get any better than this.” Unfortunately, they were right. As much as Oshtigwanegon had been helped by the post-war economic boom, it was hurt by the 1969-1970 American recession. Although this recession was mild for much of the rest of the country, it coincided with the depletion of the local nickel mine, which had supported so much of Oshtigwanegon’s economy. Oshtigwanegon began to stagnate, and its population aged. Many Baby Boomers chose to leave the town upon hitting adulthood, looking for something more exciting than a blue collar Midwestern life.
All was not completely lost in the 1970s, however. Oshtigwanegon tightened its purse strings, but still made hopeful long-term investments in new roads and government infrastructure. The Brutalist-styled elementary school and police station that are now mocked as being “too depressing” were constructed during this time period to provide jobs and buildings that would “last a century”.
The Great Recession
Things were steady in Oshtigwanegon for another 30 years, with the population slowly aging. The hopefulness and economic excitement of the post-war era faded away, and residents became more subdued in their spending. Lucky for them, though, national banks provided mortgages that allowed even those with the worst credit to afford a new home for their family. The town was overjoyed when a new Wal-Mart was built in 2005 and residents stopped shopping at the “way too overpriced” local businesses that had existed for decades. The once-elegant Schmidt’s closed its doors, and now sits abandoned along with many other buildings in the quaint downtown.
When the housing bubble burst in mid-2007, Oshtigwanegon was hit hard and many residents defaulted on their mortgages. Unemployment in Oshtigwanegon went as high as 15% and the town was devastated. Many residents left to find work elsewhere and many young adults left as soon as they were able, to pursue education or opportunities in the big city. Many older adults complain that these Millennials think “they’re too good for this town” and are frequently bitter about the current state of Oshtigwanegon. Homes and businesses are abandoned, and much of the town is just trying to scrape out a living in underpaid blue collar and service work.