The institute is located in the village of Cooksville, Wisconsin (population 74). This community was founded in 1842 by New Englanders transplanted to Wisconsin. Within a generation, dozens of houses had gone up. Two brickyards and a sash, blind, and door factory supplied the villagers with building materials. The settlers built Greek and Gothic Revival–style houses more reminiscent of New England than the Midwestern farm frontier (Wisconsin was just made a state in 1848). A decade later, the railroad bypassed Cooksville, steaming instead to Evansville (6 mi south) and Stoughton (6 mi north). Other towns without a rail connection faded away, but not Cooksville, which has persisted as the “town that time forgot.” Much of the town’s history is collected by Larry Reed, head of the local historic district committee in his blog Cooksville News. The village is even listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
This past weekend, the village hosted a 175th anniversary celebration. The commons held art and food vendors, a main stage with bands, and a vintage car show. The old one-room school house also had live music and desserts for sale (the Dutch apple pie was particularly good). The Congregational Church (now owned by Larry Reed and rented out for weddings) was open for tours, and the local forge (just next door to Wisconsin’s oldest, continually operated general store) was up and running with a blacksmithing demonstration. At noon, all the bells in town were rung.
One of the things that attracted us to this location was its connection with the past. Cooksville was founded on the cusp of the industrial revolution. The local mills made use of water and animal power to run the grindstones and workshops. Many of the houses were designed and built well before energy-intensive heating and cooling became available. Although the train stations were only a 6-mi walk or wagon ride away, the villagers’ day-to-day subsistence must have been provided locally. The houses are fairly densely spaced, yet they have substantial enough yards (most ca. 1 ac) for extensive gardens and the keeping of small animals.
As we consider the decline of fossil fuels and its effect on our daily lives, we look to the past for inspiration from people who lived before these energy sources were widely available. Luckily, though, we have the benefit of hindsight and the advances in science and technology brought on by the industrial revolution to help us improve upon the practices of the preindustrial era. It has been mentioned to me more than once that it is hypocritical to have a website and podcast for something called the “Low Technology” Institute, but low technology isn’t about recreating the romantic idyll of the preindustrial era, it is about satisfying our basic needs and wants in the simplest way with an eye to phasing out the use of fossil fuels. For example, digital communications are the simplest way to reach as wide an audience as possible. By living in a community with strong historical ties and roots that go back to before the industrial revolution, we have an opportunity to borrow the best from the past and meld it with new ideas from today.