Incorporating the Unincorporated
The peaks and valleys of an unincorporated community
by Ann Kerr
It is not uncommon for one to be curious about the in-between. What lies in the middle of destinations A and B. The homes, farms and playgrounds that we see in a passing blur as we zoom by on the county highways and interstates.
For much of Wisconsin, these are unincorporated towns and communities. They’re tucked in between cornfields quilting central Wisconsin, resting below a series of northern Wisconsin lakes and filling the sprawling root of the peninsula. These are the misrepresented, misunderstood yet fundamental unincorporated towns and communities of Wisconsin. These places narrate the story of Wisconsin’s rich history and diversity, keeping the state’s pulse steady.
Unincorporated towns and communities are the places you pass through — maybe there’s a gas station or a post office, but rarely do you stop. Even though these communities don’t have typical municipal governance, they have a heartbeat of their own that means something to the people who live there, and they are fiercely loyal as a result. The people who live in these communities embrace their independence and thrive without boundaries.
While you may or may not know someone who has lived in an unincorporated town or community, they occupy a large part of our state. In Wisconsin, there are 1,246 unincorporated towns spanning all 72 counties. The state’s 1,246 towns provide fundamental services to about 95% of Wisconsin’s geography and 30% of its population. “Wisconsin towns have an incredible reputation of being able to do a lot with very little,” says Jake Langenhahn, outreach specialist for the Wisconsin Towns Association.
Unincorporated towns and communities have a complex history involving historical, political, economic and social pressures that encouraged and sometimes forced thousands of people to live on ungoverned land. In Wisconsin, the 1,246 unincorporated towns are largely the result of forced eviction and displacement of Indigenous people, redlining, and the growing need for agricultural and manufacturing labor.
For years, people living in unincorporated communities created their own businesses to make ends meet, as they frequently lacked the key resources for a comfortable life. Nowadays, this dynamic has shifted, as people moving to unincorporated communities seek a lifestyle they can’t find anywhere else.
For Burke residents Steven Berg and Lisa Rubrich, the unincorporated town of Burke offers the quieter, smaller community feeling they were looking for. Burke — sandwiched between Madison and its largest suburb, Sun Prairie — was founded in 1851 after its separation from nearby Windsor. Burke quickly became a popular layover spot for travelers as Horace Lawrence, an early settler, established The Prairie House, a hotel located on the road from Burke to Portage.
While The Prairie House no longer exists, Burke is still a common travel pit stop. Many people take advantage of the gas stations conveniently located along the interstate in Burke. “It’s kind of a funny thing that people stop here on their way to somewhere else,” Berg says.
Rubrich has lived in Burke since 2003 and now serves as a supervisor on the town board. She initially moved to Burke because her kids could be bused to nearby schools, the lot sizes were large, and she could pay for and manage her own well and septic systems, making her yearly taxes lower; it was also quiet and neighborly.
Berg moved to Burke in 2004 to be closer to his job in Madison. Since living there, he has grown to love the level of civic engagement; he’s served on four different commissions, as well as the town board.
“That’s an opportunity that wouldn’t be available if it were a larger community because it’d be such a higher population,” Berg says.
Woody Ahlborn, now a father and business owner of Ahlborn Equipment, grew up in Sayner, Wisconsin, an unincorporated community an hour south of the Upper Peninsula. The town got its name from its first settler, Orrin W. Sayner, who arrived in 1891. Since its settlement, Sayner has become known for containing the oldest nine-hole golf course in Wisconsin and as the birthplace of the snowmobile.
Today, tourists flock to Sayner from all over the Midwest by car, but years ago, Sayner gained popularity for its accessibility by train. “In the early ages when the trains would come up from Chicago, it was really a tourist area, and then in the wintertime, a lot of people just worked hard and did what they had to do to get by until summertime again,” Ahlborn says.
Twelve miles southwest of Madison sits Paoli, an unincorporated community established in 1846 by Peter Matts, the then-sheriff of Dane County. Luis Garcia, head chef at Paoli Schoolhouse American Bistro, appreciates Paoli for the atmosphere, which breathes life into the historic town.
Paoli hosts annual art fairs and festivals in the summer, fall and winter. Garcia explained how these events bring the community and businesses together. The tight-knit community keeps the local businesses going when tourists are not around, and most customers double as neighbors.
From community to community, it is apparent that everybody is working together to keep the towns running.
“You know, at any given time, if you needed help, someone would be there for you. And we’ve always had that kind of attitude in these small communities,” Ahlborn says.
The simple joys stemming from these communities, however, are accompanied by a set of challenges unique to unincorporated areas.
Growing up in Sayner, Ahlborn attended the grade school for one year before it closed in 1973 due to a lack of resources and students in the area. Following its closure, school systems reorganized with neighboring communities. Reflecting on this period, Ahlborn expressed how the closure affected more than just the students. “When we lost our school, I think that was definitely a knock on Sayner … A feather off our hat when that happened,” he says.
Garcia echoes the lack of resources with his experience in Paoli. “There’s no sidewalks, there’s not really lights on the streets, so at night it gets pretty dark. The infrastructure and the roads are pretty bad there, too. So that’s one thing that I don’t like,” Garcia says.
Berg describes the same issues in the more rural parts of Burke. “If people aren’t in a neighborhood, or if they’re in a neighborhood that’s a little bit more isolated, they may not have very good internet access,” says Berg.
What most of these residents save in taxes each year may cost them in slower infrastructure repair times, scattered internet access and an even longer wait for emergency services.
For the past century, these towns have shared the challenges and benefits of being unincorporated. In 2036, however, that will change for the Town of Burke, when it’s slated to be annexed by the surrounding towns of Madison, DeForest and Sun Prairie.
Berg explained that Burke’s bigger neighbors had the right to annex any land they wanted as long as it was adjacent to their own borders. In 2004, Burke worked with lawyers to create a boundary agreement between these three municipalities to allow the town to remain an unincorporated community.
While this agreement has freed Burke to prosper for the last 18 years, its expiration date is set for 2036, when Burke expects to be taken over by Madison, DeForest and Sun Prairie. “Well, people aren’t happy about it … taxes will definitely go up,” Berg says. “Right now, our taxes are about half of what the taxes would be in Madison, or Sun Prairie and DeForest.”
Rubrich, a supervisor on the town board, believes that the annexation of Burke will change Burke’s flavor “from a quiet hamlet to a quite different style of community,” she says. “We want to leave a legacy for people who are going to get annexed so that they remember that, you know, Burke was Burke at some point.”
Rubrich wants people to remember Burke for the same reasons she moved there, a welcoming community that has operated smoothly on its own and served its people well.
These towns weave together the history of Wisconsin and support the state we have today. As these towns and their residents navigate the issues that come with being unincorporated, it is important to remember the unique traits, history and futures that keep these places alive. When you pass by homes, cornfields and lakes on your next road trip, be curious about the voices that fill these communities. Be curious about how they keep our state’s heart pumping.
Featured photo by Ann Kerr.