This is life in the wild west of Avon
TOWN OF AVON—From his Ford pickup, Mike Moore cast a casual glance at a pair of his neighbor's sheep.
The sheep munched frozen weeds, standing halfway out on the blacktop of West Carroll Road.
Moore, the Avon town chairman, wasn't worried about a couple of loose sheep.
“Yeah. You get that,” he said. “A while back, one disappeared. They walk out in the road and get thumped.”
“Yeah, thumped,” Moore said.
All along West Carroll road in Rock County's farthest-flung, westernmost town, population 600, there's wildlife and rural color. There are weathered houses and sheds, faded from barn red to sienna, hound dogs that chase cars, loose guinea fowl and loud geese that patrol yards stocked with all manner of metal relics and bevies of cars that are or once were works in progress.
It is a town like no other in Rock County.
Along the Sugar River woods, known by locals as The Bottoms, the land lays out in a vast counterpane of prairie grass, swamp and long, rippling glacial hills. Red tail hawks circle the big skies.
Some of the land is private, owned and farmed mainly by two or three owners.
Yet vast swaths—more than 3,000 acres, close to one-third of the town's land—is owned, rented or managed by the state Department of Natural Resources. Signs advertising public hunting grounds or PRIVATE PROPERTY give loud clues as to who is in charge of the ground.
Thousands more acres are under DNR “preview,” meaning it could become land leased or owned by the state pending landowner agreements. Town sources said that land is growing every year.
It's all tied together by 44 miles of the oldest, most weathered roads in Rock County. The roads, a few of them paved with gravel, are lifelines for residents in their daily work commute routes on Highway 81, Highway 213 and Beloit-Newark Road.
The side roads are like capillaries that lead to main arteries or to town, which can be Brodhead, Orfordville, Beloit or somewhere in Illinois—whichever is closest.
And that's the challenge.
THESE ROADS AREN'T NEW
Moore was taking a break between his night job as a doughnut deliveryman and his day job as owner of a Brodhead antique shop. He was in his truck on a Saturday runabout, scanning the roads for signs of breakup, frost heave, teen drag racing tire marks, even damage from errantly dropped tractor disc harrows.
Whatever the damage, Moore tends to call it a “nuk-nuk,” which is Avonese for “trouble.” When 80 percent of your town budget is tied to road maintenance, road trouble is big trouble.
The town of Avon spends about $157,000 of its $200,000 annual budget on keeping sections of road maintained.
Records show the town gets about $93,000 a year from the state to pay for road improvements and maintenance, $3,000 from the county. The DNR pays about 88 cents an acre on land that it owns, which is otherwise off the tax rolls. Moore estimates that gives the town another $8,000 or so to pump into its roads, some of which are heavily traveled by hunters and DNR crews who manage wetlands and public hunting grounds with large machinery.
Moore turned south from Beloit Newark Road onto Timm Road, a Cottonwood tree-choked gravel road with no houses. Stumps stick up from the ditches close to Timm's roadside. The trees were cleared through the years to prevent county plow trucks from smacking their bigger branches.
There are several miles of gravel road in the township, some of which were paved prior to the 1960s, before the town gave up, pulverized the roads and reverted them to gravel. The roads have to be graded after winter freeze-thaws and spring floods, but a gravel surface can be less costly to maintain.
Do the math. If it costs $40,000 a mile to put in a new road base over Avon's wet, swampy bottoms and $25,000 a mile to seal coat the roads. The town's road budget could only support about 2½ miles of that work in a year.
“The work, it gets done in little pieces, and before you know it, one piece was done five years ago. It seems like you just did it, and it's getting towards shot,” Moore said.
He said unless the town borrowed a $3 million for roads—the equivalent of 20 years of town roads budgets, that pattern won't change.
By contrast, the larger town of Fulton near Edgerton has about $290,000 a year to maintaining its 63 miles of roads, Town Clerk Connie Zimmerman said. Zimmerman has heard of Avon's woes with roads. Fulton does work on roads piecemeal, and the town board a few times has broached the topic of letting a few lesser traveled spurs go back to gravel.
It's never a popular specter.
“It's been thrown out there as a suggestion. The comeback to that has been that for the most part, everybody in our town, their cars are worth anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 dollars. You want to drive down a gravel road and get dings and nicks and damage on those cars? When you tell a citizen that, they say, 'Ugh,” Zimmerman said.
DNR AS A NEIGHBOR
Moore sighed and pulled over his truck along Timm Road, skidding to a halt on gravel. He pointed to the ditch at a pile of at least a dozen deer carcasses and hides dumped by hunters.
“This road's an easy, out-of-the-way place for people to come dump stuff,” he said.
Discarded deer carcasses are commonplace in the town of Avon, which is stacked with DNR land, and frequented by hundreds of hunters a week.
In a town that has only a dozen or so businesses, including a large prairie grass farm, a few gravel pits, one dairy farm, a woodworking company and a restaurant, the DNR's presence rivals farming as the biggest industry in the town.
In the last two decades, vast pieces of the town around and along the Sugar River floodplain, which bisects the township, have been converted from farmland to wetlands, grassland and public hunting grounds through federal and state wildlife programs.
The programs allow the DNR and other groups to buy, lease or receive donations of parcels of land, remove trees and old drainage systems that kept farm fields in Avon's bottoms dry and revert the land to its original, natural state—wetlands.
Meanwhile, as Moore explains it, the programs let the government off the hook on flood liability and crop loss.
But the town has faced lawsuits by landowners who are unhappy to see their tax assessments rise when they agree to converted their land and it is then re-assessed as recreational instead of farm use.
Meanwhile, one problem is flooding of adjacent farms that aren't in wetland programs. While the DNR and other groups have put in dykes to keep the low-lying areas dry, those systems, coupled with removal of drainage systems can serve to channel water into other properties.
Moore, a hunter who has a deer stand at the corner of his own property on West Carroll Road, likes to hunt public land. But he's been an outspoken critic of the DNR, and has opposed large scale land conversion because he argues the state doesn't pay enough back in aid to pay for road maintenance.
One saving grace, he said, is that some roads along DNR tracts are part of a newer, “in lieu of taxes” formula that is gradually paying more towards town needs, most of which are linked to the roads.
But water is still a problem in Avon's bottoms.
“It's not a chess game, it's just … you don't have a choice. You don't like it, you can't do nothing about it,” Moore said.
TAKES ALL KINDS
Compared to more populated and urban Rock County towns of Janesville and Milton, Avon has relatively few businesses.
According to town and county records, Avon has no liquor licenses, and just 10 properties listed on the tax rolls as businesses. Records show the town of Janesville has 37 business properties and two industrial properties, while the town of Milton has 50 businesses on the tax rolls.
One of the few businesses in Avon, Applied Ecological Services, has a nationwide and worldwide reach. Among its functions, the company produces native grasses for prairie restoration projects around the country.
Its home base is along West Smith Road. There, the 35-year old company runs Taylor Creek Restoration Nurseries, a 400-acre native grass farm that employs dozens and provides prairie grass starts for restoration projects in 38 states, company spokesman Jack Broughton said.
Avon residents call the nursery “the weed farm,” Broughton said. It's a curiosity and a conundrum for longtime residents, who remember the land in Avon as farm ground that had been drained and cleared of native prairie grass for crop planting as early as 1847.
“We are looked at as the weed farmers. Most of the town farmers in past generations spent their time getting rid of what we grow. We're restarting things they used to plow under. There's curiosity. We're unusual,” Broughton said.
There are other newer curiosities in the town. On higher ground, atop of some of ruddy, treeless hills that slope off to the southern horizon, a few newish mansions loom like castles. Their dark black driveways carve impressive swaths that snake up from wrought, gated entries at the roadsides.
“I don't have a clue who lives there,” Moore said, pointing at one of the big homes. “If they came into Town Hall, I wouldn't know who they were.”
Yet the bulk of residences in the town of Avon are more modest. The average residential assessment in the town: $134,000, compared to average home assessments in the more suburban town of Janesville of $200,000 or more.
Moore's home, a modest, equipment- and antique-filled property on three acres, has been in his wife, Bonnie's, family for generations. There he has a cow, chickens, guinea fowl, geese, three hunting dogs and two corn burners. It's a common scene along the town's roads.
Most people in Avon, Moore said, keep to themselves unless they've got a beef they can't stomach. And even then, they're careful how they voice it.
“Most of complaints are, 'When are you gonna fix my road, when are you gonna plow it?'” Moore said.
Neighbor infighting happens, but in a careful, cagey way. Often, it involves new barbed wire fences to keep neighbors' dogs (or hunters?) from trespassing. The dogs are often oblivious.
“If you find me a dog that can read a no trespassing sign, that's a dog I wanna buy,” Moore said.
As town chairman, he gives everyone the same advice:
“The rule of thumb out here if you're going to complain: Are you telling me there is a problem or are you just complaining? Remember: glass houses. If you live in one, don't throw rocks.”