BANGOR, Wis. – At noon, a sudden siren broke the cold silence in this small town. It wailed for 10 seconds, then fell to a low, long purr.
The blast once told workers at the brewery and nearby businesses that it was time to wake, to eat lunch, to head home. The Hussa Brewery has long since closed, its big stone buildings torn down. But “the whistle,” as it's known here, remains as a reminder. It sounds daily at 7 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.
To longtime locals, it’s a beloved tradition that — as a bonus — marks the end of happy hour. But after a few residents complained about the “loud noise,” the village of 1,470 shut off the siren last fall for what was supposed to be a 90-day trial. The experiment lasted just nine days.
“I was stopped driving down the street by people,” said Gary Althoff, the village president. “I was stopped at church. I was stopped when I was out socializing.
“People said, ‘Hey, I want it back.’ ”
So officials put it to a vote: In April, residents will decide whether to stop blowing the whistle four times a day.
It’s a question small towns across the Midwest are weighing. Few have kept the handful of daily sirens that once dotted the workday in the factories and fields. Some have kept a curfew blast in the name of nostalgia. Others, including Freeman, S.D., have let their sirens go silent.
In Proctor, Minn., the whistle still sounds at 9:45 p.m. Decades ago, if a kid was out past then, “you were noted for being the mischievous type,” said Mayor David Brenna, 65, who, as a teen, was brought home in a squad car one night near Halloween.
Today, the curfew isn’t as strictly enforced, he said. But residents like the tradition. “It’s one of them things,” Brenna said. “A lot of people who grew up here — who were born in the 20s and 30s and are still living in town — there are certain things you just don’t want to let go, that still bring back fond memories.
“And the siren is one of them.”
Began with a brewery
In a brick building on Commercial Street, the Bangor and Area Historical Society stores the sepia photographs and brown beer bottles that reveal this village’s past.
The Hussa Brewing Co., which opened in the 1860s, was Bangor’s biggest employer, said Gregory Wegner, president of the historical society. There was also a farmers mill and, later, a Ford dealership nearby, said Wegner, a retired history professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Wegner is digging through years of village board minutes and newspaper archives in search of some mention of the siren. He suspects “this is something that’s well over 100 years old,” he said, with quiet excitement. “I’m hoping to find out more definitively.”
Growing up a block from the siren — which sits atop a steel pedestal behind the police station — Wegner remembers hearing it “as early as age 3.” The trains, too, are close. Their horns blast 20 yards from his bay window but don’t interrupt his reading.
“I’m used to the trains and whistles and sirens,” Wegner said. “It’s become so much a part of your day that sometimes you don’t even notice it.
“That’s small-town life.”
In letters to the village council, lifelong residents have recalled the siren’s purposes, from calling kids home for supper to alerting volunteer firefighters, something that’s still done. (If residents vote to silence the siren’s daily wails, it would still be used for emergencies.)
“Please consider the residents of a lifetime in Bangor,” wrote Lorraine Fiet, 91.
Younger residents, too, defended the noise. A year ago, Andrea Driskill moved into a house that nearly shares a back yard with the siren, which she said doesn’t bother her. Her 4-year-old son, who was playing in the snow nearby, sleeps through the 10 p.m. blast, she said.
“Plus, it’s history,” Driskill said. “It kind of grows on you.”
But some argue that small-town life ought to be quieter. In a handwritten letter, Ellie Menezes said the “village whistle profoundly affects the quality of life in our neighborhood.” She included the obituary of a neighbor who, at age 63, died in his home.
“I have to wonder if his unexpected passing is related to the [information] I gave you about the connection between loud noise and heart attacks,” Menezes wrote, concluding: “A community that values loud noise over the wellness of its residents is not on the road to improvement.”
That letter started it all, many believe.
“It seems to have turned into the issue of the century, almost,” Althoff said. Some say holding a referendum on a siren is silly, he acknowledged. “Even though I know referendums are supposed to be for special things, this is special to the people of Bangor.”
‘A 3-time-a-day annoyance’
Murray Preheim left Freeman, S.D., at age 18 for New York City, where he’d stay for decades. There, he lived near “eight blocks of hospitals,” he said. “Most of my life, all I heard was ambulances and police cars.” He moved back to his hometown for some peace.
But he rediscovered the siren — “a three-time-a-day annoyance.” His Great Dane, lounging beneath his coffee table, would pop her head up when it sounded, “and my cocktail or soda would go flying,” he said by phone recently.
Preheim made an issue of it at City Hall, lobbying the council to “join civilization.”The editorial board of the Mitchell Republic noted the annoyance, it wrote, “but we side with tradition.” The Freeman paper, however, sided with Preheim, partly because of the siren’s “erratic behavior.”
“Sometimes it doesn’t blow at all,” it wrote. “Occasionally it goes off at random times of the day.”
The conversation “went on for well over two years,” said Carroll Vizecky, the city administrator.
But then a few things happened: “A couple of the old sticks on the City Council were replaced by some younger members,” Preheim said. And the telephone company that controlled the siren told the city that its timer would need fixing. Since then, it’s been silent.
“I am elated,” Preheim said. “I like the peace and quiet.”
‘Part of Bangor’
But judging by the folks drinking $1.25 beers and eating Bierkase cheese at Bangor Lanes on Tuesday, this village’s siren isn’t going anywhere.
“To me it’s part of Bangor,” said LouAnn Hanson, 71. “I’d be sad to see it go.”
Hanson’s youthful adventures by the marsh were “ruined” by the 10 p.m. whistle, she said, laughing, because it reminded her father that she was supposed to be home. Now, she and her husband of 51 years, Ronald, live 4 miles outside town. “But I can still hear it,” she said.
“It depends on if it’s nice and still out,” Ronald said.
“Or how loud we have the TV,” LouAnn added. They chuckled.
At the other end of the packed bar, “Butchie” Hansen, 79, drank La Crosse Lager in a can cooler kept for him behind the bar. He moved to Bangor in 1984 and relies on the 7 a.m. whistle as an alarm clock. The noon whistle, another man said, reminds him it’s time for lunch. And at this bar, the 6 p.m. siren signals the end of happy hour.
That’s when the “cheapies” leave, Hansen said. “As soon as the price goes up,” he said, throwing his hand toward the door, “then they’re out.”
When the hour hit and the siren sounded, the regulars raised their arms and hooted.