In the mid 1960s, Richard Bach captured a unique view of small towns as he barnstormed the Midwest in his 1929 Parks-Detroit P-2 biplane. He wove them into the narrative of Nothing by Chance, A Gypsy Pilot’s Adventures in Modern America, which I first read in 1969. About this time in 1966, down to their last few bucks for fuel and food, Bach and Stu MacPhearson, The Great American Flying Circus’s parachute jumper, landed at a small grass runway in Rio, Wisconsin, hoping to fly some passengers at $3 a head.
From the air, a silver water tower with black block letters named the town, which they later learned was pronounced RYE-oh. “Rio was a hill of trees rising out of the low hills of earth, with rooftops down beneath the green and church spires like holy missiles poised pure white in the sun,” Bach wrote. “Main Street stretched two blocks long, then fell back into trees and houses and farmland. A baseball game raged at the school field.”
Flying two passengers, they had $6, $4 for red 80-octane avgas and $2 for dinner. Bach didn’t describe his path into town, but he said it was about a mile from the airport. On the way, they passed Al’s Sinclair, and they saw an A&W Root Beer stand not from it. The airport hasn’t moved since the Rio Flying Club built it 1959, so they must have walked south on Highway 16, then east on Rio St. to Lincoln Ave. There was no sign of Al’s Sinclair or A&W, but the business district is still two blocks long.
Dedicated in 1964, the post office, Rio, Wisconsin, 53960, is on the west corner or Rio and Lincoln. Across the street was an imposing two-story brick building. Over the door in the building’s flattened corner is a faded sign for the Econowash. The Hometown Café is several doors down from the post office. If Bach were here this late Sunday afternoon, he’d go hungry. The only café in town was shut and shuttered. Posted on the door, a sign said it opened every morning at 6 am, except Sunday when it started serving an hour later, and it closed everyday at 1 p.m., except on Monday, when it closed at 10:30 am.
Bach didn’t name the café, but he said it had five booths along one wall, and the waitress was Mary Lou. Closed blinds hid the Hometown Café’s seating arrangements. There were no other clues, and no one to ask. I tried Scott’s Rio Lanes on the second block of Lincoln Avenue, but it, too, was shut for the day, as was the Hometown Pharmacy across the street. LR’s Place was open, and so was Mark’s Market, but by then the architectural detains had captured my attention.
The market occupied Masonic Temple No. 12, built in 1902. The ornate blue cornice dated the City Hall to 1904. From the looks of wood panel fillers, I’d say that in its youth, it was home to the fire department. At Scott’s Rio Lanes, metal stations from “Portage Iron Works 1903” stood guard on either side of the door and provided support for the glass block wall.
As it often does in many small towns, one compelling building summarizes history and progress, such as it is. In Rio, it was the Econowash. Above the door, the stone lintel proclaimed the entrance to First National Bank. Without a washer or dryer for folding table in sight through the dirty, smudged windows, it was clear that it ceased to be an Econowash some time ago. Standing back to get a better angle on the second floor windows, those rooms seemed equally empty.
Walking up Rio St. to the train tracks for a surrounding look-see, the bank was a substantial building. It would make a good brewery or brewpub. As it seemed to be the only empty building in the business district, it seems that there is still a fair amount of life in this village of 1,059 people (as of the 2010 census). When Bach visited, he said the population was 776. And given the friendly folks I’d met at the airport, I’ll be back to explore some more. (If you’re interested in the airport side of the story, see Barnstorming Rio, Wisconsin.)