WARE, Mass. In the face of hard times, this town still thinks of itself as “The Town That Can’t Be Licked,” a name it earned from Life magazine at the height of the depression. And the truest display of Ware’s pride and spirit can be seen and heard at the town’s high school football games. Last season, Ware High School won the Division 4 Western Massachusetts Super Bowl in overtime against Pioneer Valley.
This year, the Ware High football team is young and still getting its legs. But talking to Kelsey Millier and Kiara Bolduc, c0-captains of the team’s cheerleading squad, at a recent away game at Turners Falls, it’s clear people in this town aren’t anywhere close to giving up on their team — or their town.
Kelsey, 18, and Kiara, 17, have been best friends since third grade, when Kiara moved to Ware. Tight relationships like theirs are inevitable growing up in a town with less than 10,000 people. The kids in their senior class are more or less the same kids who were in their kindergarten class, and because there aren’t many places for teenagers to go on a Friday or Saturday night, they end up doing a lot of talking and hanging out.
And, now that they all have their licenses, driving around. “Driving around is a very big thing for Ware,” Kelsey explains. “There’s not much to do in Ware, so everybody kind of like hops in their car and listens to music.” Often, they end up in the parking lots of some of the handful of chain stores just outside Ware’s downtown — places like Big Y and Wal-Mart.
“If we’re bored we go to Wal-Mart,” Kiara laughs. “We played capture the flag in Wal Mart at 12 o’clock before, on New Year’s Eve.” Kelsey finishes her sentence, as often happens with the two. “We make it fun,” she says, also laughing. “Wal-Mart can be very exciting.”
But the big retail stores play a much more important role in Ware’s economy than as a teenage hangout. After the mills emptied out in the 1970s and 1980s, these chain stores have replaced the mills as the big employers in town. But, whereas a mill job could feed your family and put a roof over your head, companies like Big Y and Wal-Mart are often not providing living-wage jobs, and the demand for those jobs far outweighs the open positions.
Kelsey considers herself incredibly lucky to have landed a job at Walgreen’s. “It is very hard to get a job in Ware,” she says. “Not only as teenagers, but, like, as anyone.” Still, she says she can’t help but feel uncomfortable when adults come into the store looking for work to support a family. “They look at me,” she says, “and they’re like, she’s so young and I don’t have a job. It kind of makes me feel guilty because of it.”
Both girls are seniors at Ware High School and have plans to leave town for college after they graduate. Kiara hopes to get into a nursing program and Kelsey dreams of becoming a psychologist. But they both say they aren’t ready to go too far from home. “I want to, kind of, stick towards where we are, like, in New England at least, because I get homesick easily,” Kiara says.
Kelsey says their friends may complain about how bored they are, growing up in a small town, and how badly they want to get out, but when leaving becomes a reality, their tone often changes. “Once they actually get into college, a lot of them you see saying, oh, I want to come back to Ware,” she says. “Because it’s such a comfort zone and it’s just, like, that small-town comfort that you have of knowing everybody and knowing who your friends are and it’s comforting, so going away, a lot of times, being from a small town, everybody gets scared.”
There are plenty of teenagers who choose not to leave after high school. Sitting in the stands at the Turners Falls game, wearing his green and white varsity jacket, was Nick Foster. Last season he’d been out on the field, the starting tight end on the 2010 championship team. Now, the 19-year-old is doing some carpentry and working as a fry cook at Janine’s Frostee, the local shake shack.
Foster says he’d like to leave town and go away to college, but right now he doesn’t have the money. “Or,” he says, “I’ll end up getting stuck in this town like everybody else does. If you don’t go to college, you’re pretty much stuck in Ware.”