President Theodore Roosevelt near Glenwood Springs, Colorado in early 1900s
(Photograph: Denver Public Library via Library of Congress)
In the early 20th Century, a little more than 100 years into the great American experiment, President Theodore Roosevelt thought it was a national priority to try to understand what was going on in the rural America. Roosevelt believed passionately that “our civilization rests at bottom on the wholesomeness, the attractiveness, and the completeness, as well as the prosperity of life in the country.” He knew that this vision of rural America was troubled, but he wasn’t sure why — information about the countryside was in short supply.
So he appointed a Commission, headed by Liberty Hyde Bailey. After two years of study, it reported that rural America suffered from several “deficiencies.” There’s a strong whiff of condescension in that word. Nonetheless, the report does chronicle problems in the rural West that persist to this day: migration from countryside to cities, poor schools, poor communication infrastructure, mediocre medical care, and an inability to confront the big business interests that dominate the economy of rural America. With the persistence of these issues today, and the development of other issues the Commission could not have foreseen, it is, as historian David M. Kennedy says, “time to revisit the rural West.”
The overarching concerns that troubled Roosevelt are still troubling in our time. The rural West continues to be a resource colony often deprived of a place on the national stage because of a serious information deficit. But much has changed too. The industrial revolution was just beginning to reach rural America in Roosevelt's days, and now economic globalization challenges the resilience of rural America, as multinational energy companies aggressively hunt down oil, gas, and coal reserves. The stories of the rural West are stories that bear telling, and need to be heard, but they go unheard because the national media largely tends to neglect this region of large spaces and sparse communities.
Our goal with the Rural West Initiative at the Bill Lane Center for the American West is to join and energize a conversation between journalists and scholars, citizens, nongovernmental groups and government officials, about the issues challenging a crucial part of our region — the rural West, which for all it's "deficiencies" still holds powerful sway over our national imagination and our future.
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