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Historical Background

The Country Life Commission

Dear Visitor: This site preserves the legacy publications of the Rural West Initiative from 2009-2014. 
For more recent information on our conference and publications, please go to


Did the West Make Newspapers, or Did Newspapers Make the West?

By Krissy Clark and Geoff McGhee

“Our papers, our little country papers, seem drab and miserably provincial to strangers; yet we who read them read in their lines the sweet, intimate story of life."
– William Allen White, Editor of the Emporia Gazette, Emporia, Kansas in 19161

When William Allen White touchingly wrote about “our little country papers,” in the nineteen-teens, they were at their all-time peak, with over 17,000 weeklies in circulation, according to the Ayer’s American Newspaper Directory of 1915.2 They had arrived at this summit after a century or more of struggle by pioneers hauling printing presses to an ever-farther frontier.

The history of newspapers in the rural West is a history of crisis and triumph in alternation. Failure, and bouncing back from it, have been a tradition.3 And at a time when there is so much talk about the future of newspapers, this past is worth considering. Ironically, this legacy of turbulence finds rural newspapers relatively unscathed by the calamities currently facing many big city papers. Put another way, there is no crisis in rural Western newspapers; the crisis has always been there. And the papers are stronger for it.

Last modified Fri, 8 Mar, 2019 at 9:20

“Two Sides of the Same Policy”: Rural Improvement and Resource Conservation in the Progressive Era

By Travis Koch

Therefore, friends, the conservation and rural life policies are really two sides of the same policy; and down at bottom this policy rests upon the fundamental law that neither man nor nation can prosper unless, in dealing with the present, he steadily take thought for the future.2

– Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

Was ever a sillier movement than this, which ranks with Roosevelt’s attempt to revise spelling, and like it, is doomed to oblivion? … The rural American needs no patronizing solicitude from the Roosevelt commission or any other self-appointed coterie of busybodies.3

– Butte Intermountain, 1910

When President Theodore Roosevelt announced in August 1908 that he had appointed a Commission on Country Life to investigate rural conditions and make recommendations for how to improve country life, American farmers were immediately suspicious.  Many saw the Commission as nothing more than a pathetic bid for votes, and farm papers across the nation ridiculed “Teddy the Meddler” in cartoon and parody.4  What did farmers really need?  “More rain,” stated one paper, and “less fool questions by fool commissions about fool things.”5   “If Teddy can show me how to pitch manure except with a fork, or do the milking without using my hands, I’ll give in,” a farmer wrote.6

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 7:06

Data Visualization: Journalism's Voyage West

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Last modified Thu, 2 Apr, 2015 at 10:46

Health Care in the Rural West: Persistent Problems, Glimmers of Hope

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Giving a typhoid innoculation at a school in rural San Augustine County, Texas, 1943. (Photo: John Vachon via Library of Congress)

Giving a typhoid innoculation at a school in rural San Augustine County, Texas, 1943. (Photo: John Vachon via the Library of Congress)


By Michael De Alessi and Robin Pam

“In general, the rural population is less safe-guarded by boards of health than is the urban population. The physicians are farther apart and are called in later in case of sickness, and in some districts medical attendance is relatively more expensive. The necessity for disease prevention is therefore self-evident and a betterment of these conditions is a nation-wide obligation.”

– Report of the Country Life Commission [1]

Fearing a loss of agricultural productivity and rural community, Teddy Roosevelt formed the Country Life Commission in 1908 to investigate why the social and intellectual, as well as economic, aspects of country life were not keeping pace with city life.[2] Of the six “deficiencies of country life” highlighted by the commission, “health in the open country” featured prominently.[3]  The report emphasized issues such as differential access to doctors, numbers of physicians per capita, and costs of rural health care, and all remain contemporary concerns. The Commission’s call for “increasing the powers of the Federal Government in respect to the supervision and control of the public health”[4] could be pulled straight from today's health care debates.

Last modified Thu, 2 Apr, 2015 at 11:48

Data Visualization: Western U.S. Demographics

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Last modified Wed, 8 Apr, 2015 at 20:57

What Is Rural?

Wallace Stegner, the Rural West, and Me

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

I spent some of the most enjoyable years of my life as a graduate student at Stanford in the 1960’s. During two of those years I lived in a cottage that Wallace Stegner rented to graduate students. In our many conversations, Wally enlarged my knowledge of and love for the West, particularly the rural West. We argued sometimes, but that was almost always about the war in Vietnam. That led to a rough patch in our relationship. Since then I have read almost everything Stegner wrote and wish that I had used all my time with him soaking up his deep understanding of the American West.

Years later I was stunned to discover, while reading Philip Fradkin's biography of Stegner, that Wally had written an imaginary dialogue between us. It had a lot of things wrong about me, but I was touched. Our arguments had moved him too. Later he told my wife that he had heard me reporting from China and was glad I had found my niche in journalism.

Now, following nearly 30 years with National Public Radio as an editor and correspondent, I'm thrilled to be back at Stanford, directing the Rural West Initiative at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. We hope to stir up a robust conversation about important issues transforming the rural West — and their deep historical dimensions.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 7:11

Time to Revisit the Rural West

By David M. Kennedy, Faculty Co-Director, The Bill Lane Center for the American West

A century has passed since the scholars assembled by President Theodore Roosevelt issued the landmark Report of the Country Life Commission. Prompted in part by the agrarian upheavals that had convulsed the American countryside in the preceding decade, the 1909 Report confirmed the Populists’ complaints about the strikingly diverging ways of life in urban and rural America. It highlighted several  “deficiencies” that afflicted rural communities, including a gathering flight to the cities, economic insecurity, inadequate health care, poor schools, rutted roads, cultural torpor, and the near-total absence of increasingly common urban amenities like electricity, indoor plumbing, and telephones.