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Historical Background

The Country Life Commission

The Contraction and Expansion of the Rural West

By Michael De Alessi

A jovial farmer boy I'll be
As free as birds that sing,
And carry forth my songs of glee,
Among the flowers of Spring.
No place for me - the crowded town,
With pavements hard and dry,
With lengthened streets of dusty brown,
And gloomy houses high.
...
I go and come a farmer boy,
From city trammels free,
I crack my whip and cry "Who hoy,"
A farmer boy I'll be.

- "The jovial farmer boy" words [1] and music by M. W. Cobb, 1885

Snapshot of 1910 vs. 2008 in population percent

Whether conjuring images of an opportunity to work the land, a close-knit community, or wide open spaces and fresh air, country life has long held a powerful sway over American hearts and minds.[2] The jovial farmer boy is just one example of the romantic allure of country life, but one that highlights the fact that this allure exists in contrast to city life, which has its own powerful economic, cultural, and social attractions.

The jovial farmer boy also glosses over the fact that the country has long been a place of work; few farmers would describe themselves as being "free as birds that sing."[3] By the end of the nineteenth century, faced with the choice of hard work in the country and hard work in the city, many farming families increasingly chose the city, leading to a broad demographic shift away from the country, particularly in the grain belt.

The shift greatly concerned President Teddy Roosevelt, who recognized that city life was "advancing more rapidly."[4] Because he believed that rural, agricultural America was the "backbone of our nation’s efficiency," he thought the entire nation would suffer unless the social and intellectual, as well as economic, aspects of country life kept pace with city life.[5] As a result, Roosevelt created the Country Life Commission in 1908 and tasked it with investigating how to make country life more attractive.[6] The resulting 1909 Report of the Country Life Commission[7] began by listing a series of country "deficiencies," including crop price fluctuations, farm credit access, farm labor issues, consolidation of land ownership, environmental degradation, a paucity of transportation infrastructure, inferior communication services, and limited access to health care and education facilities. While virtually all of these concerns remain today, the Report is still considered a landmark study for the spotlight it shone on rural America and for the academic research and government activity it engendered.[8]

Snapshot of 1880 vs. 1890 in frontier areas

The Commission and its Report also spawned the country life movement, a broad-based reform effort to bolster rural communities.[9]

It all paled, however, in the face of the radical transformation of agriculture in America. In 1900, 40 percent of America’s entire workforce toiled in agriculture. Today, that number is less than 2 percent, and even in rural areas alone, agriculture accounts for less than 12 percent of the workforce.[10] By 1940, the country life movement had fizzled. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, the farmer boy’s "jovial" refrain read more like a naïve, plaintive cry. Today, very few jovial farmer boys remain, and many with ambition seek to get out before they grow old. A recent account of the "brain drain" in rural America summarized the prevailing attitude among young people as "moving up implies moving out."[11] Country life still holds its allure , but for all the lasting images of waving wheat fields, small churches, and rustic charm, just about every "deficiency" listed by the Country Life Commission still plagues rural America today.[12]

 

The rural West shares many of the problem of rural America, but the rural West has also always been different from the rest of rural America. At the beginning of the twentieth century, while Roosevelt and the Country Life Commission worried about declining populations in farming country, the rural West was growing rapidly, causing consternation of a different sort. America was running out of room to expand. This notion was most famously articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner, who believed that the breaking up of a clear frontier signaled a crisis for a country whose growth and development — and, indeed, its very democratic, republican soul — had depended on the opportunity to expand westward.[13]

 

Our visualizations of U.S. Census data show that what Turner called the "frontier" — the line between "unpopulated" areas with fewer than 2 people per square mile and the "transfrontier," areas with 2 to 6 people per square mile — certainly broke up as he said. But it never fully disappeared. The "frontier" and the "transfrontier" have contracted, morphed, and even expanded again in some areas of the West. It is difficult to make direct comparisons between 1890 or 1910 and the present, as the shapes of counties have changed, and some mostly rural counties contain significant towns and cities. These innovative maps by our colleague Erik Steiner, in the Spatial History Lab at Stanford, try to factor that in by weighting county populations around towns and cities. They show that while Turner's "unpopulated" and "transfrontier" areas have shifted and never fully disappeared, newly “unpopulated” areas (fitting Turner’s criteria of fewer than 2 people per square mile, shown in red) are few and far between.

 

Today, while the frontier remains alive in the popular imagination, in the last 100 years, much of the allure of the rural West has shifted from a place of labor to a place for leisure, a chance to get back to the earth not by working it, but by taking it from a hiking trail, a houseboat, or horseback.[14]

The difference between this "amenity West" and the resource-based West is just one reason why the rural West is a particularly interesting topic of study.[15] The working rural West has all of the poverty and demographic and economic shifts of other rural areas of America, but also the stubborn remnants of the frontier mythology, an arid climate, a vast federal estate, and natural resources and amenities unlike anywhere else in the country. Because of these varying attributes, some areas of the rural West are magnets for retirees, while others are so sparsely populated that they have attracted calls to use the open space depopulated of farming families now as a "buffalo commons".[16] This is not a new frontier, at least not in the way that Turner conceived it, as an outlet for expansion and conquest, and the making of a democratic, republican citizens. The space that is opening up today is part of a contraction of communities, not an expansion, creating a space for nature largely devoid of people, of remoteness, not opportunity for making a people in nature.

Remoteness was also a concern for the Country Life Commission, which highlighted the importance of connectivity, to labor and markets, water, transportation infrastructure, and to a sense of community in particular, to improve country life. For a time the railroads, subsidized by the government and speculative credit markets, did just that, linking communities throughout the West, particularly to commodity markets. The settlement of arid lands this engendered, however, was unsustainable, and as the dominance of the railroads faded so did the population.

att coverage map

Today technology is once again radically changing our interconnectivity, but it is also contributing to the remoteness of the rural West, as inadvertently evidenced by the significant white space in this recent AT&T wireless map that advertises their cell phone coverage of "97 percent of the U.S. population."

As the map demonstrates, the rural West is the epicenter of remoteness and of contraction.

The Rural West Initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West is using the centennial of the 1909 Report of the Country Life Commission to examine the distinctive issues that arise in the rural West and to focus attention on the continuing importance of understanding western rural life. By fostering a collaboration among scholars and journalists and equipping them with state-of-the-art data visualization and mapping tools, we aim to stimulate a wide-ranging public conversation about the past, present, and future prospects of the rural West.

 


Notes and References

1 M.W. Cobb, “The Jovial Farmer Boy (songbook)” (Chicago: The John Church Company, 1885). Accessed through the Library of Congress Performing Arts Encyclopedia, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.100010970/default.html.

2 See David H. Murdoch, The American West: The Invention of a Myth (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2001).

3 As noted by the historian William Cronon in “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History (Jan 1996), 1(1): p. 15, “Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal.” See also Richard White, “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?” in William Cronon (ed.), Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), pp. 171-8.

4 Teddy Roosevelt, “Introduction” to Report of the Country Life Commission. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (1909).

5 This quote, also from Roosevelt’s “Introduction” to the Report of the Country Life Commission, echoes the Progressive Era concern with efficiency as a guiding principle and the role of experts in politics (see, for example, Samuel Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement 1890-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959).

6 Chaired by Liberty Hyde Bailey, a Cornell University horticulturalist, the Country Life Commission was one of many such commissions convened by Roosevelt, including the Public Lands Commission, Inland Waterways Commission, and the National Conservation Commission. See Michael Lacey. “Federalism and National Planning: The Nineteenth Century Legacy,” in Robert Fishman (ed.), The American Planning Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) pp. 89-145.

7 Report of the Country Life Commission (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1909).

8 See, for example, Scott J. Peters and Paul A. Morgan, “The Country Life Commission: Reconsidering a Milestone in American Agricultural History," Agricultural History, Summer, 2004, 78 (3): 289-316, and Clayton S. Ellsworth, “Theodore Roosevelt's Country Life Commission," Agricultural History, October 1960, 34(4): 155-172.

9 See Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Country Life Movement in the United States (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1915), William Bowers, “Country Life Reform 1900-1920: A Neglected Aspect of Progressive Era History,” Agricultural History (July 1971), 45(3): 211-221.

10 Carolyn Dimitri, Anne Effland, and Neilson Conklin, “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy,” US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Economic Information Bulletin #3 (June 2005).

11Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. Boston: Beacon Press (2009).

12 Historian David Danbom summarizes the shifting allure of the country, always in contrast to something else, in “Why Americans Value Rural Life,” Rural Development Perspectives (August 1997), 12(1): 15-18. See also David Danbom, Born in the Country: A History of Rural America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

13 Of course, the story of westward expansion has more to do with conquest than simply expansion into open space. See, for example, Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987).

14 See, for example, Richard White, “Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill” and Patricia Nelson Limerick, “The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century” in James R. Grossman (ed.), The Frontier in American Culture (Chicago: The Newberry Library, 1994). The idea of the frontier still pervades popular culture. See Richard Aquila (ed.), Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1996), governmental discourse (the Utah state Department of Health officially designates counties with 6 or fewer people per square mile as “frontier” counties), and academic research (see, for example, Camilo García-Jimeno and James A. Robinson, “The Myth of the Frontier” (National Bureau of Economic Research working paper #14774, March 2009), Samuel M. Otterstrom and Carville Earle, “The Settlement of the United States from 1790 to 1990: Divergent Rates of Growth and the End of the Frontier” (Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 2002), 33(1): 59–85, and Robert E.Lang, Deborah E. Popper, and Frank J. Popper, “Is There Still a Frontier? The 1890 US Census and the Modern American West” (Journal of Rural Studies, 1997): 377–386.

15 Borne out by population statistics; see David McGranahan, “Natural Amenities Drive Rural Population Change,” Agricultural Economic Report No. AER781 (October 1999).

16 See Deborah E. Popper and Frank .J. Popper, “The Great Plains: from dust to dust” (Planning, 1987), 53:12-18, Deborah E. Popper and Frank J. Popper, “The Buffalo Commons: Metaphor as Method” (Geographical Review, 1999) 89:491-510, and Deborah E. Popper and Frank .J. Popper, “Looking forward: Adding the Buffalo Commons to the grasslands mix,” in A.J. Franzluebbers (ed.), Farming with Grass: Achieving Sustainable Mixed Agricultural Landscapes, (Ankeny, IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society, 2009), pp. 45-60.

Citation for this essay: Michael De Alessi, "The Rural West: Jovial No More?" from Visualizing the Rural West, April 2010, Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University, http://www.stanford.edu/group/ruralwest/cgi-bin/drupal/content/rural-west-demographics