The American Countryside in the Age of the City

HIST 3110: The American Countryside in the Age of the City

Over the past 150 years, the United States had transformed from a nation of small farms and rural communities to a nation of huge cities and expansive corporations.  This monumental shift has transformed not only the nation’s demographic composition but also its politics, environment, social relationships, cultural norms, and economic outlook.  Indeed, the story of the twentieth century is the story of the rise of cities.  Yet, the countryside remains, and rural communities remain.  In this course, we will take a sustained look at rural America during an era in which nearly all the attention is directed cityward.  What happened to the countryside as the cities swelled and dominated the nation’s public life?  How did family life, social relationships, the landscape, and Americans’ relationship to that landscape change?  How did people react to the changing political economy of urban-industrial America? How did the growth of urban America alter popular perceptions of rural people?  We will explore these central questions throughout this course in order to learn more about the often overlooked experience of rural America.

While the transformation of the countryside from 1865 to 1945 forms the central organizing principle of this course, three interrelated themes will help us grapple with the form and meaning of these changes.  The first theme examines the evolving role of agriculture in rural life.  In 1865, agriculture was the social and economic backbone of rural life in the United States, but changes in agricultural practices (regarding both cultivation itself and the business of farming) have led to significant structural changes in rural life.  The second theme of the course looks at the role of the state and the market in directing these changes.  The third theme explores how rural people reacted to this transformation, which included varying degrees of accommodation and resistance to them.

Required Readings:

  • Ned Cobb, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw
  • James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
  • Erskine Caldwell, God’s Little Acre, Tobacco Road
  • Hal Barron, Mixed Harvest: The Second Great Transformation in the rural North, 1870-1930
  • Sarah Phillips, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, rural America, and the New Deal




  • Lecture 1: Course introduction
  • Lecture 2: Introduction to Rural History
    • Has there ever been a ‘traditional’ rural life in America? Why learn about rural history?
    • This lecture will frame the entire class and lay out the main themes. First, I will introduce the agrarian myth and capitalist realities in the American countryside.  Second, I will present an overview of the transformative period, 1865-1945, and discuss some of the ways we will look at that transformation.


Rural America after the Civil War (1865-1877)

  • Lecture 3: Reconstruction and the fate of Southern farming
    • How did the Republicans envision a post-slavery Southern economy, and where did farming fit into it?
    • The Civil War ensured the dominance of an industrial capitalist political economy that had already demonstrated its tendency toward urbanization. It also ensured the dominance of a political party with strong ideals of free labor.  This lecture provides an overview of the political and ideological debates regarding the future of black farmers and looks at the issues of land reform and the tensions it raised in free labor ideology.  By the end of Reconstruction, Republicans abandoned their vision for the Southern economy rooted in free labor and economic harmony and turned to regional development through railroads as the centerpiece of their new vision for the South. It also discusses the Great Strike of 1877 as a harbinger of the new industrial age.  This lecture will draw primarily on Heather Cox Richardson and Eric Foner.
  • Lecture 4: Surviving the Postwar Economy
    • What conditions did southern farmers’ face after the Civil War? How did the abolition of slavery change farming in the South?
    • The key takeaway from this lecture will be that after the Civil War, rural whites found it increasingly difficult to remain independent due to increased market dependence and subsequent debt, as well as to the deterioration of their ‘landscapes of subsistence.’ This lecture examines the changes in farming and the conditions faced by white and black farmers following the Civil War, including the southern ‘cotton vortex,’ fence laws, debt, rise of chemical fertilizers.  Plantation agriculture was replaced by sharecropping and tenant farming.  Stephen Hahn has perhaps the best discussion of these trends, although Mart Stewart has also written about it.
  • Lecture 5: Farming in the Great West
    • How did capital and the state shape farming and other rural industries in the West? What role did technology play?
    • The key takeaway from the lecture will be that the landscape of the West was not shaped by small farms and agrarian communities but by profit-minded individuals and companies. This lecture discusses the role of the Homestead Act, Morrill Act, and the Pacific Railway Act in populating the west.  The state ensured that the railroads would determine settlement patterns and market dependence.  Chicago Board of Trade also determined how farmers would conduct business.  This lecture will draw on Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America; Heather Cox Richardson, West of Appomattox; William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis.
  • Lecture 6: The Family Farm in Postwar America
    • How well did the family farm withstand the postwar era outside of the South?
    • Looking mainly at the North and Midwest, this lecture examines community and family life in postwar agrarian America. Despite the many changes in agriculture during this time, the family farm remained the standard agricultural unit in much of the nation, as well as the primary avenue to independence for many white and black Americans.  While I am still looking for good sources to illuminate this section, I will draw on parts of the following: Mary Neth, Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940; Hal Barron, Those Who Stayed Behind: Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England; Hal Barron, Mixed Harvest: The Second Great Transformation in the rural North, 1870-1930.     

Organizing the Farmers

  • Lecture 7: Cooperation is the key
    • How did the farmers initially attempt to meet the challenges of the changing economy?
    • This lecture looks at the problems that farmers faced in the 1870s and 1880s, including deflation, tight money policies, declining prices, and restrictive credit system. It examines the origins of the Grange, the emergence and evolution of the Greenback Party, and other minor organizations such as the Agricultural Wheel and the Brothers of Freedom.  In addition to these efforts, this lecture will examine the evolution of antimonopoly sentiment and the early efforts to control the railroad.  While I am still looking for good sources on these topics and still need to do more research, I will use parts of Goodwin, and I will check out other books, such as Matthew Hild’s Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late Nineteenth-Century South (2008).
  • Lecture 8: The Farmers’ Alliance and the Building of a Movement
    • How did the Farmers’ Alliance become the most popular and successful farm organization of the nineteenth century? How successful were they?
    • Discusses the strategies, challenges, and accomplishments of the Alliances in the 1880s and early 1890s, comparing the western and southern variants, as well as the Colored Farmers’ Alliance. This lecture will use Lawrence Goodwyn’s perspective that the Alliances laid the groundwork for a democratic movement culture that set up the Populist insurgency of the 1890s.  But ultimately, I side withCharles Postel in contending that the antimonopolism of the Alliances was not so much a critique of progress and centralized power as it was a call for government intervention in the economy to chart an alternative to path to progress.
  • Lecture 9: Competing visions for America: The Election of 1896 and the fate of Populism
    • What was the Populist vision for America, and what happened to it?
    • Discusses the origins and rise of the People’s Party, its radical demands, its attempts at interracial cooperation, and its ultimate demise as a third party. Drawing on Postel, it looks at the wide and varied interests that ultimately found expression in the Populist message, including socialists, free-thinkers, evangelicals, cooperative communitarians, and labor organizations.  It examines the issues at stake in the presidential election of 1896 and the decline of the political movement thereafter.  The takeaway point is that Populism represented not necessarily the last gasp of Jeffersonian democracy but an alternative, democratic vision for a more rational capitalist system in which the state would protect the interests of the small producers and reign in the power of corporations.

Farmers in Urban America

  • Lecture 10: Leaving the Farm:
    • Why did millions of rural Americans, black and white, leave the countryside for the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Did it have a measurable effect on the countryside?
    • In addition to addressing the general ebb and flow of rural-to-urban migrations from 1880-1920, this lecture frames the migrations as part of a broader trend of displacement wrought by global capitalism and overpopulation in a post-frontier society. The key takeaway will be that the migration from country to city was the product of large-scale shifts in economic resources, as well as changing ideas of the ‘good life’, and it entailed a reconceptualization of ideas of economic security and independence on the part of the migrant.  For this lecture, I will draw on readings, such as Joe Trotter’s edited collection, The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender, and  Appalachian Odyssey: Historical Perspectives on the Great Migration, which points to a “great white migration” from the Appalachians to Midwestern urban areas.
  • Lecture 11: The Immigrant Experience
    • Why did millions of immigrants choose to leave their rural communities for America? How did their experience in American cities change them?
    • Examines the push and pull factors and the process and effects of migration. This lecture will illustrate the stories of second wave immigrants who largely moved from small, tightly knit, cooperative communities in Europe to urban areas in America.  The takeaway here is that, like the internal migrants from Appalachia, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were caught in a vise created by market expansion and when they moved, they faced a similar situation to those American farmers who left their homeplaces in the country.  Yet, their experiences differed in important ways.  Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People is perhaps the best story of rural-to-urban migration that has been written.
  • Lecture 12: The origins of the Back-to-the-Land movement
    • Why did Americans choose to both return to the land and promote a general movement in favor of it?
    • Examines the philosophy of the movement, which based on Jeffersonian ideals and anxieties over urbanization, and the many schemes to achieve it across the country. Thus, the back-to-the-land movement was fueled by combinations of desires for economic security and independence in a rapidly changing urban age.  The people that promoted a general movement felt that by placing people back on the land, they could both solve the problem of urban poverty and preserve a semblance of agrarian republicanism in the face of urban industrialization.  For this lecture, I will draw on Dona Brown’s new book, Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America (2012), which is the only book to address the origins of the back-to-the-land movement in the late nineteenth century.

Agriculture in the Age of Monopoly

  • Lecture 13: Breaking the Hold of Cotton: Diversification and the expansion of the state in the South
    • What explains the widespread calls to diversify Southern agriculture around the turn of the 20th century? How successful were they? What effects did this have on southern country life?
    • This lecture examines the pioneering work of Seaman Knapp, the growth of demonstration farms and the Agricultural Extension Service. It will examine the impact of the Boll Weevil in intensifying calls for diversification and expanding the state through the extension service.  Taking its cue from Pete Daniel, it will argue that while the extension service held noble goals of helping the farmer, they ultimately decided to side with the logic of capital and pushed mechanization in the southern cotton fields, which effectively pushed marginal farmers off the land.  Other sources might include Jim Gieson’s Boll Weevil Blues.
  • Lecture 14: The Tobacco Wars, 1905-1911.
    • Why did people kill each other over tobacco in Kentucky and Tennessee?
    • This lecture will highlight some of the tensions generated by the rise of corporate agriculture through one of its most dramatic episodes: the night-riding raids in the Black Patch area of western Kentucky. It will also discuss the tobacco industry and the 1911 breakup of the American Tobacco Company.  I will rely on Pete Daniel’s book to discuss the tobacco culture in general and the nature of tobacco markets.  Christopher Waldrep’s Night Riders: Defending Community in the Black Patch, 1890-1915 appears to be a good account of the wars, but I have not yet read it.
  • Lecture 15: The Revolution in the Central Valley
    • What accounts for the rapid development of California’s Central Valley?
    • The transformation of the Central Valley in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is one of the more remarkable and influential episodes in American rural history. With the development of a national market in the decades after the Civil War and help from state and federal irrigation efforts, the Valley farmers became the nation’s supplier of grapes, raisins, oranges, and other fruits and vegetables.  Due to superior marketing strategies, they created their own markets by convincing consumers that they could and should eat more fruits and vegetables.  In the process, they began to outcompete farms across the nation.  I will draw on books such as Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth, and Philip Garone’s The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California’s Great Central Valley.

Rural Reform in the Progressive Era

  • Lecture 16: Country Roots of Reform
    • To what extent were the economic and political reforms of the progressive era products of rural demands?
    • Drawing heavily on Elizabeth Sanders’ Roots of Reform, this lecture examines national politics after 1896 and argues that the direct primary, the Bryan-led Democratic party, new farmers’ organizations, and the national influence of southern Democrats helped push progressive-era reform in a more agrarian direction. This coalition led to the Mann-Elkins Act, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and Cotton Futures Act, Tariff reform, Smith-Lever Act, Smith-Hughes Act, and others, all of which helped expand the state to protect agricultural interests.
  • Lecture 17: Progressivism and Rural Change in the South
    • Many rural families encountered progressive reform in the arena of social reform. Drawing on William Link’s The Paradox of Southern Progressivism, this lecture examines the efforts of town folk to consolidate schools, eradicate hookworm, prohibit alcohol, and end child labor, as well as rural folk’s reactions to them.  The takeaway is that southern progressives and their rural objects of reform held differing conceptions of community.  Whereas reformers saw their efforts as part of an effort to bring the countryside more into mainstream southern (and American) community, locals often preferred to maintain local autonomy.
  • Lecture 18: Conservation and Rural Life
    • What was the relationship between urban-industrial capitalism and conservation policies? How did conservation policies affect rural people?
    • Conservation was an effort to correct some of the environmental abuses of capitalism through the application of scientific principles and technical expertise to the problems of unrestrained competition. It was an effort by an urban, technocratic elite, to rationalize nature in such a way to ensure sustained economic growth.  However, such an effort clashed with rural peoples’ attempts to maintain a subsistence-based lifestyle.  I will use Samuel Hays and Karl Jacoby to flesh out the details of this story, but I disagree with Jacoby that all conservationists held class-based goals and that rural people in the late nineteenth century had all developed a ‘moral ecology.’  I also disagree with Hays that conservationists lacked any social goals.  Like other progressives, they were responding to rapid economic and environmental changes by searching for ways to impose order on the landscape, and they hoped to counter the growing power of big business by experimenting with ways to establish small producers on the land.
  • Lecture 19: The Commission on Country Life and the Cooperative Movement
    • Why did Theodore Roosevelt create the Commission on Country Life, and why did many progressives coalesce around the ‘Country Life Movement’? What were their prescriptions for rural life, and what effects did it have on the countryside?
    • This lecture argues that country lifers were progressives who were anxious about the accelerating rural-to-urban migration and sought to create a vibrant rural democracy through greater economic, political, and social cooperation at the community level. It will analyze the agrarian philosophy of movement leaders like Liberty Hyde Bailey and trace its trans-Atlantic roots.  I’m skeptical of the claim by David Danbom and others that Country Lifers were primarily motivated by the desire to improve agricultural productivity.  Therefore, I will also draw on other scholarship, namely Mary Neth’s Preserving the Family Farm, Hal Barron’s Mixed Harvest, William Bowers’s Country Life Movement in America, 1900-1920 and Zachary Michael Jack’s Liberty Hyde Bailey: Essential Agrarian and Environmental Writings, as well as insights from Scott Peters and Paul Morgan, who emphasize their genuine desire to create a vibrant, permanent rural society.

The Age of the Tractor

  • Lecture 20: World War I and the Farm Crisis
    • What impacts did World War I have on the countryside?
    • Simply put, the key takeaway from this lecture is that World War I changed a lot about the countryside. Calls for increased production and mechanization during the war created a huge surplus that could not be absorbed after the war, leading to drastic drops in crop prices, accelerated consolidation of farmlands, and the further depopulation of the countryside.  It also led to the organization of the farm bloc, a group of congressmen who agitated for agricultural interests throughout the 1920s.  This lecture will examine the role of the state, via the Food Administration, the War Industries Board, and other bureaucratic innovations, in promoting these changes.  Scholarship on this pivotal era in agricultural/conservation history is remarkably thin.  Perhaps the best book on the farm crisis is still James Shideler’s The Farm Crisis, 1919-1923, written in 1957. Scholarship on the Food Administration is likewise sparse; a monograph is sorely needed.
  • Lecture 21: The Industrial and Community Ideals in American Agriculture
    • The takeaway from this lecture will be that in the 1920s, as a result of the post-WWI farm crisis, two visions for American rural life emerged among circles of academics, farm reformers, and politicians. The industrial ideal, which reached its height of influence in the wheat belt and laid the foundations of modern agribusiness, followed the logic of capital and envisioned a countryside of ‘factories in the field.’  For this story, I turn to Deborah Fitzgerald’s Every Farm a Factory.  The other prescription for rural life, the community ideal, was promoted by sociologists, farm colonization proponents, and remnants of the conservation and country life movements.  A critique of the logic of capital, the community ideal sought to improve rural standards of living and stem the rural-to-urban migrations by promoting economic and social cooperation on a community level.  For this story, I will draw on Mary Neth and Hal Barron, and also on my own research.
  • Lecture 22: The rural New Deal
    • Reforming rural life was one of the primary foci of early New Deal legislation. The plans it put forth through agencies like the AAA, CCC, RA, NIRA, and TVA were wide-ranging but philosophically inconsistent.  Influenced by both the industrial ideal and community ideals, New Dealers could not unravel the tension between its centralizing and decentralizing forces.  While some New Deal agencies (Division of Subsistence Homesteads, Resettlement Administration) experimented with ways to recreate rural communities through community planning, other agencies like the AAA and the SCS effectively pushed agriculture toward greater consolidation.  It ultimately abandoned both community and regional planning due to practical difficulties and conservative attacks.  This lecture will look at these programs, their origins and influences, and how they played out on the ground.  It will draw on Sarah Phillips’s This Land, This Nation, as well as Daniel’s Breaking the Land. 

Race relations in the Southern countryside

  • Lecture 23: Booker T. Washington, Agrarianism, and the fate of African Americans
    • What did Washington see as the relationship between farming and black citizenship? Was his support for rural life a capitulation to white society?
    • The big idea here is that Washington saw farming and black landownership as the foundation for black independence, but this prescription for black improvement did involve a compromise of sorts with white society.  This lecture will discuss how DuBois and Washington saw citizenship differently.  Surprisingly little has been written about Washington’s agrarian philosophy, despite the wealth of writing on him.  I will use Andrew Zimmerman’s Alabama in Africa to demonstrate that Washington held civilizationist prejudices, but I do not share his disdain for Washington nor his insistence that these efforts to institute cotton farming in Togo suggest that Washington favored social control of whites over blacks.  Instead, I will draw on other articles (see below) and books such as Mark Hersey’s “environmental biography” of George Washington Carver to try to describe Washington’s efforts in the context of agrarian, and conservation, reform.
    • Robert E. Zabawa and Sarah T. Warren, “From Company to Community: Agricultural Community Development in Macon County, Alabama, 1881 to the New Deal,” Agricultural History, 72, 2 (Spring 1998), 459-486.
  • Lecture 24: The Rural Face of White Supremacy
    • Drawing heavily on Mark Schultz’s study of Hancock County, Georgia, this lecture describes the culture of personalism that dictated race relations. White merchant-planter class asserted control over blacks by seizing internal structure of the community.  While whites tolerated no collective affront to their power from ag reformers, education reforms, or any other manipulation of their system, and they often cheated blacks at the settle, but they tolerated a surprising amount of black assertiveness and interracial intimacy.  Blacks had varying degrees of autonomy on the job and in the community, which meant autonomy from whites, and a sizeable minority owned land.

Transformations of the countryside, 1870-1945

  • Lecture 25: Transformations of the Mountain South
    • The post-World-War-II farm crisis and subsequent farm depression left the southern countryside in shambles. Many folks left for the city. Those that stayed behind slowly abandoned their self-sufficiency to earn cash wages, buying food from the grocery store.  In Appalachia, they worked for timber and mining companies.  Family and community structures underwent significant changes, and the plantation system was finally destroyed by the New Deal. This lecture will examine rural transformations in the region over a long period of time, 1920-1945, to give students a better sense of how life changed.  I will draw on Jack Kirby’s Rural World’s Lost, David Whisnant’s Modernizing the Mountaineer, and Ronald Lewis’s Transforming the Appalachian Countryside. 
  • Lecture 26: Accommodation and resistance: Transformations of the Northern countryside
    • This lecture, like the last one, will examine broad changes over time in the North, from 1870 to 1930. Drawing heavily on Hal Barron’s Mixed Harvest, it examines the reactions of rural northerners to some of the efforts at modernization. As Barron argues, rural people faced challenges from the second great transformation as citizens, producers, and consumers, and they engaged in selective accommodation to these changes.  The takeaway from this lecture is that at times, they adopted the tools and amusements of urban-industrial capitalism, and at other times, they resisted it.  Rural northern farmers embraced the call for rural cooperatives as a compromise between ideals of independence and fear of monopoly control, and they purchased the products of the national market with gusto, but they fiercely resisted consolidated schools and improved road systems.
  • Lecture 27: Family and Community: Transformations in the Midwest
    • This lecture will draw on Mary Neth’s Preserving the Family Farm to discuss how the family farm underwent changes in response to growing mechanization and industrialization of agriculture. Like Barron’s farmers, these Midwestern family farmers survived and adapted to industrial changes through a process of accommodation and resistance, but this lecture will focus on how labor, gender, and social relations changed.   Unlike Daniel’s and Kirby’s southern farmers, Neth’s Midwest seems to have held onto the family farm as a reality longer than many in the South.
  • Lecture 28: Ongoing Transformations
    • Designed as the final lecture, this discussion will be a sweeping assessment of the changes in rural life since World War II, including the declining numbers of farms, accelerated suburbanization, the decentralization of industry and its subsequent decline due to outsourcing, the growth of government aid to rural areas, as well the growth of tourism. It will also provide a cursory look at evolving federal farm policy and the emerging debate over the local foods movement.