Historical Perspectives on the Rural West

Background

Time to Revisit the Rural West

By David M. Kennedy
It’s time to revisit the rural West, once a mythical beacon of hope for sodbusters, cowboys, prospectors, and lumberjacks, and still a place where their ways of life flourish and hope continues to track  the setting sun.  But much of the rural West remains the landscape of loneliness, of anemic public services, shrinking opportunity, and environmental degradation – not to mention some of that old-fashioned populist disenchantment.  

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What Is Rural?

By Rebecca LaGrandeur and Michael De Alessi

For all of the idyllic, pastoral images of barns, row-crops, and wide open spaces full of grounded, tightly-knit communities that “rural” America evokes, life in the country also harbors a host of concerns, from depopulation and a rural “brain drain” to access to health care and educational facilities, land ownership and debt, falling crop prices and farm labor issues, and inferior communication and transportation infrastructure. These concerns echo the “deficiencies” raised in the 1909 Report of the Country Life Commission,a landmark effort that spurred broad interest in improving country life, but few concrete results. But the Country Life Commission did not precisely define what it meant by “rural".... To this day, all of the major definitions still define “rural” by defining everything that is not rural.

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The Country Life Commission

President Teddy Roosevelt believed that rural America was the "backbone of our nation's efficiency," but that rural life risked being left behind in the modern America emerging in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908, he formed a Commission on Country Life, headed up by Liberty Hyde Bailey, to investigate ways of making country life more attractive. The 1909 Report of the Country Life Commission highlighted a list of "deficiencies" in rural life that were prompting people to leave the country for the city, but had few concrete recommendations for remedying the situation. One hundred years later, just about all of those "deficiencies" still plague rural America, and people are still leaving country for the city. Despite its apparent lack of results, however, the Report remains a landmark for the attention it brought to issues of country life, and it remains an inspiration for for our Rural West Initiative.   

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