“In an age restless and mobile, with family traditions less strong, and transportation exceedingly cheap and inviting, it is hardly strange that so many of the young people are eager to leave the country which they pronounce dead-as it literally is to them-for the lively town or city.” – Ernest R. Groves, “Psychic Causes of Rural Migration”, American Journal Of Sociology, March 1916
To begin to understand the current problems facing rural America, it might be helpful to look to the past and the major economic changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. At the turn of the 19th century, the vast majority of New Englanders lived in small towns and mostly farmed to provide for themselves and their families. Because of this, most farmers were generalists. As the century wore on however, a great change started to occur. The industrial revolution started to take hold in the Northeastern United States and people began to migrate towards urban areas in search of economic opportunity.
According to a 1903 study published by the American Statistical Association, New England’s population increased during their period, in raw numbers, but the rural population actually declined. In 1912, Alexander Cance of the Massachusetts Agriculture College (present-day University of Massachusetts – Amherst) observed in his writing, “The Decline of Rural Population of New England” that many predominantly agricultural towns in Western Massachusetts had just one third the population that they had at their peak. The migration out of rural communities created a great social upheaval that also dramatically altered the economic landscape.
What will follow is a cursory look at the conditions of rural New England during the Industrial Revolution. As you read this however, I want you to ask yourself two questions: How did New England small towns retain their economic relevance during the last major economic upheaval? Are there any lessons to be learned as we navigate towards a post-industrial economy?
How did rural New England markets adjust to these developments? There was an increased focus on specialization as farmers started to specialize in crops that could be sold to the growing urban centers. Prior to the industrial revolution, there was not much of a nonagricultural population in New England and thus, not much of a market for a farmer to sell his crops to. The emergence of these urban centers provided a market for farmers. Due to increasing competition from farmers in the Midwest (due in part to part to the development of the canal and railroad systems), it was particularly advantageous to specialize in items where close distance was essential. For example, according to Percy Bidwell in his 1921 writing, “The Agricultural Revolution in New England,” the production of dairy subsequently became very important in rural New England. Bidwell speculated that the population of cows increased during this time as farmers moved to specialize to meet the growing demand for dairy product. In terms of raw numbers, between the 1870 and 1900 Censuses, New Hampshire increased its production of milk from 2 gallons to 29 gallons. Without the advantage of modern refrigeration, the fast transport of daily products was essential and New England farmers were wise to take advantage of that.
Rural areas also benefited greatly from supplying goods that were needed by the mills. While New England farmers were not able to compete with Southern farmers in cotton production, they were successful at producing the wool that could be used by the emerging mills. Vermont was particularly successful in this endeavor. Between 1824 and 1840, the sheep population of Vermont quadrupled. For Vermont farmers, raising sheep was more cost-effective than trying to grow corn or grain in the rocky soil. The growth in wool production also spurred growth in manufacturing in the state as mills opened there so they could take advantage of the proximity to wool. However, increased competition from the West and the lower wool prices brought about the collapse of Vermont’s wool industry. Like their neighbors to the east, Vermont turned to dairy farming to reverse its economic fortunes and started supplying another essential good to the growing industrial centers.
Of course, the rural communities closest to the growing industrial centers saw the greatest benefit. According to the 1889 agricultural census, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively in value per farm acre. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont were 24th , 20th, and 16th respectively.
We Can’t Give Up
“These towns fell away early both in population and productiveness, and in but few stances have they been able to recover. A perusal of the vital statistics shows that the native stock is dying out. There is little or no immigration and the deaths exceed the births.” – Alexander Cance, “The Decline in Rural Population of New England,” Publications of the American Statistical Association, March 1912
As with any economic change, there will be simply be communities that are unable to quickly adapt to the rapid changes. Cance observed that many of the hillier towns, particularly in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, were unable to adapt to a world where specialized, not subsistence, agriculture was the dominant means of survival. The hillier regions after all had poorer soil quality and harsher weather conditions. Some of these towns turned to granite mining, dairy, wool and other products that did not rely on the ability to grow and cultivate crops. The development of transportation infrastructure also presented an opportunity. Tourism suddenly became a viable economic sector.
As an example of a community that was able to take advantage of this, we can look to the Mount Washington region of New Hampshire. The late 19th century brought about a boom in hotel building as the region became increasingly seen as a refuge for urban dwellers who wanted to escape the chaos of the city. The same patterns were seen along the Maine coast and in the Vermont mountains. Some of the more well-heeled urbanites even began to buy former homesteads to use as summer homes. Resort towns began to spring up around rural New England as people flocked to its picturesque beauty.
The rise in winter sports also provided a new source of income for many of the hillier communities in New England. As the 20th century wore on, ski resorts began popping up. The development of these resorts proved to be an economic boon for the communities that housed them. As with the development of general tourism, the growing popularity of winter sports did not just benefit the industries that directly supported it, it also greatly benefited merchants and others who were able to start businesses that supported the growing winter sports sector.
While these developments did little to nothing to reserve population decline, they provided a means of survival for the people who wanted to remain in rural communities and provided opportunities for investment for people who wished to bring in capital.
New England rural communities increasingly embraced the idea of specialization, the legacy of which is apparent today. In New Hampshire and Vermont, the landscape is dotted with towns that specialize in dairy production and in Maine, we see towns that specialized in potato farming, logging and fishing. The lesson is that modern day rural communities should look to their predecessors and not be afraid to change in order to meet the demands of the modern world.
Just as we saw in the 19th century, rural America is undergoing a great economic shift. Manufacturing is no longer the dominant form of employment and agriculture (as a share of the economy) has been in decline for decades. Much like the Industrial Revolution, people are being drawn to cities in search of economic opportunity and as a result, rural communities are shrinking and getting older. Just like in the past, we have to figure out how to maintain an economic structure that allows rural America to thrive. Two centuries ago, rural citizens were unafraid to adapt to the changing economy, something that we would wise to remember today.
The 21st century provides us with exciting opportunities, much like those that were found in the 19th and 20th centuries. For example, the development of the internet provides an opportunity for white collar workers to work from wherever. We live in a world where a person in Augusta, Maine or Lebanon, New Hampshire can be on a videoconference and chat in real time with someone in New York, Boston or even London and Tokyo. The world has gotten a lot smaller and space is no longer a barrier to communication and the sharing of ideas. There are opportunities to attract businesses to rural America that may not have thrived there a generation ago. There are also opportunities to attract workers who may not have been able to live in rural America a generation ago.
The challenge ahead for rural America is figuring out how to adapt to the changing economy. Much as our predecessors did when we shifted from an agrarian to an industrial society, we must figure out how to make the adjustments necessary to maintain economic relevance. We are currently experiencing a transition away from an industrial economy and our ability to take advantage of the opportunities ahead will determine our role in the post-industrial economy.