Country life movement

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The country life movement was an early 20th century American social movement which sought to improve the living conditions of America's rural residents. The movement focused on preserving traditional rural lifestyles while addressing poor living conditions and social problems within rural communities. Despite the movement's rural focus, many of its adherents were urbanites who sought to bring progressive changes and technological improvements to rural areas. The movement had little success in changing rural ways of life; its principal successes were the promotion of agricultural extension programs and the development of national organizations to improve rural living.


The country life movement's adherents largely fell into three schools of thought. The first group was mainly composed of urban agrarians who wished to improve rural living conditions in order to prevent farmers from flocking to cities and abandoning rural lifestyles. This philosophy held that rural lifestyles espoused certain moral values which were a positive influence on urbanites. Historian William Bowers has described this philosophy as contradictory, as these reformers sought to preserve a rural past while adding elements of urban life to rural lifestyles.[1]

A second segment of country-lifers sought to improve what they saw as declining rural living conditions by introducing progressive ideals to rural life. This group attempted to institute successful urban social reforms in rural areas.[1][2] These reforms were partially designed to improve the efficiency of American agriculture; the reformers feared that a degenerate rural population would not provide sufficient food for urbanites. The main two goals of this segment of reformers involved reforming rural schools and rural churches, which they saw as lagging behind their urban counterparts.[3]

The third group affiliated with the movement consisted of farmers who sought to bring technological progress to their profession. This group promoted agricultural extension and attempted to bring industrial reforms to American farms. In addition, they promoted the idea that farmers should adopt business practices in their profession.[1]


U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed the Commission on Country Life in 1908 to address concerns raised by the country life movement. Horticulturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey was appointed chairman of the commission. Other members of the commission included agricultural scientist and sociologist Kenyon L. Butterfield, forester Gifford Pinchot, and future U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Cantwell Wallace.[4] The commission proposed three objectives for the improvement of rural life: a national agricultural extension program, scientific surveys of rural life, and the establishment of a national agency devoted to rural progress. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 accomplished the first objective by allowing rural counties to establish advisors through land-grant universities who would help spread technology to rural living. The third goal was accomplished in 1919 through the creation of the American Country Life Association.[5][6]


As late as 1920, half the population lived in rural areas. They experienced their own progressive reforms, typically with the explicit goal of upgrading country life.[7] Special efforts were made to reach the rural South and remote areas, such as the mountains of Appalachia and the Ozarks.[8]

The most urgent need was better transportation to get out of the mud. The railroad system was virtually complete; the need was for much better roads. The traditional method of putting the burden on maintaining roads on local landowners was increasingly inadequate. New York State took the lead in 1898, and by 1916 the old system had been discarded everywhere. Demands grew for local and state government to take charge. With the coming of the automobile after 1910, urgent efforts were made to upgrade and modernize dirt roads designed for horse-drawn wagon traffic. The American Association for Highway Improvement was organized in 1910. Funding came from automobile registration, and taxes on motor fuels, as well as state aid. In 1916, federal-aid was first made available to improve post-roads, and promote general commerce. Congress appropriated $75 million over a five-year period, with the Secretary of Agriculture in charge through the Bureau of Public Roads, in cooperation with the state highway departments. There were 2.4 million miles of rural dirt rural roads in 1914; 100,000 miles had been improved with grading and gravel, and 3000 miles were given high quality surfacing. The rapidly increasing speed of automobiles, and especially trucks, made maintenance and repair a high-priority item. Concrete was first used in 1909,[9], and expanded until it became the dominant surfacing material in the 1930s.[10][11]

Rural schools were often poorly funded, one room operations taught by young local women before they married, with occasional supervision by county superintendents. The progressive solution was modernization through consolidation, so the children could be attend modern Schools taught by full-time professional teachers who had graduated from the college programs and were certified and monitored by the county superintendent. Farmers complained at the expense, and also at the loss of control over local affairs, but in state after state the consolidation process went forward.[12]

Numerous other programs were aimed at rural youth, including 4-H clubs,[13] Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. County fairs not only gave prizes for the most productive agricultural practices, they also demonstrated those practices to an attentive rural audience. Programs for new mothers included maternity care and training in baby care.[14]


The movement's attempts at introducing urban reforms to rural America often met resistance from traditionalists who saw the country-lifers as aggressive modernizers who were condescending and out of touch with rural life. The traditionalists said many of their reforms were unnecessary and not worth the trouble of implementing. Rural residents also disagreed with the notion that farms needed to improve their efficiency, as they saw this goal as serving urban interests more than rural ones. The social conservatism of many rural residents also led them to resist attempts for change led by outsiders. Most important, the traditionalists did not want to become modern, and did not want their children inculcated with alien modern values through comprehensive schools that were remote from local control.[15][16] The most successful reforms came from the farmers who pursued agricultural extension, as their proposed changes were consistent with existing trends in agriculture at the time.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d Roth, Dennis. "The Country Life Movement" (PDF). United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved December 17, 2013. 
  2. ^ Swanson, Merwin (September 1977). "The "Country Life Movement" and the American Churches". Church History. 46 (3): 358–359. doi:10.2307/3164133. JSTOR 3164133. 
  3. ^ Danbom, David B. (April 1979). "Rural Education Reform and the Country Life Movement, 1900-1920". Agricultural History. 53 (2): 464–466. JSTOR 3742421. 
  4. ^ Swanson 1977, p. 360.
  5. ^ "Commission on Country Life". Liberty Hyde Bailey: A Man For All Seasons. Cornell University Library. Retrieved December 17, 2013. 
  6. ^ Sculle, Keith A.; Michael Ward (September 1983). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form: Pine Grove Community Club" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved December 17, 2013. 
  7. ^ William L. Bowers, "Country-Life Reform, 1900-1920: A Neglected Aspect of Progressive Era History." Agricultural History 45#3 (1971): 211-221. in JSTOR
  8. ^ William A. Link, A Hard Country and a Lonely Place: Schooling, Society, and Reform in Rural Virginia, 1870-1920 (1986).
  9. ^ Kulsea, Bill; Shawver, Tom; Kach, Carol (1980). Making Michigan Move: A History of Michigan Highways and the Michigan Department of Transportation. Lansing, Michigan: Michigan Department of Transportation. OCLC 8169232. 
  10. ^ Harold U. Faulkner, The Decline of Laissez Faire, 1897-1917 (1951) pp 233-36.
  11. ^ Charles Lee Dearing, American highway policy (1942).
  12. ^ David R. Reynolds, There goes the neighborhood: Rural school consolidation at the grass roots in early twentieth-century Iowa (University of Iowa Press, 2002).
  13. ^ Ellen Natasha Thompson, " The Changing Needs of Our Youth Today: The Response of 4-H to Social and Economic Transformations in Twentieth-century North Carolina." (PhD Diss. University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2012). online Archived April 18, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ Marilyn Irvin Holt, Linoleum, Better Babies, and the Modern Farm Woman, 1890-1930 (1995).
  15. ^ Danbom 1979, p. 473.
  16. ^ Richard Jensen and Mark Friedberger, Education and Social Structure: An Historical Study of Iowa, 1870-1930 (Chicago: Newberry Library, 1976, online).