As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, Americans, rural and urban alike, faced an increasingly complex society. The new order was a centralized one, guided by emerging large-scale political and marketplace institutions and delineated by a flourishing consumer economy. The efforts of northern farm families and their small-town associates to accommodate these cultural shifts is the subject of Barron’s informed and insightful account.
To make sense of the multitude of forces contributing to the new order, Barron examines rural society from three discrete, but complementary, avenues. To understand the stresses that rural northerners faced as citizens, he explores the centralization of authority and challenge to local control via the campaign for improved roads and the movement to abolish the one-room school. To grasp the producers’ struggles to adapt the recently embraced market economy to the advent of large-scale corporations, he provides case studies of New York’s Dairymen’s League and farmers’ cooperative elevators, particularly the United States Grain Growers. To place the farmer in his position as a modern, urban-oriented consumer, Barron offers insight on the mail-order-catalog culture of Montgomery Ward, as well as the significance of advertising, automobiles, radios, and electric devices in the home.
“Marked by resistance as well as accommodation and by change as well as continuity,” the rural society that developed was a result of negotiations between Jeffersonian idealists determined to keep localized control of their lives, institutions, and finances and the predominant culture of an urbanizing America, fraught as it was with reformers, professionals, and politicians (16). As rural northerners picked, chose, and negotiated, they developed a unique agrarian society that met their localized needs and provided “a counterpoint to the dominant trends in American society,” allowing them to “remain both a part of the American mainstream and apart from it” (16). As farmers and their families struggled to blend the old and the new, a “hybrid” culture was born (15).
It is abundantly clear that Barron traces the development of a new, rural culture in this study, but it is not as obvious that he has pinpointed its sources. There is a certain comfort in clinging to the image of America’s farmers as guardians of President Jefferson’s vision, “informed by values of independence, localism and agricultural fundamentalism,” essential to the “larger society’s well-being” (14). Regardless of the comfort of this idealism, Barron’s farmers do not clearly articulate its values. Indeed, “resistance” to change is voiced as a matter of economy as often as localism and independence are. Though some farmers undeniably held decentralized authority dear, many clearly resented the financial burdens of consolidated schools, macadamized roads, electric lights, and fancy automobiles. Moreover, when adaptations to modernity [End Page 348] put (or kept) cash in their pockets, many had no difficulty grasping the power of selling cooperatively, ordering from Montgomery Ward, purchasing from A&P, or tuning in to RFD Dinnerbell, a popular country-oriented program on the Chicago-based radio station wls.
This reservation aside—as well as a concern about the advisability of building an argument on evidence drawn from such disparate areas as Maine and Nebraska over a sixty-year period and without regard to ethnicity—Barron’s work carries merit. Not only does it provide an opportunity to view rural culture as a counterpoint to the predominant urban society, but it also suggests sources of the hesitancy displayed by agriculturalists in adopting the new order wholesale. Additionally, Barron’s observations about farmers and the siren song of consumer culture are well worth having.