- Childhood on the Farm: Work, Play, and Coming of Age in the Midwest
Few historians still ask Frederick Jackson Turner's question: How did the encounter with the physical environment shape Americans' outlook, values, and behavior? Historians of rural children and families, following in the footsteps of such novelists as Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder, do, however, continue to explore the impact of the rural environment on children's everyday experience and attitudes. Katherine Harris and Elliott West have argued that the experience was essentially positive. Rural life undermined hierarchies of age and gender, fostered family interdependence, and produced children who were more self-reliant, mobile, adaptable, responsible, and fiercely independent than their urban or eastern counterparts, not to mention more in touch with nature. In contrast, Elizabeth Hampsten and Lillian Schlissel paint a grim portrait of loneliness, privation, abuse, and demanding physical labor from an early age.
Pamela Riney-Kehrberg's study of growing up in the rural Midwest charts a middle ground between those scholars who celebrate the wholesome farm life and those who offer bleaker views of rural childhood. Covering the area from Illinois and Wisconsin to the eastern half of Nebraska and Kansas over the half century after 1870, she describes rural childhood in terms of trade-offs. Farm youngsters underwent independent and adult-like work experiences, but many felt subordinate to their parents' wishes and few were able to keep the wages that they earned. Schooling allowed some rural children to envision alternatives to farm life, but for many others it was mainly valuable because it provided the only reliable time for recreation with other kids. If farm children had greater opportunities for unscripted play than those in urban areas, and were able to transform farm animals into pets and landscapes into playgrounds, many felt a keen lack of social contacts and entertainment. Like Liahna Babener, Riney-Kehrberg emphasizes the "double-mindedness" of farm children's memories, which combined nostalgia with bitterness over the deprivations and hardships they suffered. But Riney-Kehrberg does not believe that nostalgia was simply used to cloak negative memories; rather, she is convinced that most farm children regarded their upbringing as a mixture of good and bad.
Drawing on diaries, letters, memoirs, and oral histories, the book is filled with [End Page 520] vivid first-hand accounts of children's work and play, and of the disorder in many one and two room country schools directed by sixteen and seventeen year old teachers. In especially engrossing chapters, we learn about the plight of indigent, neglected, and abused children who were indentured or placed in county poorhouses, poor farms, or other state institutions, and also about the largely ineffective efforts of parents and country life reformers to prevent children from leaving agriculture.
As Priscilla Ferguson Clement has shown, at no time in American history was the diversity of American childhood—in terms of health, labor, schooling, and play—greater than during the half century between 1870 and 1920. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural children shouldered heavier burdens, attended school for fewer days annually for fewer years, and had less access to store-bought toys, organized leisure activities, and commercial entertainment. On Midwestern farms, child labor was hard, sometimes dangerous, and often tedious, and state child labor laws exempted farm children on the grounds that such work built character and served a valid educational function. A child's usefulness began around the age of four or five, when they might carry kindling, wipe dishes, tend babies, and assist in the kitchen and barnyard, and their responsibilities expanded as they aged. Older girls might hire out as cooks and housekeepers and boys as agricultural laborers, but even then handed their earnings to their parents. While some farm tasks were performed alongside siblings or parents, other children's tasks, such as herding, were carried out alone. Riney-Kehrberg pays particular attention to the debates over appropriate labor for farm children, including the suitability of field work for girls. Questioning the ethnocultural...