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article number 590
article date 09-13-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Changing Rural-Urban Relationship, Pre 1970
by Warren Bailey, USDA, Economic Research Service

From the 1970 USDA Yearbook.

* * *

WHEN I WAS A FARM BOY, our mail was delivered from a rural village that has since ceased to exist. Our county seat was a town of maybe 4,000—a few more now. It claimed the grain elevator (on a railroad) to which we hauled our wheat, and the creamery where we took separated cream once a week—daily during the high school term.

The town also had the bank that held our farm mortgage, a “Carnegie” public library, the doctor who medicated our ills, and the little hospital you could get into without any advance appointment.

Country folks went to town on Saturday night to “trade” their eggs for the week’s groceries and perhaps some gingham and jeans, and to visit with neighbors about crops and politics while the kids saw a movie, Mom traded kitchen recipes and gossip, and Dad bought an early Sunday paper.

On the way to town over a county road we passed by the “city” cemetery, the “city” dump, and a livestock slaughter plant, each using space in our open country.

Town folks, on the other hand, often drove into the countryside to buy fresh eggs and vegetables (in season), to attend a Wednesday night barn dance, or to accept an invitation to pick wild berries, or to hunt rabbits or pheasants in a friendly farmer’s corn field.

Our township taxed its property owners for the maintenance of roads, for the support of its three one-room elementary schools (from grades one through eight), and to pay the tuition (about $125) of the rare farm boy like me who dared attend town high school.

My nickname was “Farmer” from the first day. As I recall, we kids from the country numbered about 25 in a high school student body of about 500.

Our church was one of three in the open country served by the same minister.

My story could be duplicated by thousands of farm youth in hundreds of rural villages across the country.

In those days you knew that people who lived in the country were farmers, and those inside the city limits were town folk—and you could be comfortably sure of the difference—immutable facts to anyone. The interfaces between rural and urban were all neat and orderly.

Since that first brush with “urbanization,” I have lived in increasingly urbanized settings—Madison, Wis., Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.—and have observed the many interfaces between rural and urban.
But, what after all, do we mean by the terms rural and urban? Jim Copp in the next chapter gives us several concepts of “rural.” I find others.

In ‘The Secular City’ Harvey Cox, a theologian now at Harvard University, points out that the fortunes of rural man are closely dependent upon nature, which he takes as he finds it. And his misfortunes are dependent upon the elements—drought, hail, an early frost. Thus, his outcomes are not wholly dependent upon rural man himself. He can blame the weather, or fate.

On the other hand, cities—buildings, streets, business organizations— are wholly the creation of man, the sense Cox says in which cities are secular. If planning is poor or the streets acquire holes, man did it or let it happen. Thus, urban man is pragmatic, does not deal in mystery, realizes that if he does not succeed he has only himself to blame.


A distinguishing concept I like, one that is functionally useful, has to do with our daily transactions. It goes like this.

Rural man’s transactions are on a personal basis. He knows personally the merchant across the counter, his name, where he lives, which church he goes to, that his mother is doing poorly, his son is a star athlete, where the family came from originally, and so on. The service he gets—a quantity discount, an extension of “time,” an after hour delivery—may depend upon his personal relationship with the merchant.

In contrast, urban man’s transactions are on an impersonal basis. He knows not the name or the personal affairs of anyone he deals with. They are merely official agents—salesmen, claim adjusters, etc.—of the business firm or institution.

But urban man does know the customary rules of daily business, and what treatment he reasonably can expect. Hence, on the whole he deals amicably, pleasantly, but firmly with others, not caring what their names are.

This view of urban society at least partly explains the difficulty of rural man when he first encounters the city, accustomed as he is to more personal relationships.

I once suggested to my colleagues that one could distinguish whether a community is rural or urban by where the people sit on a warm summer evening. Rural folks, of course, sit on their front porches so they can speak to passersby, most of whom they know. In contrast urban (and suburban) people sit on their backyard patios.

Later, I was told that ghetto people sit out front, too—possibly because they have no backyards, or possibly because they are recent migrants from a rural community. Ghetto folks, like rural man, deal more easily on personal rather than impersonal terms.

Are we two cultures—rural and urban? Not really! We have many degrees of urbanity and rurality. In a sense our suburbs are “rural” to the central cities, as are small cities to the large cities, towns to the small cities, and the open country to the towns. It is a matter of what or who is more urban or more rural than we are.

At this point we should observe that our whole society and culture is becoming more urban, whatever the criteria—that of the secular city, the impersonal transactions, or which porch people sit on.

A more mundane criterion of urbanity-rurality is density of population. For example, if we count as rural those people living in the open country and in “places under 2,500,” then only a fourth of our people are rural. But they are so spread out and the urban people are so concentrated that our “land” is chiefly rural land. Let me explain.

A majority of the people in such States as New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, actually live in cities, hence are urban. Yet, you drive across those States and they are mostly open country. Parenthetically, each State has two principal urban centers— Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Denver and Colorado Springs, Laramie and Cheyenne, Salt Lake City and Ogden, Reno-Sparks and Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson.

Interestingly, the number of rural people, defined as those living in places under 2,500, has changed very little in the past two or three decades. Their geographic distribution, of course, has changed somewhat but their total has not changed. Our recent growth has been wholly in urban population, an irrefutable sense in which our Nation has become more urban.

Make no mistake, the term rural is not synonymous with farm. Only a fifth of our rural population are farm operator families or farm worker families. The other rural people are shopkeepers, repairmen, school teachers, and the like, who serve farmers and each other.


Out of a U.S. civilian working force of almost 80 million, less than 4 million are classified as farm workers.

Rural-urban migration accounted for much of the growth of the urban centers during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Rural migrants were welcomed by the city as willing workers, eager to learn, and generally trained in personal responsibility. Some of the rural-urban migrants were professionally educated but yet to be urbanized, such as the graduates of our agricultural colleges.

The city largely overlooked, as it easily could, the rural crudities and unsophistication of the rural migrant, made easier by the fact that most urban adults themselves had rural origins or were only one generation away from such origins.

Now there are whole urban populations with but a faint rural background or heritage or rural family relations. However, the interface between rural and urban people is made easier by the growing “urbanization” of the ruralite himself—urbanized in the sense of being able to function in his transactions impersonally, like the urbanite.

Today, the ruralites who are poorly educated, untrained, or indigent are not welcome as they once were in the central cities. In fact, they are often blamed for overcrowding, unemployment, crime in the streets, and the general deterioration of conditions of life there.

Whatever our degree of urbanity now, we have evolved from a rural society. When our people were mostly farmers, it was natural that farming and rurality dominated our economy, our society, our culture, and our politics.

Presidential candidates traced their origins to a log cabin or a farm. Even villagers kept a cow, some chickens, and a horse or two.

Today the urban influence predominates in our society. This dominance, of course, is not easy because rural man has lots of time and space, a mind of his own, and has not yet quite accepted the reversal of his role, feeling the way that he does about such basics as food and fiber.

Our Nation has, of course, become more urbanized in the social and the cultural sense because of the interaction—the interfaces—between “rural” and “urban” people, their communities, their economic activities, and their cultures.
One significant interface is that directly between individual persons—when rural man visits the city or urban man visits the open country.

My favorite example of rural man visiting the city is the cowboy named “Will” in the musical comedy “Oklahoma !“ who “went to Kansas City on a Fridy” to see “what the modrin world was comin’ to.” To Will, Kansas City was magically, wondrously, totally urban—according to his account.

In past decades western Corn Belt farmers often rode in the train caboose on a drover’s pass, as they accompanied a carload or two of their fat cattle to the Chicago market. Once there, they could take a day or two (no one need know) to see the Field Museum, a vaudeville show, a Big League baseball game—”the sights.”

Rural high school students accompanied their athletic teams to the annual State tournament, held of course in a city. Rural youth were thrilled just to be there.

An example of rural man working in the city is my trash pickup man. He and two helpers drive the 40 miles of interstate highway from their rural homes each weekday to pick up trash in my suburban neighborhood and haul it back to a rural dump. There are lots of ways to earn a living.

Many rural people now commute daily from their homes in Appalachia to jobs in urban Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Greensboro, Knoxville, Columbia, Nashville.


They continue to live in their rural (farm or nonfarm) residences because living costs are lower and “it’s home.” Their urbanization is now confined to the workday. Eventually they may become “urbanized” enough to move nearer their jobs, a decision hastened by the growing obsolescence of their rural family home.

Equally interesting are the interfaces in which urban man visits, works in, or moves to a rural area.

I remember well the unattached Detroit auto worker who, during the 6-week annual factory shutdown, came to our farm each summer to hire on for the wheat harvest. He ate with us, slept in the spare room, and on Sundays fished and washed his clothes in the creek.

He thought the auto assembly line was no more monotonous than driving a farm tractor. At either task your mind could drift to other things. We missed him when he stopped coming.

Somewhat earlier were the city schoolmarms who one by one migrated to the western frontier to fill the shortage of school teachers, and incidentally fill the shortage of single women. As they soon got married, the teacher shortage continued, but the education level of new frontier families was thereby augmented.

Untold numbers of urban traveling salesmen to the country are epitomized in the musical comedy, “The Music Man,” whose star promoted the organization of a boys’ band in River City, which (he argued) would keep the boys out of the pool hall, and incidentally, let him sell band instruments and uniforms.

Let’s not overlook the urbanizing influence—the interface—that reaches rural areas through the mass communication media. Rural people now hear the same radio programs, watch the same TV network programs, and read the same national magazines as urban people do. Many can and do read a metropolitan daily newspaper— though a day late. They too can listen to Arthur Fiedler and Lawrence Welk via stereo FM in their own homes.

Except in the remotest areas rural people now watch major league baseball, hear Walter Cronkite discuss the day’s happenings, and see national personalities meet the press. The latest styles of the day—such as miniskirts, maxi-coats, and bellbottom slacks—appear in city shops and rural towns almost simultaneously.

In recent decades urban man by the millions has moved his residence to suburbs, rural areas, and the open country, where his presence, his affluence, and his urban attitudes have had an “urbanizing” influence.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner credited the frontier with an assist to social progress. Man carried the customs and institutions (the only ones he knew) of his society to the frontier where some did not fit, were modified or replaced with new ones which were then carried back to be adopted by or to modify the older culture. Turner sagely observed that the original 13 colonies were once a frontier of England and the Old World.

Whether in this sense rural areas are the “frontier” of the urban is open to doubt—it could be the reverse. Today it may be the urban areas that are retesting our social institutions the most.


However defined, our urban and rural economies now maintain something of a symbiotic relationship—each complements the other, as we implied earlier. Each generates goods and services the other needs, thus becoming more interdependent. In that sense, surely, our society is becoming more integrated.

In this connection I find it useful to distinguish not two but three segments in our economic society—the farm and open country, the rural village, and the urban (city and suburbs). Let us see how the functional relations between these three segments are changing.

Of the three, the rural village is the most interesting because traditionally it has been the keystone, the connecting link between our farm and urban societies. It served both farm and city impartially and simultaneously. But its functional role is changing.

Traditionally, the rural village collected farm products and performed the initial processing, marketing, and transporting. This it still does in large degree but sometimes it is bypassed. For example, cattle and hogs are now hauled in tandem trailer trucks directly from farms in western Nebraska 350 miles overland to Omaha. Tomatoes and other vegetables in the West often are hauled directly from the farm to large processing plants a hundred miles away.

The rural village also served as a vendor of goods and services generated by the city, making them available to farmers. Farmers and villagers bought locally almost everything they needed. Increasingly this vendor function is migrating from the rural village to the regional city, where competition is keener and the choice of merchandise greater.

A farmer I know averages one trip a week via interstate highway to a city 90 miles—not much over an hour—away. That is where he does his banking, buys farm supplies, buys farm machinery and major household appliances, gets specialized medical and hospital care. While there, his family buys the week’s groceries at a supermarket.

His new shopping habits are changing the function of his nearby rural village. It functions now much like the Pa-and-Ma grocery store once did in a residential neighborhood—where folks bought “what they forgot on the last trip downtown.” Thus we have more rural villages than we really need, a fact now accepted in principle by many rural people as long as their village isn’t the one to go.

Traditionally, the prosperity and viability of the rural village were assumed to depend upon the prosperity of the farmers it served. That was only partly correct because the rural villagers (the nonfarm population) outnumbered the farm population by 4 or 5 to one.

The Midwest is beginning to experiment with planned new rural shopping centers located in the open country—at least initially—that are equal in every respect to our modern suburban shopping centers. If this experiment succeeds as it surely must, eventually there will be 6 to 10 such farm centers per State. Those centers also could provide the locations for district or branch offices and services of State governments.

Likewise the function of our cities, particularly the central city, is also changing.

Most of our cities got their “shape” when urbanites who typically had no private means of transportation, rode streetcars to shopping and other services “downtown.” Between cities ran a train that discharged passengers in the center of the city.


Ruralites, of village and farm of necessity had their own private transportation.

Now the urbanite too has his private transportation—the auto. But it does not fit the city as well as the country—it needs parking space. So today we are moving many of the “downtown things” out to the suburbs and to the open country; things like department stores, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and branch banks. This movement also brings the services to masses of suburbanites.

This migration most surely is changing the future role of the central city, particularly the downtown part. But is the city ready to accept the change? And who knows what the future role will be?

Our suburban shopping centers are large, well-planned, attractive, and convenient. The $50 million center at Tyson’s Corner, Va., is across the highway from the gate of a dairy farm that operated up to 10 years ago.

Other facilities that need auto parking for the customers or employees, like hospitals, colleges, research and development labs, are also moving to the open country. Small cities and towns now often build their high schools out where there is space for athletic fields and for faculty and student parking.

Rural areas also provide space for superhighways with their cloverleafs, roadside picnic tables, and wayside rest stops. One might say the multilane highways are extensions of the City.

The outmigration of urban type facilities and services has in the main brought new economic activity, prosperity, and stability to the rural areas it touches. But it has not touched all rural areas.

When urban industry moved to rural areas in search of labor, new surroundings, and “living space,” it naturally was selective because it had much from which to choose. But in the process some rural communities, sometimes those that needed it most, got bypassed. They are the rural “drop-outs” of rural America. This problem is discussed in a later chapter.

Space seemingly is the most difficult concept for modern man to grasp how to organize, manage, and use his space . . . not outer space but space on the earth we live on.

For example, man builds suburbs with residential streets adequate for the time, but fails to leave space for future corridors to reach future suburbs farther out . . . doesn’t leave space for future parks which become necessary as the open country recedes, builds highways that are inadequate the day they open.

When our space-use becomes hopelessly obsolete we either bulldoze down the old and then rebuild, or we abandon the old and build anew elsewhere.

Rural areas are also grappling with the problem of adequate public services—roads, schools, medical, hospital, and so on. Rural people, like others, want and expect to have better services. The problem is more acute the sparser the rural population.


Some communities don’t have enough people to support a good medical-hospital service system, not enough high school students to offer a diversified curriculum.

To improve the service and efficiency of services provided by local governments, we are beginning to think of multi-county units. For example, four (or six or eight) counties may cooperate in which each would administer a different service but to the citizens of all four counties.

Rural communities might also learn from what others are doing.

Some interfacing jurisdictions have developed cooperative arrangements. Cities often extend public utility services beyond their boundaries into suburbs or the open (rural) country. Or they may let adjoining (rural) jurisdictions “hook on” at the common boundary. Falls Church, Va., provides “city” water to many nearby areas in Fairfax County—an entirely separate jurisdiction.

Fairfax admittedly is an urban county. Where I live in the county, we get our water from Falls Church, our sewer service from the county, our gas comes from Washington, D.C., and we commute daily over highways built, maintained, and traffic controlled by the U.S. Park Service.

Another example is Fairfax City, Va. Recently incorporated, it has no high school of its own but pays the tuition of its students who attend the schools out in Fairfax County.

That, of course, is what the township of my boyhood has been doing for 45 years that I know of.

In the chapters of this section that follow you will find fascinating discussions on a number of topics
the changing character of rural communities . . . the search for new ways of providing public services . . . multicounty concepts . . . what makes a community viable . . . why some communities have been bypassed
the competition for land resources today . . . the quality of our rural environment. . . and many others.

Massive system of freeways cuts through countryside to provide transportation and communication facilities needed in today’s society.
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