Farmers Helping Farmers

Farmers Helping Farmers

Nancy Berlage, Texas State University

My book Farmers Helping Farmers: The Rise of the Farm and Home Bureaus, 1914-1935 (LSU Press, 2016), examines rural America during a period when many forces were colliding simultaneously. Science was colliding with the traditional methods of agriculture; the “virtues” of rural life were colliding with the “virtues” of urban life; and the traditional notions of gender roles on the farm and in society in general were colliding with a broadly emerging drive by women for greater power, authority and autonomy in America. My book examines these conflicts and how farm people, and women in particular, negotiated these conflicts through their work with farm and home bureaus at the local level.

Nancy Berlage, Farmers Helping Farmers: The Rise of the Farm and Home Bureaus, 1914-1935

Although I did not perceive this as I was researching and writing the book, now, with some distance, I have come to see that these broad cultural and societal conflicts mirrored a tension that existed in my own family experience. I guess in some ways I have been living with my book my entire life and will likely continue to do so. I unabashedly admit that this book is part of me. My love for the topics of agriculture and rural life and how they intersect with family and gender reflect who I am and from where I came. Even so, when writing the book, I was constantly aware of my own subjectivity.

Recently, however, my understanding of that subjectivity has shifted as I think about the connections between the process of historical writing and one’s own constructed experience of the past. My understanding of my own past rural world has shifted as a result of closely examining the gendered organizational life of men, women, and children through my research. Perhaps it is only because I am older—and maybe wiser—that I now understand how I am constantly renegotiating my memory of the past and that that, in turn, has a relationship to my historical work, previous and ongoing. In particular, I am now more aware of the ways in which gender has structured my own experiences on the farm.

I grew up on farm a mile outside of a town of 650, where it seemed everyone was connected or related in some way or other. My family and relatives on the paternal side had been farming there for many generations. I remember that the first time my husband visited where I grew up, my Dad said to him, both proudly and regretfully, “I was born on that hill over there, I grew up on that other hill over there, and I will die on this hill here in between.” Besides being morose in a stoic Midwestern German Catholic way, it articulated the passion for the land, the love of farm life despite all its hardness, and the deep-rooted connection to place that smell, landscape, family, memory, and community life all bring together.


So, I grew up within this milieu, in which there was an explicit, ongoing tension over past and future, over heritage and opportunity, and it took an “outsider” to really see that. Again, I am going to turn back to a family illustration: After that same visit, my husband said the whole experience felt surreal to him. He had grown up in six different countries on three different continents, and yet he felt he had never experienced a place like this. He said that on the one hand it felt like my father would not have seemed out of place as a captain in the Austro-Hungarian Army circa 1897. And on the other hand, my father seemed thoroughly modern in using his laptop to trade soy and corn futures on the Asian exchanges. I was unsettled by the notion of contradiction, but as I thought about it, I realized he had captured some of the same tensions of the place and period that are the subject of my book.

This very personal introduction is important, because in some key ways my interest in the topic as well as my perspective was informed by seeing things through my family’s eyes. Thus, I wanted to bring a human dimension to my study of the farm bureau, and that led me to take a very different approach to studying its history. The local farm and home bureaus were entwined with the powerful key forces reshaping America in the early twentieth century—science, expertise, and bureaucratization. But how they affected rural lives was historically contingent. Ignoring this contingency has too often led to dismissing the bureau as just another story of agricultural modernization. But, one cannot understand the bureau movement without closely examining its connection to the daily lives of the men, women and children who were part of it. My book shows how the farm bureau and home bureau movement was a site where we can see how individuals made science, expertise, and organization part of their value system. And they tried to do so in ways that did not seem to contradict their past values.

Previous scholarship, which concentrated on bureau men and their relationship to national policy, had failed to address gender or closely examine women’s important role in the bureau. The book highlights how during the early twentieth century the role of women and their positions of power in the family, the farm, and rural America as a whole began to change and expand both dramatically and exponentially. And part of that change was driven by the farm bureau and home bureau movements.

As I researched and wrote, it became clear to me that women’s participation in the farm bureau movement was not a simple story. The patterns of how female participants built organizations, used science, and made  claims to authority and power varied. The fact that women had even established home bureaus in some states had been overlooked or marginalized. These home bureaus mostly functioned as separate entities (although they had links to the farm bureau) and provided a strong home base for home demonstration agents. The home bureau institutions allowed women to claim a particular kind of authority that rested on an ideology of separate spheres. In addition, the science of home economics often reinforced a separate spheres ideology that idealized women as homemakers and consumers and men as farmers and producers. Some female members accepted separate spheres ideology and drew on home economics science to bolster authority that reached from the home into the community. This provided a certain amount of limited power.

Yet, I found that female participants in the bureau movement employed a variety of organizational, scientific, and rhetorical strategies. They selectively and strategically juggled gender ideologies. Some joined the farm bureau themselves. In some states, instead of forming home bureaus, participants formed women’s auxiliaries that were subsumed under the local farm bureaus. This structuring both imposed limitations and offered advantages in different ways than did the home bureaus. Moreover, some female members rejected separate spheres ideology and claimed that they had important roles as producers, partners on the farm, and citizens of the agricultural realm. In this perspective, separate spheres ideology  contradicted so-called traditional patterns of rural life where women had shared in agricultural work or been responsible for production important to the household economy. In holding on to productive roles, women sought to gain an alternative source of authority on the farm and in public life.

There was a stark political dimension to these developments. Through the Extension Services, the state had a hand in attempting to prescribe appropriate roles for rural men and women. The farm bureaus and home bureaus, though private voluntary organizations, worked with the Extension Services of the United States Department of Agriculture to demonstrate scientific information to Bureau members. As a whole, this book reveals the evolving relationship among gender, the state, scientific knowledge, and rural citizens at the grassroots level.


In completing this book, I gained a greater awareness of how my thinking about rural life as I grew up was fundamentally gendered, a result of cultural conditioning. I thought of the farm and farm work primarily as my father’s domain. Indeed, my whole sense of heritage was predicated on connections I drew between males and farming. It was my father and his family’s longstanding farming tradition that I connected to and which shaped my constructions of the past. My mother grew up in a town and knew little—so I thought—of the ways of agricultural work. Instead she focused her energies on raising a family. I heard often the joke about my “poor dad,” the farmer who had four girls and no sons to take over. I am not certain how my sisters felt about that, except they always thought of themselves as “tomboys” who helped out Dad.

And yet, after my Dad passed, my Mom took over managing the farm, which she had not previously done visibly at any level. At 82 she started talking about rotation, soil conservation, fencing, and farm records. It was almost completely seamless—as if she had been doing it all along. She enjoyed delving into farm talk and making decisions about how the farm would be run. It was a type of authority that she had never fully held. I had no idea that she had any notion of the mechanics of running a farm, much less all the USDA programs. Despite being an academic studying the empowerment of women in agriculture, I had unintentionally discounted my own mother’s ability to understand and run a farm. Before completing this book, I was unable to see how sharply gender ideologies had shaped my own family.

I continue to rewrite the past and future, then, as I think about this book and its topics. I like to think that I have made a contribution to understanding the incremental changes in daily life that some women and farm families experienced one hundred or so years ago. But in addition, the process of completing it has taught me how to explore my own subjectivity in more sophisticated ways. I understand, now, that I am constantly reconstituting my past, and that that reconstitution affects my historical work. As a result of my work on this book, I have gained new sensitivity to my own relationship to gender constructions on the farm. And so, though the book is published, it is never really finished.


“This is all the home I now have”: Deserted and Widowed Homesteaders

“This is all the home I now have”: Deserted and Widowed Homesteaders

Rebecca S. Wingo, Macalaster College

9780803296794Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History is a co-authored book by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo. Their book is now available through Amazon and the University of Nebraska Press. The authors encourage you to visit their website to explore what they advance as new understandings of the Homestead Act that challenge and provide nuance to some of the accepted scholarship about the law. There you will also find their data, maps, and graphs of the network of witnesses in each township. The following is an adaptation of their findings on deserted and widowed women homesteaders in Nebraska presented by Rebecca S. Wingo at the Western History Association conference in November 2017.





Edward Wells, a blacksmith in Broken Bow, Nebraska, fell ill in early December 1887, the same month he was scheduled to finalize his homestead claim. On December 5th his two witnesses appeared at the land office during his scheduled appointment to testify that he was unable to make the hearing. Abner Brown stated of Edward, “He now requires constant daily nursing—he is not able to lie down and sleep but must sit in a chair to sleep—cannot wear anything but large slippers on his feet.” The land agent pushed the hearing back until December 15th. In his stead, his wife Delila Wells appeared and testified that her husband had died. Her testimony was not enough. Her witnesses had to verify her statement. Thomas Parrott, a witness and boarder on the Wells’ property, said that he,

knows from personal knowledge that the Claimant said Edward J. Wells is now dead, that he was personally present in the house of said Claimant on above described land at the time of the death of said claimant – that said claimant died sitting in a chair, at 3 o’clk and 15 minutes P.M. on Friday, December 9th A.D. 1887 in the said house on their said land–that he has been personally acquainted with said Edward J. Wells since the year 1881 and that he is positive, and cannot be mistaken, that the person whom he saw die as aforesaid was the identical person who made original Homestead Entry No. 9497.

When Wells signed her “X” on her final claim, the land agent signed the final affidavit “Edward J. Wells by Delila Wells his wife,” but then smudged out “wife” and wrote “widow” instead.

The last days of Edward’s life were hard on Wells and complicated even more by the necessity of complying with the General Land Office’s bureaucratic timeframes and appointments. Because of her clear hardship, Wells’s male neighbors and friends came together to help finalize her claim. Her testimony speaks to determination and cooperation as well as sadness. When asked about her residency on the land, she responded, “Actual & continuous—Have had no other home or place to live.” She continued, “I want this land for my own personal home—this is all the home I now have.”[1]

wingo map
Map of the townships in Custer and Dawes counties that comprise the Study Area. Image by Katie Nieland.

             Wells was one of 64 women in our study area who proved up their homestead claims and received title to their land. They comprised 10.3 percent of all study area homesteaders, which is a percentage roughly on par with other samples of women homesteaders across the West.[2] Our study area included 621 homesteaders in ten townships in Custer and Dawes counties, Nebraska, where the majority of the land transferred from the public domain via homesteading. That said, there were more than 64 women using the Homestead Act to build homes, farms, and futures. There were 407 married male homesteaders, or, 407 other women homesteaders not counted because of nineteenth-century conventions. We know from many other accounts that wives were critical to the success of homesteads; their income from sales of butter and eggs often saved the family from starvation when the crops failed or were destroyed. In many cases they also joined men in the heavier work in the fields.[3] While this blog focuses on a few of the 64 women who homesteaded in their own names, we should not lose sight of the larger group of married women who also struggled to succeed at homesteading.

And among those 64 women, widowed and deserted women homesteaders occupied a strange legal space, and—like Wells—often relied on cooperation and support from male neighbors. Within our Study Area, the local community often rallied to support nontraditional women’s homestead claims, particularly inheritance and desertion. However, these women also helped each other in interesting ways.


cramer app
A page of Elizabeth Cramer’s application of final proof at the North Platte Land Office. Image courtesy of

Inheritance cases like Delila Wells’—whose witnesses had to verify her claim that her husband was indeed dead—were not all that unique. For example, Elizabeth Cramer’s husband died in October 1886, and approximately one year later she sought to prove up the inherited claim. Her statement and those of her witnesses pertained to her deceased husband, not to her own right to the claim. Cramer further had to prove to the Land Office that she was in fact the widow of Paul Cramer. One of her witnesses testified when asked, “Have known her for years. Is the person she claims to be.” Complicating matters, she was unable to reach the land office on her scheduled date due to a severe storm, provoking yet another sworn statement from her witnesses validating her delay. Without the testimony of her neighbors as to her identity, intent of claim, and reason for her tardiness, she may well have lost her land.[4]

cramer testimony
Elizabeth Cramer’s sworn testimony upon final proof at the North Platte Land Office. Image courtesy of


Cramer identified her profession as “Keeping house & farming for self alone,” but we also catch a glimpse of the importance of her community: she made additional money after her husband died keeping house for a neighbor. During her time of need, her neighbors ensured her a steady income and her right to the homestead. As inheritance cases like Cramer and Wells demonstrate, support from neighbors and others in the local area was often crucial for a claimant to secure her land patents.

Desertion occurred in only two instances within our Study Area. These women had trouble asserting a right to the land because of both misinformation and legal barriers. They, like their widowed counterparts, relied on the advocacy of their male neighbors to secure their patents. For example, Mary Candee and her husband, Russell, built their homestead in Dawes County in 1887. Twenty-seven years old at the time, Candee found herself running the homestead alone after Russell abandoned her and their four children in April 1891. Candee continued to reside on the land and make improvements in compliance with the law, but she failed to understand the legal nuances of the time limits to file.

candee proof

Mary Candee’s Proof of Posting. Image courtesy of

Candee knew that without finalization, her husband’s claim to the land expired after seven years. She wrongly concluded that she had to wait until Russell’s claim expired to re-file on the land, then wait five more years to prove-up and earn the title in her own name. That would total 13 years of continuous residency with no title to show for it. According to the law, however, if she could simultaneously demonstrate her husband’s failure to prove-up and her own success, she could count all her years toward her own claim. This stipulation meant that her claim would expire when Russell’s did—in 1894 instead of 1899 like she believed. Candee nearly missed her window. She realized this only in the seventh year. Two men—Lincoln and William Shove—testified on her behalf that her residence was continuous since 1887, her husband did indeed desert her and her children, and her improvements were legitimately hers alone. Candee undeniably worked hard to improve her claim, which included a buggy shed, cave, frame barn, hen house, and log house worth approximately $350. Without the support of her neighbors and the leniency of the land agent, however, Candee easily could have surpassed the time limit to file, and lost the land and her improvements to another settler.[5]

In the other desertion case, Mary Steinman of Custer County was left with an inherited homestead and four children to care for after her husband, William Gardner, died in 1881. She remarried to Jacob Steinman in 1882. In 1883 Jacob abandoned her, and thanks to 19th century law, Jacob’s name was now on the claim. Not to be stymied by two marriage failures (although I’m sure William didn’t mean to die), Steinman swore an affidavit at the Land Office on her own behalf: “For the last two years my husband…has deserted me and has not contributed to myself or family.” Interestingly, her two witnesses both testified that she was “formerly” the wife of Jacob, and further testified to her status as “head of a family,” shifting her claim status from Widow/Remarried/Abandoned to Head of Household in order to prevent Jacob from returning to claim the property. In other words, her neighbors helped her accomplish a legal status that she would otherwise have been denied.  Steinman’s case demonstrates not only the power of community, but also the necessity of it.[6]

steinman witneses

Testimony of one of Steinman’s witnesses that she is the “head of a family.” Image courtesy of

There’s a thread throughout the examples I just gave about the importance of men in women’s homesteading. Just marinate in that irony for a second. Our data, however, shows that women were intentionally pushing forward their own social and legal liberation through the act of witnessing. Out of 557 male claimants, only in two instances did men use women as witnesses. Women, though, called upon other women as witnesses at over ten times the rate as men. With little exception, women witnesses provided the same information in the same vernacular as male witnesses, leaving no discernable difference between male and female testimony. Whether or not to use a male or female witness would seem to have been decided by social norms, or perhaps the preferences of the local land agents.


Though women were rarely listed as possible witnesses, and even more rarely called to testify, Dawes County contains the only instance in which women serve as both of the witnesses, in Josephine Lane’s claim. They were all widows. Lane asked Martha Bowdish and Ellen Abbott to testify on her behalf, and used them rather than the two men listed in her Proof-of-Posting. Bowdish and Abbott testified on behalf of Julius, Lane’s husband who had died on April 19, 1891, before he could finalize his claim. The witnesses discussed “his” improvements (worth $1500) for “his” family on “his” land. Rather than acknowledging the property as inherited by Lane, the women gave testimony for the deceased. What’s more interesting is that at the time of each of their proofs, Bowdish, Abbott, and Lane had geographically closer male neighbors. They bypassed them in favor of choosing their female friends nearby.

Delila Wells’ words are haunting: “This is all the home I now have.” But for some women, the homestead was more than a home. It was a place to challenge the status quo and their own place in it. The use of women as witnesses in the claim process, even though rare, indicates social as well as legal change, spurred on by women, for women. Women homesteaders—not just those who claimed land in their own names—often formed the heart of social activity on the Great Plains, but they hardly occupied an equal place in the legal sphere. And that went double for widowed and deserted women, many of whom started the process as part of a married partnership. Women pressed the bounds of imposed limitations with and sometimes without the help of their male counterparts. The women homesteaders in the Study Area also press the bounds of current homesteading scholarship, suggesting that widowed women may have more commonly taken advantage of a presumed single woman’s law than previously thought.


[1] Delila Wells, Homestead Records: North Platte Land Office, Township 17N, Range 24W, Section 33, Digital Archive, accessed June 26, 2014,

[2] See in particular, Sheryll Patterson-Black, “Women Homesteaders on the Great Plains Frontier,” Frontiers 1 (Spring 1976): 67-88; Elaine Lindgren, Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota (University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 52; and Paula Bauman, “Single Women Homesteaders in Wyoming, 1880-1930,” Annals of Wyoming 58 (Spring 1986): 39-53.

[3] On the importance of the homesteader’s wife’s work, see Barbara Handy-Marchello, Women of the Northern Plains: Gender and Settlement on the Homestead Frontier, 1870-1930 (St. Paul: Minnesota State Historical Society, 2005), Chapter 3.

[4] Elizabeth Cramer, Homestead Records: North Platte Land Office, Township 19N, Range 21W, Section 28, Digital Archive, accessed June 26, 2014,

[5] Mary Candee, Homestead Records: Alliance Land Office, Township 30N, Range 51W, Section 35, Digital Archive, accessed June 26, 2014,

[6] Mary E. Steinman, Homestead Records: North Platte Land Office, Township 17N, Range 24W, Section 31, Digital Archive, accessed June 26, 2014,

Gender and the Routledge History of Rural America: An Editor’s Point of View

Gender and the Routledge History of Rural America:

An Editor’s Point of View

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, Iowa State University

When I proposed the Routledge History of Rural America, my desire was to edit a book that provided a state-of-the-art view of the topic.  I wanted for the book to reflect, as much as possible, the broad range of material now available on rural American history.  As such, it was very important to me that it provide, wherever possible, a healthy dollop of the history of rural women.  Of course, my experience with rural women’s history dates back to a time when the literature was very, very thin.  My first introduction to the topic was in a seminar Joan Jensen taught while visiting the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 1988.  She told us that it was the first graduate level course on rural women’s history taught in the U.S., and I believe it.  There was very little literature from which she could draw, and the historiographic papers we wrote required that we travel a very great (historical) distance in the literature to find enough material.  My paper was on rural women and migration, and I had to dip back into the 1940s in order to find enough material.

In The Routledge History, the authors of the chapters have included discussions of gender wherever appropriate, and there is a chapter dedicated to rural women’s history, written by Jenny Barker Devine.  She draws on a vast array of both primary and secondary materials in order to tell a story about rural women that spans generations and regions.  In my own chapter on rural childhood, I have written it as the story of both boys and girls, since gender shaped expectations of child life to a degree that is quite foreign to most of us living in the early 21st century.  At the same time, gender was not always destiny in the way that we might think that it was.  My own grandmother, Elsie Swafford Riney, was the first of six children.  She was born in 1910.  Her sisters, twins, arrived in 1913, and her brothers, also twins, arrived in 1916.  Another sister was born many years later.  Because of her place in the birth order, she became her father’s “hired man,” working in the fields in addition to helping her mother with housework.  Girls might do the work of boys, if circumstances required it.  In her family, the circumstances required that a girl act as a boy, until the boys were old enough to work alongside their father.


Mother and child for Pam R-K
Tenant farmers, Mrs. Glen Cook and husband, Little Sioux Township, Woodbury County, IA. Photograph by Russell Lee, December 1936.

The illustration for the cover (chosen with more than a little help from the editorial staff and friends), literally has a woman at its center.  An FSA photograph from Great Depression Iowa, it shows a farm family, mother, father, little boy, and toddler girl, posed at the door of their home.  The woman is front and center, holding her daughter, with her washing machine prominently displayed.  She wears a dress that she probably made, and her daughter also wears a homemade dress.  This farm was as much her work as her husband’s, and this photograph depicts a reality I want The Routledge History of Rural America to convey.

Going Cage Free: Using Rural History in the Classroom

Going Cage Free: Using Rural History in the Classroom

Margaret Weber, Iowa State University

Reblogged from H-AmStdy

Whenever I tell people that I am a rural historian, most stare blankly back at me. More than one student has adopted a zombie-like air, with glazed eyes and a vacant expression usually reserved for the most boring of subjects. My next question, “what does it mean to be rural,” is usually met with that dreadly black hole of silence instructors fear so much. This reaction is predictable, primarily because of modern America’s own disconnect with rurality. Despite enjoying a bounty of cheap food and fiber, most of us deal with rural life only in the most tangential of ways. Americans, including many instructors, are essentially caged in by their own assumptions, unable to connect with or grasp the wider importance of rural spaces in the nation’s narrative.  After all, only twenty percent of Americans today live in rural spaces. Whereas over forty percent of Americans engaged in agricultural production in 1900, a mere two percent do so in 2017. When American popular culture depicts rurality, the result is more likely to be dueling stereotypes than anything of real substance. Sometimes people will wax nostalgic about a non-existent idyllic rural past. Others are more content to peddle clichés of ignorant and inbred hicks. But the reality of rural life and its past is far more complex and engaging than these tropes could ever convey.

Perhaps no other aspect of American society has undergone such a dramatic transformation and yet received so little attention in the halls of America’s universities. Despite revolutionary changes to rural communities since the Civil War, most of American rural history has been confined to a few well-trodden topics (i.e. Populism) or ignored completely. This is partly due to the fact that ruralness itself is difficult to define. Does rurality merely boil down to population numbers? Or must it be associated with the more traditional professions of farming, hunting, herding, lumbering or mining? Maybe rural America’s association with specific regions have limited American understanding? Or perhaps cultural assumptions about who embodies the rural (white, cis-gendered, traditional men) have left further exploration daunting? This and other ambiguities have limited the incorporation of rural history in the classroom. Luckily, recent works within the field offer opportunities to reintroduce this history to students. Books covering issues of globalization, gender and sexual identity, state control and resistance, racial justice, perceptions of food and environment, and many other topics have enriched the recent historiography of rural America.

212-265-product_largetomediumimageEasily one of the most prominent themes explored in this historiography is the transformation of agriculture within the global political economy. Agriculture has always been a transnational enterprise. However, interaction between different ecologies, foods, and ideas accelerated in the twentieth century, intertwining peoples and places across vastly different environments. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is explored in Sterling Evans’ Bound in Twine (2013). Recounting the history of binder twine, Evans traces the emerging dual dependency (“a henequen-wheat complex”) between Mexico, the United States, and Canada. 575ee2bfb0fa2a5d47945f1bfd12dd91By demonstrating these environmental and economic connections, students are shown the concrete causes and effects of globalization. In a similar vein, Edward Dallam Melillo’s Strangers on Familiar Soil (2015) determines how parallel environmental conditions in Chile and California created deep cultural and agricultural connections between these distant regions. Melillo’s book can challenge students to rethink their assumptions about borderlands and how those boundaries do not necessarily have to be physically connecting to shape environmental systems. For example, his discussion of nitrate, a chemical mined in Chile and utilized in California’s agriculture, displays how the desire for this commodity influenced labor structures in both places. 9780691165202_0Studying the environmental links between the United States and Mexico, Tore Olsson’s Agrarian Crossings (2017) discusses how institutional efforts to reshape the US and Mexican countryside in the early twentieth century had wider consequences for North America’s agricultural development. All of these works showcase the critical role agriculture played in the development of global relations in the western hemisphere. Professors interested in demonstrating the interplay between the environment and the growth of capitalism or discussing diplomatic forces on a transnational level will find rural history to be a strong resource.

9780674032910-usOther scholars from a variety of directions have also shown how actions in rural spaces have widespread consequences for the rest of the nation. Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh: A Perishable History (2010) outlines the conception of “freshness” in society, showing how different ideas of health, food, and technology, along with a growing conceptual divide between urban and rural, fundamentally changed the way people viewed food production and consumption. Freidberg’s book is an excellent example of how rural and urban society interact and influence social perception food and health. Its emphasis on changing cultural conceptions of freshness can demonstrate how fluid culture and society actually are and the ways technology influences changing cultural ideas. While Fresh centers on food, other recent works emphasize the wider political ramifications of rural political agency on the rest of the nation. 51lmn3xmkal-_sx333_bo1204203200_Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision (2007) challenges the dominant narrative of the American Populist Movement. Instead of describing the Populist as reactionaries angered by a changing economic system, Postel argues that this group actually envisioned a reformed society that met the needs of everyone. His chronicle of this thoroughly modern group of progressives is a tool for teaching new perspectives on old subjects. Finally, Shane Hamilton and his various works on food, policy, and politics also underscore how rural people influenced America’s political and economic development since the Second World War. 91vfwtcfftlHis book Trucking Country (2008), which connects the advent of free-market conservatism with the development of the rural trucking industry, provides another opportunity to study the rise of new conservative ideology and the culture wars it sparked during the 1980s and 1990s. Hamilton’s monograph can help history instructors present a more complex view of emerging political rhetoric in the twentieth century by demonstrating how political movements can originate from popular unrest among overlooked groups of people. Each of these scholars shows how growing socio-economic pressure on rural communities influenced American consumerism and politics in the twentieth century. They also invite classroom discussion on historical agency and the role all Americans play in changing the nation.

barkerdevine_webThe study of twentieth century history is known for its greater focus on identity and societal interactions on cultural, ideological, and social levels. Historians have recognized complexity in the bonds between peoples, giving voice to those once deemed unimportant, and exploring the diverging methods of various social movements. Yet many scholars fail to extend this understanding of historical intricacy and social change to rural America, lingering in what scholar Colin Johnson calls the “metro-normative gaze.” That is why books that challenge this oversight are so valuable for rural history in the twentieth century and should be further incorporated in our classrooms.

41vhobezvclThe study of rural identity and place has been one of the most vibrant areas of research in the last decade, with books complicating America’s oversimplified perception of the countryside. Jenny Barker Devine’s On Behalf of the Family Farm (2013) considers the action and ideology of rural women in postwar America within a feminist framework. This challenges students’ basic assumptions about the urban origins of social movements in the mid-twentieth century while also complicating the picture of American feminism. 15441Colin Johnson’s Just Queer Folks (2013) examines gender non-conformity and sexuality in early twentieth-century rural America. Both Johnson’s book and Gabriel Rosenberg’s The 4-H Harvest (2015) discuss how the state attempted to impose rigid conceptions of hetero-normativity on rural spaces. By exposing students to queerness in rural America, these histories reveal a surprisingly complicated version of rural spaces and the ways in which urban outreach has stifled, rather than enlightened, the countryside.

41u8kqtw-pl-_ac_us218_Along with gender and sexuality, other scholars have used the lenses of race, class, ethnicity, borderlands, and migration to investigate rural divisions of labor and life. Both of Cindy Hahamovitch’s books (The Fruits of Their Labor [1997] and the more recent No Man’s Land [2011]) explore the interactions of agricultural institutions, migrant labor, oppression, and power. Each book also sheds light on the hidden costs of America’s modern foodways, asking readers to examine their own role in food production and consumption. These socio-economic costs, both on the human actors and wider labor networks, are also a major theme in Greta de Jong’s You Can’t Eat Freedom (2016), which traces the connections between Black labor displacement and social activism in the South in the postwar period. 51pbfuuiv4l-_sx330_bo1204203200_Both Hahamovitch and de Jong expose how changes in rural spaces shaped the global political economy and socio-cultural experiences of all of those involved. Each one of these works adds much needed nuance to our conceptions of rurality. They all demonstrate a level of complexity of “the rural” that can challenge urban and even rural students to think beyond their basic assumptions and experiences. All offer revisions to a historical narrative that places agency solely in the hands of urban peoples. Ultimately, all of this scholarship can reemphasize to students one aspect of the most transformative change of the twentieth century: the transition from traditional agrarianism to a highly industrial and capitalistic food and fiber system.

On the surface, the rural ideal looks simple: white, male, robustly independent, and virtuous in the vein of the Jeffersonian tradition. This is the image that is often presented to me when I ask my students to describe what a rural person looks like, in spite of the fact they themselves are a diverse group of people who often come from a diverse range of rural spaces.

Yet, this suggestion of homogeneity is a false image. It is true that rural people live in sparsely populated areas and are often involved in the production of commodities, but their other shared characteristics are much more difficult to identify. Such factors as cultural values, community configuration, and the organization of the political economy (not to mention other local features) make finding commonalities across rural people and communities extremely difficult. What makes the study of rural identity so interesting is the process of understanding why we have such a simplistic view of rural life and pulling back the layers of this misperception for students to see. My own students’ understanding from the first time I ask about rurality to the last exhibits a noticeable increase in critical thinking and an understanding of history.

So, to instructors who wish to broaden the scope of their American history classroom I say: go cage-free.  What you can explore in an urban setting you can also do in rural areas; what you teach about labor, gender, politics, culture, and environmental history, you can teach about rural history. The history of rural spaces is not just a parallel to events taking place in urban areas. Instead, it is an essential component of understanding our interconnected past and adding to our future.



Recommended Readings:

Anderson, J.L.. Industrializing the Corn Belt: Agriculture, Technology, and Environment, 1945-1972. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.

Cunfer, Geoff. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005.

Danbom, David B.. Born in the Country: A History of Rural America. 2nd ed. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Finlay, Mark. Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Fitzgerald, Deborah. Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Gilbert, Jess. Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2015.

Osterud, Grey. Putting the Barn before the House: Women and Family Farming in Early Twentieth-Century New York. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Petty, Adrienne. Standing Their Ground: Small Farmers in North Carolina Since the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Riney-Kehrberg, Pamela, Edited by. The Routledge History of Rural America. New York: Routledge, 2016..

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.



Jennifer Earles, Frostburg State University

Inclusivity may be the mantra of many fourth-wave feminists when it comes to trans women’s voices and experiences; however, when TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) sentiments started showing up online, these practices have been said to produce “…the most bitter battle in the LGBT movement today” (Wente 2014).

But, these TERF wars are nothing new and certainly represent some deep-seated ideas about gender, sex, and bodies within mainstream feminism. Even before the invention of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, radical and lesbian feminists practiced exclusion within communities designed for “womyn-born women” or “women who were born as women, who have lived their entire experience as women, and who identify as women” (Vogel 2014).

And, those women who practiced lesbian separatism or the everyday, deliberate disconnection by women from men and from male-dominated institutions, relationships, and activities (Frye 1983), often flocked to rural areas in Alabama, Florida, and other states where land was abundant. These communities became a way for lesbians and radical feminists to find each other and mobilize in spaces where they were often unwelcomed.

But, as radical-identified feminists work toward recognition, agency, and the preservation of lesbian spaces, how do members differently determine gender for insiders and outsiders in order to preserve a particular kind of feminism? These exclusionary practices certainly have implications for trans inclusion, but also for how feminists hold tight to the logic of a gender binary and public narratives about essentialism, biology, and heterosexuality.


A Sociologist Out of Water…

As a trained sociologist, I am often confronted with my discipline’s reluctance to delve into the past. Much of our research is about the present with little indication of how current meanings and practices stem from historical ones. But, as feminists continue to fight over the same issues again and again, I would argue that it is our obligation to see how these exclusionary sentiments developed over time. After all, this knowledge could produce some insight as to how we can move forward.

Indeed, both lesbians and trans women can experience contradictory embodiment by attempting to live as either straight or as a man – to remain invisible under heteronormativity. But, by seeking memberships in communities, cisgender lesbians and trans women are trying to gain recognition of their identities and bodies in whatever terms are possible for that particular time and space (Connell 2009).

In this way, doing gender or finding other lesbians or trans women becomes more about historical and social solidarity and organizing than individual identity. But, feminist communities also do the work of figuring out how to determine gender for insiders and outsiders (Westbrook and Schilt 2014). And, while both cis lesbians and trans women struggle against invisibility and contradictory embodiment, feminist literature reveals the troubled relationship between radical feminism and trans women (Connell 2012).

With that, I headed to my university’s archives to see what I could find out about a local feminist separatist community that thrived for over 20 years. How did they last as long as they did? And, why did they eventually dismantle? The answer lies in their notions about gendered bodies and some members’ fervent refusal to admit trans women into the community.

With that in mind, my research is based on the printed newsletters collectively written by self-identified radical feminists in Florida (dates 05/1983 to 04/2013: 3,554 pages). In 1982, they began meeting monthly in what they called Salons, named after the cultural and intellectual collectives of Revolutionary France.

Within the first year, Salon feminists formed the collective, Women’s Energy Bank (WEB), and began publishing their newsletter, Womyn’s Words. Over the years, the women grew together to incorporate consensus decision-making, nonviolent conflict resolution, and feminist practices and activism. They held Salon programs about coming and being out, body image, fat oppression, ageism, sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, journal writing and even financial planning, technical skills, substance, addiction, relationship challenges, health, art, history, and BDSM (bondage, dominance/submission, sadomasochism). Together, they endeavored to create a special place just for lesbians.

At its height, the mailing list was over 250 subscribers, designed specifically for “womyn-born women.” And, if patriarchy was the problem, then separatism was the answer as lesbians laid claim to physical and textual spaces in forging networks of political and cultural resistance.


“The Penis Police”: Employing Biology-Based Determinations in Lesbian Spaces

Salon feminists developed a woman-centered space and agentic embodiment by rewriting “herstory” to include figures like Sappho and images of powerful Goddesses. However, like all gender-segregated spaces, women-only spaces rest on and reproduce an idea of a gender binary (Lorber 1993).

Through Womyn’s Words, Salon feminists organized their local feminist activities by nominating an official “penis police” to ensure no images of men appeared in the newsletter. Even before trans women attempted to enter this space, biology-based criteria for membership perpetuated ideas about who was a woman and the kind of feminism that centered on bodies and power.

While this helped cis lesbians recognize one another, it also drew seemingly impermeable boundaries around this space and locally reproduced those ideological codes that influenced how members talked about their encounters with perceived outsiders.

To be sure, these membership criteria were based on both actual and imagined scenarios about women’s experiences in public spaces. Women are much more likely to experience sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and sexual harassment by men than the other way around (May et al. 2010). Fear in public spaces negatively impacts women’s lives and, even when the danger is low, the manifestation of gender in everyday life puts women on edge.

I do not take this lightly. It is, after all, why women are expected to adhere to gendered expectation that restrict their public interactions and why feminist mobilization strategies and spaces are important. But, by connecting feminists’ use of imagined scenarios with how they determine gender, we can see how some members essentially conflate the identities and bodies of cis men and trans women to exclude.

For instance, in a Womyn’s Words article that made the case for women-only spaces, one member recounted her experiences with an “aggressive” and “violent” man at a women’s cultural event. She wrote, “[T]he violence… emanates from his prick… I am using the word ‘prick’ not as an ‘obscenity’… but to emphasize the fact that his violence stems from his maleness, not from anywhere else” – M. (WEB September 1987).

Indeed, narratives about women’s vulnerability as “men rape, attack, kill womyn everyday…” seemed to prompt the need for “womyn [to] stop them” before they “annihilate us all” – M. (WEB September 1987). In this case, penises and, subsequently males assigned at birth in general, were seen as a constant threat to women. This idea also reinforces the construction of heterosexual male desire as uncontrollable and dangerous.

However, in the end, what people are protecting is not just women, but the public narratives about essentialism and heterosexuality and the logic of binary genders.


Ideological Collisions: Developing Gender Policies in Feminist Spaces

In February 2002, a headline appeared in Womyn’s Words: “Everything About Gender You Always Wanted to Know: But Didn’t Even Know How To Ask.” What was supposed to be a regular monthly forum with trans women signaled the beginning of the end for Salon. One member wrote:



For the past five of six Salons, Salon has not provided a “womyn only space”… Womyn, Lesbians, in particular, are feeling threatened in their own private, sacred space. Why? Because M 2 F Trans are attending Salon. . . . We are womyn. . . Yet we are being forced to capitulate in our own space, to the patriarchy! Trans who were born men are once again asking womyn to accept them . . . to nurture them . . . to take them in . . . to socialize . . . to listen to their problems. . . .Womyn born womyn do not have much in common with M 2 F trans. We cannot possibly share the same herstories. We cannot possibly share the terrors of servitude, ownership, and rape with trans who were born men. We cannot share the pain and joy of childbirth and motherhood. A male birth and upbringing, experiences, thought processes, hair, skin and egos are NOT ours and can never be ours! – C.L. (WEB April 2002).

While some questioned how some determined gender through bodies, other Salon feminists’ fear of invisibility in the local space amplified notions of biology and socialization so that all people who were assigned male at birth were suspect. Stories became embedded with meanings about biology and identity to inform feelings of ownership over this space. As a result, some used perceived genitalia and imagined situations to shore up the boundaries of this feminist community. This created a moment of ideological collision and gender panic.

For C.L. (above) and others, asserting women’s weakness in the face of heterosexuality was an attempt to re-establish boundaries. While these imagined scenarios worked to separate insiders from outsiders, it also seemed to unravel members’ work in re-writing a herstory of the strong and powerful lesbian. Salon feminists relied on narratives about how men were helpless in their socialization to commit violence and about how women were also just as helpless to nurture. Likewise, trans women were at the mercy of recognition by cis women.

As another member wrote, “Why not limit our membership at all?… We could feature a new group of people every month – recently released male parolees, for instance. They need support… Or, how about drug addicts?” – C.B. (WEB April 2002). If segregation depends on the binary separation of bodies, then women-only spaces also rest on the assumption of difference based on capabilities and interests or the connection between “egos” or personalities and “hair” and “skin” or physicalities. During times of gender panic, men become uniquely terrifying. And by rejecting trans women’s gender claims, Salon feminists not only claimed that “Trans are not Lesbians” – H. (WEB May 2002), but as heterosexual cis “men in dresses” (J., WEB May 2002) who are seeking membership for nefarious purposes.


female background


The Un-unravelable Thread: Embedded Spaces and Feminist Negotiations

Given the embeddedness of perceived biology and identity in the newsletter and it is the overarching narrative’s dependence on opposition in achieving recognition and embodiment, this community was ultimately unsustainable under the changing ideas about feminism and inclusivity.

Members continued to collide in how they determined gender and in how trans women did or did not fit into the community. In November 2002, a Salon featuring trans women was cancelled due to divisiveness within WEB. A few months later, one member wrote, “…I cannot, in good conscious, continue to ask [trans women] to make that lonely walk to the womyn-born women only drinking fountain” (WEB January 2003).

After that, Salon meetings became less and less frequent until a few years later, in 2006, feminists stopped meeting all together. After that, Womyn’s Words became more about the broader LGBT community. The newsletter was published until 2013.

 By relying on the logic of a binary and the public narratives of gender, essentialism, and heterosexuality, feminists uphold the sex/gender/(hetero)sexuality system by disseminating those ideological codes that paint women as vulnerable and men as predatory.

And, as we move from rural to online spaces, feminists continue to play the part of the “penis police” using imagined scenarios in order to exclude trans women and potential feminist allies. This is important for situating the body in any sociological analysis. As gender, essentialism, and heterosexuality continue to inform how these spaces are constructed, it is no wonder that trans-women’s membership is problematic.

The Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, a View into the Past

The Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, a View into the Past

 Sally Dwyer-McNulty, Marist College

The Catholic Worker Movement Collection is held at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Beyond Marquette’s vast repository, however, there are some Catholic Worker artifacts that could never be stored in a traditional archive. And, as luck would have it, the “document” I was most eager to examine, was not far from my home in upstate New York. It was the farm that Dorothy Day purchased in Tivoli, New York in 1964. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin launched the Catholic Worker Movement in response to the Great Depression in 1933. They used The Catholic Worker newspaper to communicate the value of voluntary poverty and mutual aid, and they relied on their Houses of Hospitality, and various farms to live out their values with other likeminded individuals and those in need. Tivoli, was the location of one such farm.[1]

There are few detailed accounts of the Tivoli Farm, but what has been recorded, is not very favorable. Oral histories and reminiscences note the farm’s beauty, but most historians conclude that it was a chaotic residence, which was often overwhelmed by non-contributing visitors.[2] Ultimately the farm community could not be sustained. Although the Farm has been closed for almost 40 years, I wondered what I might learn about its attraction and demise by simply walking through the property and observing the land and buildings. The present owners, kindly agreed to let me visit, and I took an afternoon to explore the grounds and think about what brought Day to Tivoli and the significance of this location.

According to Day’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, not long after learning of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Day saw an advertisement for an 87 acre farm “on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River,” in Tivoli, NY, just 100 miles north of New York City. The property was “suitable for a religious group,” and included a thirty-two room boarding facility, a 19th century mansion, and a carriage house. The mansion also had a swimming pool.[3] Upon visiting the grounds, Day saw a plaque with the words “Beata Maria” or Blessed Maria prominently displayed on the mansion. All the signs were there for Day: ample space for a new farm and plenty of rooms for workers and guests, “a stream of living water”, and a reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus.[4] Day decided to use the proceeds from the sale of another property on Staten Island to put a down payment on the Tivoli Farm.

Bob Fitch, Catholic Worker Farm
Bob Fitch, Catholic Worker Farm, Tivoli, New York 1968. Dorothy Day and Stanley Vishnewski, a volunteer since the age of 17. Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

Scholars tend to associate the establishment of Catholic Worker farms with Peter Maurin, Day’s “cradle-Catholic” mentor and partner in establishing the Houses of Hospitality and newspaper. Maurin was born to a farming family in Langeudoc, France in 1877. He spent time in a religious community, as a Christian Brother, but left the order in search of a different model of Catholic service. Influenced by decentralist agrarians such as Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, along with monks of the Benedictine Order, Maurin imagined creating an integrated community of “cult, culture, and cultivation” where scholars and workers could distance themselves from the capitalist system and come together to learn from each other and build a community with a foundation of work and prayer.[5] The Catholic Worker established farms on Staten Island, New York; in Easton, Pennsylvania; and in Newburgh, New York. Maurin appeared to be the strongest advocate of combining farm communes with their New York City efforts.[6] Nevertheless, by the time Day bought the Tivoli property in 1964, Maurin had been dead for 14 years. Tivoli was her first independent farming venture.

It’s unclear if Day knew that Tivoli had, itself, been founded as a kind of utopian inspired community at the end of the 18th century, but perhaps the street that intersected her future property, “Friendship Street” gave her some indication of its intentional origins.[7]  Back in 1795, Frenchman and successful New York City merchant, Peter DeLabigarre, purchased 248 acres along the banks of the Hudson River in Upper Red Hook and married the daughter of a prominent Hudson Valley family, Margaret Beekman.[8] DeLabigarre chose the name “Tivoli” for his ideal community after the picturesque town of Tivoli in central Italy.[9] According to a copper engraving of his community, commissioned by DeLabigarre, he imagined “a gridiron of house lots and sixty foot streets” as well as “a market and docks along the river and, on higher land a community park or ‘pleasure ground.’”[10] The community, as other street names indicate, would promote “Commerce, Plenty, Peace, Liberty, and Friendship.”[11] By 1807, however, DeLabigarre was bankrupt and his utopian dream ended.[12]

The Tivoli land that would become the Catholic Worker Farm, was established in 1843 as a summer home and country retreat for General John Watts de Peyster and his family. They named the mansion and property Rose Hill. Shortly before de Peyster died, he transferred Rose Hill to the Leake and Watts Children’s Home for $1.00.[13] Over the next forty years, Rose Hill would function as an orphanage. And during World War II, the former dormitory for the young boys would house members of the “land army” or “young city people who volunteered to work in the area’s farms” while the local men were off at war.[14] By the time Day acquired the Rose Hill property it was fairly run down from hard use, but the bones of excellent architecture were still apparent.

Historic Red Hook
Swimming pool, Camp Tivoli, Madalin N.Y. Ward Manor Collection, Historic Red Hook.

Not unlike Tivoli’s founder DeLabigarre, Day had elaborate plans for the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli that include many similar goals, especially liberty, peace, and friendship. As an anarchist and believer in voluntary poverty, Day would not have shared DeLabigarre’s interest in commerce and plenty. The property would function as a farm, but also, a House of Hospitality, Folk School, a place for silent retreats, and peace conferences. The newspaper press would also be housed in Tivoli, and there would be a chapel, library, and plenty of space for sleeping workers and visitors. According to Day, in this last agronomic university, “the entire school will be staffed by our ‘community of need’… The scholars will become workers, and the workers scholars…” just the way Maurin proposed so often in the past.[15] The Catholic Workers, visitors, observers, needy, and ill came to Tivoli, but Day’s last rural community only survived until 1978.

On my visit to the former farm, I wondered what I would be able to sense about the allure of the location and the problems that beset the community at Tivoli. Parking at the end of a backroad that came down to the Hudson River, I was surprised by property’s close proximity to the water. It was indeed a beautiful location, with magnificent views, but not an ideal site for any intensive farming. It was clearly a sharp drop to the Hudson and the land near the water was rocky. Matt, the caretaker, met me by the water and I climbed into his SUV for a drive to the mansion. As we made our way up the dirt road, I noted that like several of the 19th century mansions on the Hudson River, there were thickly wooded areas with narrow trails shooting off in different directions. This environment was perfect for collecting natural specimens or a meditative walk, but again, I wondered about where they would farm.

Arriving at the top of the road, I took my first glimpse of the mansion. I could see, immediately, that its Italianate architecture conveyed a Catholic feeling and space — one that would have been comfortable and familiar to Day who so frequently sought out Catholic places. The architecture, just like the chiseled sign Beata Maria, imbued the location with Catholic associations. Inside the mansion, many of the doorways were small arches, like those in Catholic monasteries throughout Italy. While a concern for the poor is a consistent Catholic priority, official Catholic spaces, especially those built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, are not known for their impoverished appearance. Instead, the churches, convents, monasteries, and schools are often identifiable by their architectural impressiveness whether it be stonework, size, tile, or art. I imagine Day appreciated this common Catholic juxtaposition of grandeur and poverty. Day easily reconciled the opposing Catholic interests in a hand-lettered sign prominently painted on a lovely stone wall in the mansion vestibule. “Men’s Pants” with an arrow facing down indicated where visitors in need of clothes could find trousers in the grand estate. Fortunately, the current owners recognized this curious feature of their home’s history, and decided to keep it. The potential majesty of the mansion did not obfuscate the basic requirements of its residents.

Tivoli Tower
SOUTH FRONT OF TOWER WITH ENTRANCEWAY AND ARCH – Rose Hill, Woods Road, Tivoli, Dutchess County, NY. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

The dormitory was another large structure on the site, not splendiferous like the mansion, but nonetheless similar to another kind of Catholic space, the school institutions or the houses of the religious. Catholic orders frequently carried out their charism or special service, and financially sustained their religious families, through the administration of schools and orphanages. The former Leake and Watts Children’s Home, while not Catholic, shared that same dedication to benevolent institutionalization. Again, I thought this building too, would have excited Day, since her own leadership was similar to that of an abbess in an alternative-style monastic order.

Day, in particular, was devoted to the Benedictine tradition, and made her profession as an Oblate of St. Benedict in April 1955 at St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois.[16] One of the long time Catholic Workers who knew the Tivoli Farm well, Stanley Vishnewski, noted the importance of the monastic influence on the Catholic Worker. “I am sure that without the influence of the Benedictines,” he explained, “there would be very little in the Catholic Worker Movement – For from the Benedictines we got the ideal of Hospitality – Guest Houses – Farming Communes – Liturgical Prayer. Take these away and there is very little left in the Catholic Worker Program.”[17] Monastic traditions, whether in prayer, silence, or community living deeply attracted Day. She even had monastic neighbors whom she liked to visit, less than 2 miles away. The Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirmed came to Avila-on-the-Hudson in 1947 and welcomed Day into their home when she arrived in the neighborhood. It was easy to see how Day could imagine living out some of the Benedictine traditions in Tivoli.

Despite the comforts of Catholic symbols, spaces, and inspirations, the Farm would need to be productive to sustain an active community. And, it was the farming that I failed to picture. According to local historian Bernard B. Tieger, “only about an acre of land was even cultivated, and farming never became a dominant feature of the Farm.”[18] Rather than a Farm, it seemed like a large and potentially diverse garden with fruit trees occupying some of the open and flat areas of the property. There are many farms in Northern Dutchess County and surrounding counties, but as Tieger observed, the most popular crop in the area was fruit, which accounted for 84% of area farm production by 1936.[19] It didn’t mean that other crops or livestock were not possible, but there was not enough evidence of land under cultivation, grazing areas, or animal shelters to support an active and often crowded anarchistic community.

I went home from this fieldtrip with a better sense of why Tivoli was so attractive to Day, and also at least one reason why it didn’t work out as she had hoped. Maybe as she approached the end of her life, it was the natural cloister and religious spaces that inspired her decision to purchase the Tivoli Farm. Clearly crop yield and farm production did not greatly influence her choice. The land had limited potential for sustaining its often needy residents. After having appreciated my local “archive,” I am eager to view and listen to another set of artifacts at Marquette, and study more texts about Day’s years at the Tivoli Farm.

[1] Audrey H. Cole, “The Catholic Worker Farm: Tivoli, New York 1964-1978,” The Hudson Valley Regional Review, March 1991, 8, no. 1 (March 1991): 25-27.

[2] Ibid., 34-35.

[3] Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day, The World Will be Saved by Beauty (New York: Scribner, 2017), 229-30.

[4] The reference to “living water” comes from Dorothy Day’s diary entry of 13 December 1963 included in Robert Ellsberg, Ed. The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2008), 345.

[5] Anthony Novitsky, “Peter Maurin’s Green Revolution: The Radical Implications of Reactionary Social Catholicism,” The Review of Politics 37:1 (January 1975): 90, 100-1.

[6] Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origins of Catholic Radicalism in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), 65.

[7] Richard C. Wiles, Tivoli Revisited: A Social History, (1981), 5. Local History Collection, Tivoli Library; Tivoli, NY.

[8] Joan Navins, Tivoli 1872-1972: A Historical Sketch (Rhinebeck, NY: Jator Printing Company, 1972), 12.

[9] According to The Utopian Impulse, an 2009 exhibit at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University,  from the  15th through the 18th there was an notable increase in “expressions of the utopian impulse” or “planning of ideal cities and societies” in Europe and the Americas. The humanistic values of the Renaissance coupled with the possibilities offered by the discovery of the “New World” inspired visionaries to reimagine society. The exhibit creators identified New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Yale University, as an 18th and 19th century community inspired by the desire for “safety, plenty, and freedom.” Likewise, its nine-square plan was a recognition of the priority of a “planned” community.

See (accessed October 10, 2017).

[10] Navins, 16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bernard B. Tieger, Tivoli: The Making of a Community (Tivoli, NY: Village Books Press, 2012), 87.

[14] Ibid., 137.

[15] Cited in Brigid O’Shea Merriman, Searching for Christ: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 160, from Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage” The Catholic Worker (June 1964): 1, 2, & 6.

[16] Merriman, 106. An oblate is a lay person who professes an association with a religious order and maintains certain rules such as participating in the Liturgy of the Hours or saying prayers at designated times of the day.

[17] Stanley Vishnewski to Brother Benet Tvedten, O.S.B., 14 August 1968, Marquette University Archives. Dorothy Day- Catholic Worker Collection, W-12.3, Box 3, cited in Merriman, 107.

[18] Tieger, 138.

[19] Ibid., 121.

Wide Open Suburban Spaces

WHA2017I recently returned from the annual meeting of the Western History Association in San Diego, California.  Held at a resort hotel overlooking the beach and separated by freeways from both Old Town San Diego and southern California’s suburban sprawl, this year’s WHA conference was in an ideal location to examine the boundaries between rural and urban spaces, as my panel sought to do:




Leisure and Living in Wide Open Western Suburban Spaces

In popular imagination, the West is a land of wide open spaces or family farms – in other words, a rural place.  Scholarship on the region in the twentieth century emphasizes the urban West.  But as the housing subdivisions sprawling from San Diego to Santa Barbara, Phoenix and Las Vegas highlight, a rapidly growing percentage of westerners both live and vacation in suburban spaces.  Exploring examples as varied as a Wild West theme park located on an Indian reservation, pioneer statues in New Urbanist exurbs, and tours highlighting ethnic identity in a small college town and labor in North Dakota’s oilfields, this panel explores the intersection of tourism, western mythology, and cultural identity in suburban western spaces.  Meeting such diverse individuals as Sunbelt homeseekers, 1930s car camping families, “Occupy Wall Street” protesters, and nudist tourists suggests the range of westerners’ experiences in these places.  Taken together, our varied presentations query the boundaries of natural, rural, urban, and suburban spaces, and the complex interrelationships between traveling and living in the twentieth-century West.


Our fantastic panel brought a wide range of disciplinary approaches to this question.  Lawrence Culver (History, Utah State University) examined the role of climate in promoting the growth of suburbs and outdoor recreation in southern California.  Phoebe Young (History, University of Colorado at Boulder) demonstrated the ways that camping blurs the boundaries between nature and urban development.  Sarah Schrank (History, California State University, Long Beach) explored notions of “naturalness” in nudist tourism.  I (Cynthia Prescott, History, University of North Dakota) compared uses of cowboy art and local pioneer monuments to create an appearance of historicity in suburban locales.  Laura Barraclough (American Studies, Yale University) examined the relocation of a Wild West theme park from a wealthy white suburb to an American Indian reservation outside Phoenix, Arizona.  Natchee Barnd (Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies, Oregon State University) shared ethnic studies tours of a college town in Oregon’s richest agricultural region.  And Bret Weber (Social Work, University of North Dakota) introduced a tourist guide to industrial production in the rural northern Great Plains.


Coralville marriott handcart new urbanist
Stanley J. Watts, Handcart Pioneers, Coralville, Iowa


Taken together, these diverse presentations grappled with notions of race, class, sexuality and nature in diverse places across the American West and throughout the twentieth century.  In retrospect, though, I recognize that none of our presentations grappled in any meaningful way with gender.  Yet most if not all of these topics are shaped by gendered discourse.  “Wild West” imagery is overwhelmingly masculine.  North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch was famously populated by “man camps” – and fascination with that single-gender temporary housing helped to motivate the study that produced Weber and William Caraher’s tourist guide.  But campgrounds and suburban neighborhoods are conceived of as the natural home of nuclear families.  Suburban homes that were once the domain of  women as full-time homemakers have become increasingly deserted during the day as married women have entered the workforce in large numbers and leisure time is increasingly devoted to ever-longer commutes and shuttling children to organized sports and other scheduled activities.  These changing family structures should be compared to those in both urban and rural places, and could be fruitfully compared to far more static memory of earlier gender and family roles.