Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/January 1891/The Decline of Rural New England

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IN every period of American history the influence of New England has been marked and out of proportion to its size and population. In religious thought and activities, in great moral and social movements, in literature and scholarship, in inventive genius and the skilled industries, in the pulpit, at the bar, on the bench, and in legislative halls, New-Englanders have always stood in the front rank and have contributed largely to the worthiest American achievements.

Now, the bulk of this population, until very recent years, has been rural rather than urban, and the towns themselves, large and small, have been made up of the country-born and country-bred, while almost the entire stream of emigration that has flooded and fertilized the Northwest has had its source in the hamlets and farms. It would be easy to show that the quality of this output from the rural districts has been even more remarkable than the quantity. Hence came Webster, Choate, Chase, Greeley, Cushing, Bryant, Whittier, Beecher, Hopkins, and a long list of notables that will occur to every reader. It may therefore be fairly claimed that what New England has been and what it has done, at home and abroad, through its citizens or through its colonists, has come in large measure from the country districts.

Hence the prosperity of this region concerns not merely New England, but the country at large. The testimony of many reliable witnesses and my own observations, covering more than twenty years, convince me that the outlook for the future is very unsatisfactory.

1. Fifty years ago almost every farm was cultivated by the owner, who had every interest in its most careful tillage, in making permanent improvements, and in the care of buildings, fences, and woodland. Hired labor was the exception, for the large families were quite competent for all the farm-work, the indoor as well as the outdoor, with a surplus which went to the aid of less fortunate neighbors, and sent brains and muscle to the city or to the opening West. Not all farmers were equally industrious, frugal, and successful, but there was a large body of landed proprietors, homogeneous in race, substantially on an equality socially, and alike interested in the present and future welfare of the community. In this respect there has been a great change in the last twenty years, and one which is going on more rapidly every year. The land is passing into the hands of non-resident proprietors, by mortgage, by death of resident owner, by his removal to the village or manufacturing center, or his emigration to the West.

It is also held in fewer hands, not as a general thing to be managed and worked in large estates, but to be rented from year to year.

The new proprietor has bought the farm at a small price, as compared with its former valuation, and has no interest or pride in it or its management except as an investment. So in every township there is an increasing body of renters, as a class unreliable, unsuccessful, shifting, and shiftless. Their interest in the property and the community is temporary, their tillage such as they suppose will bring the largest immediate returns with the least care and labor. It goes without saying that such farms and all their appurtenances are in a state of chronic decline. These renters are often bankrupt farmers, or young men without the pluck and thrift to become farm-owners, the courage and push to go to the West, or the qualities in demand in the manufacturing towns.

In some towns is found an increasing element of Canadian French, good-natured, easy-going, thriftless people, living in a slipshod way from their labor when things go well, but, if sickness comes, or crops are short, or the winter long and hard, more or less dependent upon the poor-fund. This floating population, and especially its French element, is the bane of local and even State politics, especially in New Hampshire, for many of its voters are purchasable at least once at each election, and, as it holds the balance of power in many small towns, purchasers for both parties are rarely wanting, and prices rule high. I have personally known voters who openly counted their election wages an important item in the year's revenue. It will be readily believed that all public interests have suffered enormously by the substitution of such people for the thrifty, public-spirited farmers who preceded them. This French element is further objectionable in that it keeps itself aloof from the spirit of its adopted country, intact in language as well as religion, and has declared its purpose to change New England to New France.

2. Many farms are without resident cultivators, and in all probability will never again be homesteads. The New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture reports eight hundred and eighty-seven such farms, and these are only a small part. I know a district where eight contiguous farms have been thus abandoned, and, taking the farm on which the writer was born as the center, a circle with a radius of five miles would inclose twenty farms abandoned within the last few years.

Some of these have good buildings, stone fences, apple and sugar orchards, and all have made comfortable homes. On some of them a few acres of the best land are tilled, while the rest produces a lessening crop of hay or is used for pasture. The fine old orchards, uncared for, are wasting away, a lilac or a few rosebushes struggling for life in the grass show the site of the old garden, the buildings are falling to decay, and homesteads that have fostered large and prosperous families for generations are a desolation and will soon be a wilderness. In some districts the old country roads are becoming impassable from the growth of bushes and the cessation of all repairs. An eminent New England judge told me last summer that public sentiment in these districts will not allow a jury to find damages against the authorities in case of injuries to travelers from such defective highways, on the ground that the diminished population can not keep them in repair.

The abandonment of this rough country and the transfer of its population to more fertile regions or more remunerative employments may be no financial loss to the nation, but it robs New England of a hardy yeomanry, with whom the love of natal soil and home and simple life has been almost a religion.

3. Not only is the area of cultivated land decreasing in this way, but the land-owners are sensibly narrowing their tillage. The land is growing poorer, partly from natural causes and partly from less careful working and the marked decrease in the amount of live stock kept upon it. The fact is, farming does not pay, especially if help must be hired to do a large part of the work.

The farmer finds himself the victim of all the evils of a protective tariff without its supposed benefits. The promised home market he has found to his cost, if not his ruin, is a delusion and a snare. If the manufacturing centers in his vicinity have raised the price of some of his products, they have advanced the cost of labor in a greater degree, and drawn to themselves the best brain and muscle from the farms. He is being heavily taxed for the benefit of the whole list of these assistant industries that rob him of his working force, while the competition, intensified by laborsaving machines suited to the large prairie farms of the "West and stimulated by lavish gifts of land to settlers and subsidies to railroads, ruinously reduces the prices of his products in his natural home market. He buys Western flour and Western corn for his own consumption at a cheaper rate than he can produce them with hired labor, and by reason of the long winter is unable to compete with the West and South in cattle-raising for the Eastern markets at his door. Confining his attention to the few crops that, from their bulk or perishable nature, are not subject to the destructive competition of the West, the ordinary farmer merely lives and pays current expenses, while his less shrewd and careful neighbor falls behind each year, and sooner or later will be sold out of house and home.

Naturally, there is a decay of heart and hope that blights growth and prosperity. Many farms within a hundred miles of Boston and not five miles from excellent railroad facilities will not sell for the cost of the improvements. The New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture gives a long list of farms with "fairly comfortable buildings, at prices from two dollars to ten dollars per acre," and a shorter list at higher prices. The Vermont Commissioner gives a list at from three dollars to five dollars per acre, and nearer to railroad or village, with better buildings, five dollars to ten dollars—"all at no great distance from market and adapted to doing business." I know of the sale of such a farm of fifty acres, with fair buildings, well supplied with water and fuel, at fifty-two dollars. What a paradise for the Henry George theorists!

4. Outside of the large towns and business centers the population is stationary or dwindling with greater or less rapidity, according as the district in question is more or less exclusively rural. Then the percentage of young people and children is much smaller than fifty years ago. The old-fashioned large families are the rare exception, and the young folks are early drawn away from the old homestead. In my native town the school districts have been reduced from twenty-one to eleven, and many of these enlarged districts have only a half or fourth the pupils of the original divisions. The real decline of the native stock is greater than the decrease in numbers would indicate, for there is a decided increase in the foreign element, which with all its virtues is not qualified to strengthen and perpetuate the old New England type of character and spirit. Nor is this state of things confined to a few obscure places among the mountains, for some of the historic towns founded by the Puritans are undergoing the same process of decline or change of population. Many of the large towns, deprived of the former stream of recruits from the country, are fast changing from Anglo-Saxon to Celtic and from Protestant to Catholic.

5. In the last thirty years the colleges have been strengthened in endowments and appliances, and are doing a better and wider work than formerly; the larger towns have excellent high schools, and the well-endowed academies are strong and well attended. But, with the rural districts far removed from these advantages, there is no provision for secondary education. The ungraded district school, with its brief school term, is the beginning and the end of local opportunities. The unendowed academies of forty years ago, then filled with young people, are dead and have left no successors. It is true, some young people resort to the high schools and endowed academies, but secondary education here is far less general than in the former time, while many are lost to the college and higher education whom a good local academy of the old type would stimulate to an extended course of study. In one of the most picturesque districts of New Hampshire is an endowed academy that thirty-five years ago had an annual attendance of more than four hundred, and sent to college each year thirty boys, to say nothing of a dozen girls as well and widely trained for whom no college opened its doors. The same school has less than one fourth the old number of students and graduates. It is fair to say that the decadence of this school is partly due to the larger advantages offered by better-equipped rivals, but the main cause of decline is the dearth of young people in its natural region of supply, and the diminished interest in higher education.

6. Many churches have dwindled into insignificance, or have been blotted out altogether, owing to deaths and removals, with no corresponding additions. In scores of towns houses of worship are closed, to all appearance finally, or are used for non-religious purposes, while others are in the hands of Catholics, or are too far gone to decay for occupancy of any sort. In many towns enough church members in substantial doctrinal accord might be found to form one strong and influential church but for minor points of doctrine and practice, and so, divided, they live at a dying rate, of little consequence to their adherents or the community. The whole truth would not be told if it were not added that this religious desolation is also largely due to lack of sufficient interest on the part of members and outsiders to support church work and attend religious services. Not that the faith of the fathers is repudiated for newer or more liberal ideas, but that apathy on the whole subject is often the prevalent spirit. The home mission societies regard some of these towns in as much need of missionary work as the rudest frontier settlements.

7. I am told by persons who have spent their lives in these rural towns that there is a decline in public spirit, and a visible growing away from the pure democracy characteristic of primitive New England. For example, the old school district is no longer a body politic in New Hampshire. A town committee manages all school affairs.

All the statements of this paper are particularly applicable to the large extent of rougher hill country of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, but in a lesser degree and with various modifications, to other districts remote from large towns. It is possible that some of these conditions may be improved when industry and population are rearranged and adapted to the changed circumstances, but I can not escape the conviction that the decline is permanent. Even if the late movement to attract Swedish immigrants to these abandoned farms is successful, neither we nor our successors will see here again a rural community of the old type—keen, active, intelligent, sturdy, and independent, of strong moral and religious fiber, an unrivaled capacity for popular government, and an inborn and inbred taste for hard work, plain living, and high thinking.

A conception of the rate at which facilities of communication have been developed during the past two hundred years may he obtained from the statement that in the seventeenth century it required fifteen days to go by diligence from Paris to Marseilles; in 1782, the time had been shortened to eight days; in 1814, to five days, by mail-post; in 1840, to three days; and in 1889, to fourteen hours. In 1830, the voyage from Marseilles to Algiers occupied ninety-six hours; in 1857, forty-eight hours; in 1877, thirty-eight hours; in 1887, twenty-eight hours; in 1889, twenty-four hours; and it is expected to be accomplished, by two boats that are to be built, in twenty-two hours.