Those Who Stayed Behind: Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England
Hal S. Barron, 1984

Hal Barron’s claim was that the widely-held, declensionist view of rural 19th century New England obscured an economically stable, socially conservative society bound by ties of family and friendship. The old rural Northeast may not have been growing like the frontier and the cities, he said, but it worked for those who stayed. More subtly, he suggested “the case for the convergence of urban and rural culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is by no means unambiguous.” Historians applying modernization theory and Marxism overemphasized commercialization and brought a sense of inevitability to their narratives that did not fit the facts, Barron said. And sociologists using a “concept of rural-urban continuum based on Tonnies’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft” missed the point that “community” and “society” don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but could coexist in time and space.

Barron began with a historiographical review that acknowledged the “pervasive influence of Frederick Jackson Turner” and “the Agrarian myth.” As a result of Turner’s influence, he said, “we have an east-to-west migration of rural historiography paralleling the movement of the original settlers.” This historiography included an assumption of (relatively uniform) declension as urban, industrial growth accelerated.  Barron acknowledged that “An Iowa corn-farming township in 1900...did not replicate the experiences of a New England hill town of half a century earlier,” but he said the “ramifications of lessened economic and demographic growth, especially the development of greater social stability,” challenged the consensus agrarian myth in similar ways in a variety of settings.

The late 18th century growth-spurt that formed Chelsea and other upstate New England towns brought its share of controversy and political divisiveness. Barron noted that these towns were “usually not intended to be as a city upon a hill,” and that “Chelsea was neither a covenanted community nor the result of colonization by a self-selected group of people.” That description may give too much credit to the idea that many of the settlements of the previous generations
were those things (my reading of Ashfield primary sources suggests otherwise), but in any case, Chelsea was a mixed settlement that included Federalists, Jeffersonian Republicans, Anti-Masons, and a variety of religious sectarians. The community grew steadily until the 1830s, when its population leveled off just below 2,000. Because most of his data came from manuscript census, town tax records, church records, and contemporary “official” accounts, Barron had difficulty proving his claim that people in Chelsea weren’t particularly worried about this growth. Circumstantial evidence like the “agricultural boom created by the increasing specialization in wool growing,” and the fact that other historians told stories of decline when their data in fact “demonstrates a similar pattern of stability rather than decline,” suggested that the situation may have looked quite different to local contemporaries than it has to historians. But Barron acknowledged that people outside Chelsea began to see a “rural problem,” whether one actually existed or not. “American culture then as now,” he said, “had little tolerance for a situation that did not give at least the illusion of rapid growth and progressive advance.”

Rather than continue his account of the local reaction to change, Barron veered off at this point to discuss the urban critique of rural problems represented by “organized, institutionalized, and professionalized activities such as the Country Life Movement, the Rural Church Movement, and the emergence of rural sociology.” While “reformers in Chelsea” calmly “formed agricultural societies to promote better farming practices,” outsiders, driven by “the elusive search for order by the new urban middle class,” produced such a volume of writing on the problems they saw, that “their lamentations and their assessments” have been accepted as the true story of the times. Sociologists claimed, to the alarm of the urban middle class, that “only the agricultural class possesses permanent vitality...Any city population, left to itself, would die out in four generations...The city is an inland lake, fed by constant streams, but without an outlet” (quoting William D. Hyde, “Impending Paganism in New England”). Analogies were drawn to the fall of the Roman Empire and the rural to urban shift said to precede the French Revolution. Recounting national responses like that of the Grange (described by Danbom), Barron said “rural inhabitants did more than empty their shotguns at some unwanted urban interlopers. They rejected an entire world view.” Lacking records of Chelsea residents’ words, he turned to their actions for proof.

“In spite of the continuous depopulation of Chelsea between 1840 and 1900,” (from 1,959 to 1,070) Barron said, “the structure of local agriculture changed very little.” Farms did not disappear and property values remained stable. “The output of local agriculture also did not change significantly,” until the bottom fell out of the wool market in the 1890s. Until that time, Chelsea farmers had been increasing their sheep’s productivity by selectively breeding them for nearly fifty years. Lack of adequate labor supplies hindered a changeover to dairying, but still the farms persisted. Similarly, “Chelsea’s non-farm economy did not experience the decimation posited in traditional accounts of the period.” Barron found that while some factories closed due to competition from outside consumer goods, specialized and heavy crafts like harness-making and sleigh manufacturing survived. And many of the craftsmen displaced by imports diversified, farmed part-time, and became merchants, selling the products they had perviously made.

Turning to the issue of outmigration, Barron pointed out that the study of mobility has offered new social historians a way to examine changing “social structure, political power, the nature of community, and class consciousness.” But “the empirical bases for such findings and the settings for their larger implications...almost exclusively have been situations of rapid economic and demographic growth.” Barron examined the data for Chelsea and reported that “Once the effect of death is accounted for, almost half the males in Chelsea, two-thirds of the household heads, and fully three-fourths of the farm operators do not leave the township during the second half of the nineteenth century.” This was remarkably high persistence, relative to both urban and rural experience at the time. Barron found that “farmers and merchants were the most stable,” and that Irish immigrants were “more persistent than any other nativity group.” Chelsea’s population decline, he concluded, “was not caused by excessive out-migration. Instead, it was primarily the result of lessened in-migration as Chelsea’s stagnant economy failed to attract enough newcomers to replace those who left.” Of course, where the economy was based on farming and families were serious about keeping the land in the family (“typically the heir was the youngest son,” Barron explained, who committed to take care of both the farm and his aging parents), the opportunities to move into Chelsea were few and far between.

Perhaps, like economics, American history is based on an implicit assumption of growth. Or maybe a story of stability over time is less compelling than change over time. Because change slowed, “Chelsea at the turn of the century was a remarkably homogeneous and like-minded community,” Barron concluded. Temperance, which had become popular in the 1830s, attracted people of different political backgrounds.  The Civil War united Chelsea residents in a conservative Republicanism that tended to blame the excesses of democracy for the ills of society. Organizations abounded and residents’ social and recreational lives were rich. Populism and political activism in general was weak. Barron concluded, paraphrasing Robert H. Wiebe, that Chelsea was an example of rural “island communities against the stream” of modernizing America.