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Homestead and Community on the Middle Border
Carl O. Sauer
Carl O. Sauer (1899-1975)
The pattern was most faithfully put into effect on the smooth upland prairies.  Here the roads followed section lines and, therefore, ran either north-south or east-west, and the farmsteads were strung at nearly equal intervals upon one or the other strand of the grid.  It is curious that this monotony was so generally accepted—even clustering homes at the four corners where the sections met (and giving the same density) being exceptional.  

Little attention has been given to the site where the house was placed or to the assemblage of the structures that belonged to the farm.  The choice of location was of a good deal of importance, as, for instance, in exposure to wind and sun.  The logistics of home location is an attractive and hardly investigated field of study as is, indeed, the whole question of rural landscape and its changes.  The location of house and farm, cultural preferences of different colonizing groups, microclimatic drainage and sanitation was unrecognized, the toll paid in typhoid and "summer complaint."  

Building was starkly utilitarian and unadorned.  Neither the log cabin of the woodlands nor box-shaped frame house of the prairies, nor yet the sod house of the Trans-Missouri country was more than compact and economical shelter, and varied little in form.  Ready-cut houses of standard patterns were already being factory-produced and transported by railroads to buyers of their land.  The quality of house and quality of land seem to be in no relation.  Embellishment of home and yard was left mostly to the second generation, for country town as well as farm…

The economy, from its beginnings, was based on marketing products, but it also maintained a high measure of self-sufficiency.  Smokehouse, cellar, and pantry stored the food that was produced on the farm.  The farm acquired its own potato patch, orchard, berry, and vegetable garden, diversified as to kind from early to late maturity, for different flavors and uses, selected for qualities other than shipping or precocious bearing.  The farm orchards and gardens are now largely gone.  Many varieties of fruits that were familiar and appreciated have been lost.  For instance, a family orchard was stocked with diverse sorts of apple trees for early and midsummer apple sauce, for making apple butter and cider in the fall, for laying down in cool bins in the cellar to be used, one kind after another, until the russets closed out the season late in winter.  Agricultural bulletins and yearbooks of the past century invited attention to new kinds of fruits and vegetables that might be added to the home orchard and garden, with diversification, not standardization, in view.  Exhibits in the county and state fairs similarly stressed excellence in the variety of things grown, as well as giving prizes for the fattest hog and largest pumpkin.

The Mason jar became a major facility by which fruit and vegetables were "put up" for home use in time of abundance against winter or a possible crop failure in a later year.  The well-founded home was insured against want of food by producing its own, and storing a lot of it. The family, of ample size and age gradation, was able to provide most skills for self-sufficiency by maintaining diversified production and well-knit social organization.  This competence and unity were maintained long after the necessity had disappeared.  As time is measured in American history, the life of this society and its vitality were extraordinary.  

Looking back from the ease of the present, these elder days may seem to have been lonely and isolated.  It was only toward the end of the period that the telephone and rural mail delivery were introduced.  The prairie lacked wet-weather roads.  In the hill sections, ridge roads might be passable at most times; on the plains, winter was likely to be the season of easiest travel, spring the worst—immobilization by mud.  The country doctor was expected to, and did, rise above any emergency of weather.  Yet life was arranged so that one did not need to go into town at any particular time.  When the weather was bad activities of the family took place indoors or about the farmyard.  In our retrospect of the family farm as it was, we may incline to overstress its isolation.  The American farmstead did not have the sociability of rural European villages or Latin America, but the entire family had duties to learn and perform, and times of rest and diversion.  Their survival depended on a work morale and competence in which all participated, and in which all found satisfaction.  Perhaps it suffered less social tension and disruption than any other part of our society.  

Though living dispersed, the farm families were part of a larger community which might be a contiguous neighborhood or one of wider association.  The community in some cases got started on the Boone pattern, a settlement of kith and kin.  A sense of belonging together was present to begin with or soon developed.  The start may have been as a closed community; it was likely to continue in gradual admission of others by some manner of acceptance.  Consanguinity, common customs, faith, or speech were such bonds that formed and maintained viable communities through good times and bad.  The Mennonite colonies are outstanding examples.  The absence of such qualities of cooption is shown in the Cherokee Strip (1893 Land Run), opened as a random aggregation of strangers.

The country church played a leading part in social communication, differing again according to the particular faith.  Catholics and Lutherans had, perhaps, more of their social life determined by the church than did the others.  Their priests and pastors were most likely to remain in one community exercising and meriting their influence.  Parochial schools extended the social connections.  Church festivals were numerous and attractive.  Sunday observance was less austere.  The Methodist Church, on the other hand, shifted its ministers, usually every two years.  In a half century of service my grandfather was moved through twenty charges in five states.  The high periods of the Methodist year were winter revival meetings and summer camp meetings after the corn was laid by.  For some, these were religious experiences.  For others, especially for young people, they were sociable times; in particular were the camp meetings held in an attractive wooded campground where one lived in cabins or tents on an extended picnic.  Almost everyone belonged to some church, and thereby found a wide range of social contacts and satisfactions.

Churches also pioneered higher education, founding colleges and academies across the Middle West, from Ohio into Kansas, before the Civil War and Morrill Act (1862) fathered tax-supported colleges.  These church-supported small colleges first afforded education in the liberal arts to youth of the prairie states, and did so by co-education.  Students were drawn not only from nearby, but from distant places by their church affiliations.  In these colleges humane learning was cultivated and disseminated.  Their campuses today are the Midwest's most gracious early monuments of the civilization aspired to by its pioneers.

Country and town were interdependent, of the same way of life, and mostly of the same people.  By a tradition that may go back European town markets, Saturday was favored day to come into town for business and visits.  The town provided services, goods, and entertainment the farm family required.  In time, it also became home for the retired farmer.

The era of the Middle Border ended with World War I.  Hamlin Garland introduced the name in his retrospect, Son of the Middle Border, published in 1917 when he was 57 years old.  Willa Cather, growing up on its westernmost fringe in Nebraska, drew its life in quiet appreciation in two books written before the war, and then saw that world swept away.  Some of us have lived in its Indian summer, and almost no one was aware of how soon and suddenly it would end.  It seemed a quarter section of land was still a good size for a family farm.  The farm was still engaged in provisioning itself, as well as shipping grain and livestock, and it was still growing a good crop of lusty offspring.  The family's place in the community was not determined by income, nor had we heard of "standard of living."

The outbreak of the war in 1914 brought rapidly rising demand and prices for supplies to the Allies and to American industry.  Intervention by the US in 1917 urged the farmer to still more production: "Food will win the War" that was to end all wars.  The farmer made more money than ever before.  He had less help, and was encouraged to buy more equipment and land.  The end of the war saw a strongly industrialized US that continued to draw labor from rural areas.  Improved roads, cars, tractors, and trucks made the horse unnecessary.  The old crop rotation system broke down.  Farming became less a way of life and more a highly competitive business.  Agricultural colleges trained specialists as engineers, chemists, and economists to aid fewer and fewer farmers to produce more market goods, and increase their incomes against the rising costs of labor, taxes, and capital loans.  Consolidating farms was touted as "freeing the people from the land," and so successful that now only about two percent of Americans live on family farms—one of the lowest ratios in the world.

The Middle Border now belongs to a lost past, a past in which different ways and ends of life went on side by side.  We have since defined the common welfare in terms of a society organized for directed material progress.  For the present, at least, we control the means to produce goods at will (although production has moved offshore).  We have not learned how to find equivalent satisfaction in jobs well done by simple means and by independent judgment that gave competence and dignity to rural work.  The family farm apprenticed youth well for life there, or elsewhere.  It enriched the quality of American life, and it will be missed.

From Landscape (20) 2:44-47, this lightly edited version includes a few changes to original text reflecting current word usage and syntax.  Illustrations and some dates have been added.  

This mixed economy, its cash income from animals and wheat, spread the work through the seasons and maintained the fertility of the land.  It was a self-sustaining system, capable of continuing indefinitely, and it was established by Middle Border settlement.  
...the entire family had duties to learn and perform, and times of rest and diversion.  Their survival depended on a work morale and competence in which all participated, and in which all found satisfaction.
The Dairy Farmer, cover, Jan 1928
1882 St. Paul Norwegian Lutheran Church in Irwin, Iowa
1882 St. Paul Norwegian Lutheran Church in Irwin, Iowa
Coffee break
Cover design, 1928
Carl O. Sauer, 1960s
One room school in Sedgwick County, Kansas 
Cultural geographer Carl Sauer presented this paper on the Centennial of the Homestead Act to acknowledge the contributions of Middle Border America—that is, the period when the Midwest was the frontier of westward expansion.  Sauer was driven by his interest in historical processes and sequences.  He was a resolute advocate of geography as unspecialized and multi-disciplined, gathering what appeared to be disparate facts of physical and cultural history to interpret the impact of humans on landscape over time.  He believed historical inquiries should begin with observation, and developed a keen eye for connections—from a precise understanding of homely details, like the significance of the Mason jar, to a sure grasp of major forces shaping culture.  His insights into the Middle Border people and their circumstances helped to explain America's meteoric rise in creativity, invention, and middle class after 1900.  Now, over fifty years since this paper was presented, the largely forgotten Middle Border era could become a point of connection and inspiration for Americans seeking to reclaim their culture and reverse its decline.   Tim Andersen

The date of the Homestead Act, 1862, marks conveniently for our recall a moment of significance in the mainstream of American history, the great Westward movement of families seeking land to cultivate and own.  This started from states of the Eastern seaboard, swelled to surges across the wide basin of the Mississippi-Missouri and ebbed away in the High Plains.  The Middle Border, as it has been named appropriately, was the wide, advancing wave of settlement that spread over the plains south of the Great Lakes and north of the Ohio River, making use of both waterways as approaches.  Its advances made Cleveland, Toledo, and Chicago northern gateways.  At the south, it gave rise to border cities on rivers, such as Cincinnati on the Ohio, St. Louis at the crossing of the Mississippi, and Kansas City on the great bend of the Missouri.  The Mississippi was crossed in force in the 1830's, the Missouri River into Kansas in the border troubles prior to the Civil War.  Although it did not begin as such, this became the peopling of the prairies, the founding and forming of the actual Midwest. 
Coffee break on the Middle Border
The Homestead Act came pretty late in the settlement of the interior.  Land had been given free of cost to many.  It had been sold at nominal prices and on easy terms by public land offices and by canal and railroad companies.  The squatter who settled without title was generously protected by preemption rights and practices that grew stronger.  Many millions of acres had been deeded as homesteads before the Act and many more continued to be acquired by other means afterwards.  Land was long available in great abundance.  The price in money of the wild land was the least cost of making it into a farm.  Public land offices were set up to get land into private hands quickly, simply and cheaply.  

The American settler acquired learning that was important for his survival and well-being from Native Americans, mainly as to agricultural ways.  The settler was still a European in culture who had the good sense to make use of what was serviceable to him in the knowledge of Eastern woodland Native Americans.  This learning began at Jamestown and Plymouth and was pretty well completed before the Appalachians were crossed.  

Little seems to have passed from Native Americans of the interior to settlers.  Native culture west of the Appalachians was still significantly based on cultivation, more so than popularly thought to have been the case.  Whether western tribes contributed any strains of cultivated plants had little attention until we get much farther west, to the Mandan of the Upper Missouri and Pueblo tribes of the Southwest.

Dispossessed of title to home, deprived of their economy and losing hope that there might be another start, many Native Americans were reduced to beggary or lived as pariahs about the white settlements.  Their debauch was completed by alcohol, a thing wholly foreign to their ways, which became for them a last escape.  Objects of despair to one another and of contempt and annoyance to the whites, the time were missed when the two races might have learned from each other and lived in harmony.  

Most of the earlier American pioneers of the Mississippi Valley came by a southerly approach.  They were known Virginians and Carolinians, later as Kentuckians and Tennesseans, and in final attenuation as Missourians.  They came on foot and horseback across the Cumberland and Allegheny mountains, usually to settle for awhile in Kentucky or Tennessee and thence to move on by land or river and cross the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.  The relocations of the Lincoln and Boone families are familiar examples.

Theodore Roosevelt hailed the main contingent of pioneer-settlers as Scotch-Irish, H.L. Mencken stressed their Celtic tone and temperament, Ellen Semple saw them as Anglo-Saxons of the Appalachians.  Whatever their origins, and they were multiple, these were the backwoodsmen who brought and developed the American frontier way of life.  They were woodland farmers, hunters, and raisers of livestock in combination, and very skilled in the use of axe and rifle.  Trees were raw material for their log cabins and worm fences, and also an encumbrance of the ground, to be deadened, burned, or felled.  The planting ground was enclosed by a rail fence, and livestock ranged free in woods or prairie…
Weaver family farm c. 1900, Miamisburg, Ohio
Weaver family farm c.1900, Miamisburg, Ohio
This colonization was early and massive, beginning by 1800 and having the new West almost to itself until the 1830s.  At the time of the (1803) Louisiana Purchase, American settlers already held Spanish titles to a million acres in Missouri alone, mainly along the Mississippi and lower Missouri rivers.  Their homes and fields were confined to wooded valleys, and their stock pastured on the upland prairies.  Nebraska alone of the mid-continent remained almost wholly beyond the limits of their settlement.

Viewed ecologically, their occupation of the land was pretty indifferent to permanence.  Trees were removed by any means, grasslands overgrazed and wild game hunted out.  They were farmers after the Native fashion of woods-deadening, clearing and planting.  They made little and late use of plow or wagon.  The impression is that they gave more heed to animal husbandry than to the care of their fields or to the improvement of crops.  Central and Northwest Missouri, for example, developed the Missouri mule early in the Santa Fe trade, and later bred saddle and trotting horses and beef cattle.  

The great northern immigration began in the 1830s and depended from the beginning on improved transportation, the Erie Canal, steamships on the Great Lakes, and stout and capacious wagons.  Settlers continued to demand "internal improvements," the term for public aid to communication—first canals, and soon railroads, and only rarely constructed, surfaced roads.  Wagon transport, however, was important and a wagon-making industry sprang up in the hardwood forests south of the Great Lakes.  The automobile industry later took form in the same centers and by using the same skills and organization of distribution.  Canals, most significantly the Illinois and Michigan Canal completed in 1848, linked the Great Lakes to rivers of the Mississippi system for shipping farm products to the East.  Railroads were first projected as feeder lines to navigable waters.  The first important construction, that of the Illinois Central, was chartered in 1850 to build a railroad from Cairo at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to La Salle on the Illinois and Michigan Canal and on the Illinois River.  It was given a grant by Congress of two million acres of land.

This last great movement of land settlement was out onto the prairies and it differed largely in manner of life and kind of people from the settlement of the woodlands.  It depended on industry and capital for the provision of transportation.  It was based from the start on plow farming, cast iron or steel plows to cut and turn the sod, plows that needed stout draft animals, either oxen or heavy horses.  By 1850, agricultural machinery had been developed for cultivating corn and harvesting small grains, and was responsible for the gradual replacement of oxen by horses as motive power.  

The prairie homestead differed from that of the woodlands, in the first instance, by depending on plow, draft animals, and wagon.  It, too, grew corn as the most important crop, in part for work stock, but largely to be converted into pork and lard by new, large breeds developed in the West that were penned and fed.  Fences were needed, not to fence stock out of the fields but to confine it.  Livestock was provided with feed and housing.  The farm was subdivided into fields, alternately planted to corn, wheat, oats, clover, and grass, arranged in rotation that grew the feed for the work animals and for the stock to be marketed.  A barn was necessary for storage and stabling.  This mixed economy, its cash income from animals and wheat, spread the work through the seasons and maintained the fertility of the land.  It was a self-sustaining system, capable of continuing indefinitely, and it was established by Middle Border settlement.  There was no stage of exhaustive extraction or cultivation.
Hay wagons with harvest, c.1900
Hay wagons with harvest
By the time of the Civil War—in a span of twenty years or so—the prairie country east of the Mississippi, the eastern half of Iowa and northern Missouri were well-settled.  Some counties had reached their highest population by then.  My native Missouri county had twice its (1962) population in 1860.  More people were needed to build the houses and barns than it took to keep the farms going.  Some of the surplus sought new lands farther west; much of it went into building up the cities.  These people who settled the prairies were farmers, born and reared, out of the Northeast or from overseas, first, and in largest number, Germans, and thereafter Scandinavians.  They knew how to plow and work the soil to keep it in good tilth, how to care for livestock, how to arrange and fill their working time.  

They needed money for their houses and barns, which were not log but frame structures with board siding.  The lumber was mainly white pine shipped in from the Great Lakes, long the main inbound freight.  They needed money as well as their own labor to dig wells and drain fields.  The price of the land, again, was the least cost in creating a farm.  The hard pull was to get enough capital to improve and equip the homestead, and this was done through hard labor and iron thrift.  This is sufficient explanation of the work ethic and thrift habits of the Midwest, often stressed in disparagement of its farm life.  In order to have and hold the good land, it was necessary to keep to a discipline of work, and to defer satisfactions of ease and comfort.  The price seemed reasonable to the first generation who had wrested a living from scant acres in New England, or to those who had come from Europe where land of ones own was out of reach.

Dispersed living, the isolated family home, became most characteristic of the Northern folk on the frontier.  In Europe nearly everyone had lived in a village or town.  In this country the rural village disappeared or never existed.  Our farmers lived in the "country" and went to "town" on business or pleasure.  The word "village," like "brook" was one poets might use; it was strange to our western language.  Land was available to the individual over here in tracts of a size beyond any holdings he might ever have had overseas.  The village pattern was retained almost only where religious bonds or social planning prescribed living in close congregation.

Normally the land was the place where the family lived and this identification became recognized in the establishment of title.  The act of living on the land occupied was part of the process of gaining possession.  As time went on, prior occupation and improvement of a tract gave more and more weight to preemption rights; living on the land protected against eviction and gave a first right to purchase or contract for warranty of ownership.  The Homestead Act was a late extension of the much earlier codes of preemption, by which possession by residence on the land and improvement could be used to secure full and unrestricted title.  

The General Land Survey established the rectangular pattern of land description and subdivision for the public domain.  Rural land holdings took the form of a square or sum of squares, in fractions or multiples of the mile square section of land.  The quarter section gradually came into greatest favor as the desired size of a farm and became the standard unit for a family farm in the Homestead Act.  Thus four families per square mile, a score or so of persons, were thought to give a desirable density of rural population.  The reservation of one school section out of the thirty-six in a township, for the support of primary public schools, provided an incentive for the only kind of public building contemplated in the disposal of public lands.  Four homes to the square mile, and about four schools to the six-mile square townships, gave the general pattern for the rural geography of the Midwest.  
One room school in Sedgwick County, Kansas