So, *that's* why we have 4-H.
April 10, 2016 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Fetishizing Family Farms Broken families, underground vice, and sexual variance - not stability - characterized the American family farm for most of its history, argues historian Gabriel Rosenberg.

I decided not to make 50 links about this, but this little writeup on how family farms in the Scandinavian countries were also politicized was interesting.

The Boston Globe link has a little gateway on it but I didn't have trouble accessing it for free. Hope it works for all.
posted by Miko (88 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite

So. Brokeback Mountain was not just a Hollywood dream.
posted by kozad at 9:08 AM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Article takes off from
In both North and South, agricultural expansion entailed the violent dispossession of indigenous populations, the managed integration of Western lands into settled agriculture, and the organization and importation of human populations necessary to both objectives.
and only gets better from there.

I especially appreciated the more complete picture of sexual vice and diversity in 18th- and 19th-century North American farming communities than is commonly known. For example, I had never heard the term "cat wagon" and reading about it made me think about the etymological kinship (if any) between Tarantino's popularization of "Pussy Wagon" in his Kill Bill franchise.
posted by mistersquid at 9:19 AM on April 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

Has anyone read the book? Is it good? The article suggests an interesting thesis, but I'm curious if it holds up over 300 pages.
posted by Nelson at 9:21 AM on April 10, 2016

Having grown up in "family farm" country, I'd like to see this article continue on to cover the 20th century as well. In my experience, a not insignificant number of the things talked about continue to be true in modern-day family farms. "Winter's Bone" was ... not inaccurate.
posted by jferg at 9:25 AM on April 10, 2016 [15 favorites]

Our collective political mythology portrays the family farm as a form of reproduction that is authentic, healthy, and sustainable

Have people not read Ethan Frome?!?!?!?
posted by escabeche at 9:32 AM on April 10, 2016 [24 favorites]

I had never thought of family farms as anything other than a very very tough way of life, and relative isolation of course often leads to inbreeding and odd sexual behaviors, as I noted when visiting many years ago a state fair in New Hampshire. Wondering why so many people looked, well, rather odd, I was told that one married a girl met in high school or, if not so doing, ending up with kin because of relative isolation.
posted by Postroad at 9:38 AM on April 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yeah, Winter's Bone really captured the feel of the rural America I knew.

IME the fairy tale we tell ourselves about small farms and farm families is used by people on those farms to hide the utterly horrific from outsiders - and sometimes themselves. There's a remarkable ability to totally ignore the awful shit happening to your neighbors everywhere, but when you can rely on the church going hard working farmer myth, it's even easier. Some even use it to evade acknowledging the wrong of their own behavior.
posted by congen at 9:45 AM on April 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

I didn't realize it until now, because I had already learned about this by watching the works of David Lynch.
posted by obliterati at 9:52 AM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

There ain't much to country living/
Sweat, piss, jizz, and blood
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:55 AM on April 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

So 4-H really stands for "Hedonism, Herb, Homosexuality, and Hooch?"
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:13 AM on April 10, 2016 [13 favorites]

H.P. Lovecraft had this to say about isolated New England farmhouses:
By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folk were not beautiful in their sins. Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed. Only the silent, sleepy, staring houses in the backwoods can tell all that has lain hidden since the early days; and they are not communicative, being loath to shake off the drowsiness which helps them forget. Sometimes one feels that it would be merciful to tear down these houses, for they must often dream.
Of course, from the article, it sounds like, further west, there was only a general interest in concealment....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:18 AM on April 10, 2016 [25 favorites]

Who wants to join my psychobilly band The Mail-Order Social Hygiene Scheme?
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:19 AM on April 10, 2016 [10 favorites]

So yeah - like - the title of the article makes it sound horrible, but "less gendered division of labor, laxing of sexual mores" Doesn't sound all that bad to me.

And yes, I realize that this isn't necessarily a progressive move towards pure egalitarianism. And there's still an awful lot of religious mores run rampant in the communities (I grew up surrounded by said family farms, and helped out as a child on them - pickin' rocks, bailin' hay, herding cows to the barn during dinner time, etc.... got raw milk from our neighbors. all that sort of stuff). I, myself, may have been one of the "deviant" ones.

There definitely is an element of class involved, I'm sure. But while these aspects aren't necessarily wholesome in intention (that is based upon a liberating ideology/philosophy) and more the result of material conditions (how utterly Marxist!), I would still argue that perhaps overall it's better than the enforced rigidness of the patriarchy.

I guess what I'm trying to understand is why is this somehow some moralistic judging tone here, I'm not particularly seeing it in the article or even a necessary cause for such a tone (unless it's later in the article to which I haven't gotten yet). Yes, Westward expansion was awful. But that's not the "family farm" of today. And westward expansion certainly involved a lot of factors (their grain/pork trade relied on the mass expansion of capital and railroads, for example).

I dunno. It's a decent article and is nice to see contrary narratives, but the element of judgement I guess I'm just not understanding yet.
posted by symbioid at 10:23 AM on April 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

I am put in mind of the honest farmers and townspeople of Spoon River.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:25 AM on April 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

From Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock is speaking first) :
"...You look at these scattered
houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them,
and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their
isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed

"Good heavens!" I cried. "Who would associate crime with these
dear old homesteads?"

"They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief,
Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest
alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin
than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."
"You horrify me!"

"But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion
can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no
lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of
a drunkard's blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among
the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever
so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is
but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these
lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part
with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the
deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on,
year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser. ...."
posted by Death and Gravity at 10:25 AM on April 10, 2016 [110 favorites]

Anecdata: Relatives of mine used to live in a "family farm" community in upstate New York, and had a set of married siblings for neighbors. Their isolation, loneliness, desperation, and abuse are all very much part of the modern American socio-cultural landscape.

More anecdata: There is also a tremendous amount of marijuana cultivation going on in these "family farms", at least in my experience. I've seen no small amount of violence associated with that - gun violence was certainly endemic, but it was much less visible and literally more spread out than in, say, a suburban or urban setting. When the nearest state police barracks is an hour drive away, the cops almost never got called, but all that same crazy shit still happens. It just happens in a near-vacuum.
posted by the painkiller at 10:25 AM on April 10, 2016 [7 favorites]

I remember being horrified as a kid watching "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers". And then my father regaling me with tales about double and triple weddings where a group of sisters would marry a group of brothers and one of his aunts who serially married and buried three brothers. Doing some reading of family trees later it often seemed that people in my ancestral rural communities treated marriage more as a practical, almost business like arrangement than a free choice for emotional fulfillment.
posted by Mitheral at 10:45 AM on April 10, 2016 [7 favorites]

I "fetishize" family farms because they are a lesser evil compared to factory farms.

“Hogs get stressed out pretty easy. If you prod them too much, they
have heart attacks. If you get a hog in the chute that's had the shit
prodded out of him and has a heart attack or refuses to move, you take
a meat hook and hook it into his bunghole (anus). You try to do this
by clipping the hipbone. Then you drag him backwards. You're dragging
these hogs alive, and a lot of times the meat hook rips out of the
bunghole. I've seen hams — thighs — completely ripped open. I've also
seen intestines come out. If the hog collapses near the front of the
chute, you shove the meat hook into his cheek and drag him
(Gail Eisnitz, 1997)

We have a CSA subscription to a local veggie-only farm I am pretty happy with. I can't get behind people who demonize small farms without contextualizing the evils of the alternative. Our corporations and government do enough to promote Big Ag without my help.
posted by splitpeasoup at 10:46 AM on April 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

I was under the impression that a good chunk of how we see "traditional morality" is actually the invention of the Victorian middle and upper classes. From that perspective, it shouldn't be surprising that it took some time before "city" attitudes made their way into the "country".
posted by Slothrup at 10:48 AM on April 10, 2016 [20 favorites]

My first job out of high school was on a cattle ranch. Not too big, family owned and operated. I lasted two seasons. To say I saw some shit would be an understatement. Warren wasn't wrong.
posted by Sternmeyer at 11:04 AM on April 10, 2016

Americans fetishize farming for the same reason Trekkies fetishize Klingons, why GoT fans think Khal Drogo was the hero, and why Trump is winning. It's intellectually easier to imagine you're a part of a simple, cut-and-dried morality where every question has a simple answer, and dirt under your fingernails is more worthy than book-learning and nuance.

This isn't new. You can go all the way back to the 18th Century to see these seeds being planted.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:07 AM on April 10, 2016 [15 favorites]

4H, FFA, FHA, NRA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church camps and organized sports, it sure seems like a lot of effort to domesticate rowdy kids. I'm happy to report I evaded all that but 2 weeks at a Methodist camp, but that worked out ok, there were some 13 year old girls that wanted to practice kissing before going back home. I learned a lot that summer.
posted by ridgerunner at 11:21 AM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, ok. I've done quite a lot of research into the farming communities in the southeastern Michigan area from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century. My research, which includes farm life as told by oral and familial histories, research into crops and crop yields, machinery they used, church-centered life, and essentially placing farms into the context of the townships and villages on which the farms relied.

I see some broad trends - remarriage after being widowed, early deaths, relaxed gender roles, relocation in the early years of settlement. I trust that Dr. Rosenberg has good sources for his claims about sexuality/gender and about his broad claims about sexual activity in logging camps and the like.

The research I've done into farm life, though, doesn't match his. Church was a central, fundamental part of life. One murder a year was, well, huge news. Families relocated from farms that were often bought sight-unseen from the government and yeah, they moved to better land. And then stayed there, for upwards of fifty years at a stretch, deeding parcels of the land to sons that married, who then carried on farming until they in turn had children (where it all goes off the rails because of the industrial revolution/migration into cities/farms too small to be viable).
Granted: this was not a slave state. People employed servants and farm laborers, often not white.
More importantly, though, is the context: you can't apply modern morality or ethics to generations of people that died 150 years ago, and to paint these people as evil, bad people is offensive to me. Yes, they relocated the Potawattamie tribe to reservations out west. The local histories show that the Native Americans left voluntarily and with sadness expressed from both the whites in their villages and on the farms, and the tribal leaders themselves. As far as I've been able to determine, the Native American population in this area of Michigan wasn't very big, even as discussed by early explorers of the region.

I guess I find this article judges these people much more harshly than I think they deserve, it's okay in some broad strokes, but as far as I know this area wasn't the violent, morally corrupt place he portrays it as being, and well, I think he's just wrong.
posted by disclaimer at 11:29 AM on April 10, 2016 [17 favorites]

... dirt under your fingernails is more worthy than book-learning and nuance.

Yep, can't imagine why well manicured, college educated worthies like G. W. Bush, Kissinger, Hamilton and Cardinal Richelieu might inspire skepticism.
posted by ridgerunner at 11:36 AM on April 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

What a strange article. The article seems to examine rural people as some "others" that are something other than what they are - the ancestors of much of the US population.
It's like the author is clutching his pearls, shocked and aghast at the behavior of all of these poor, rural people. Of course sex scandals, weird marriages, isolation have happened throughout history but this author seems set on sensationalizing that because the subjects are poor and rural.
Farm life is much more boring than he makes it out to be.
posted by littlewater at 11:39 AM on April 10, 2016 [12 favorites]

Yep, can't imagine why well manicured, college educated worthies like G. W. Bush...

You mean the guy that went to Phillips Academy and Yale and Harvard ...

... who then reinvented himself as a shitkicker that was always out clearing brush on his Texas ranch?

CRAWFORD, Tex., Dec. 30 -- On most of the 365 days he has enjoyed at his secluded ranch here, President Bush's idea of paradise is to hop in his white Ford pickup truck in jeans and work boots, drive to a stand of cedars, and whack the trees to the ground.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:47 AM on April 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I just want to point out that Ed Gein grew up on a farm, for what it's worth.
posted by TedW at 11:48 AM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

So did I, fwiw
posted by littlewater at 11:50 AM on April 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Time to reread Wisconsin Death Trip!
posted by orrnyereg at 11:54 AM on April 10, 2016 [13 favorites]

I didn't get a judgmental tone from this article at all. If anything, I felt the article was pointing out that "outsiders" (the middle classes) were imposing their outsider values on rural communities that were doing just fine and doing what they needed to do to get the harvest in and support each other in a hardscrabble life.

It's so interesting to think about the mores of people who lived even 150 years ago and how different they were to today. My maternal ancestors come from Panola County Texas; in fact, they almost single-handedly colonized the county back in the 1860s . My great-great-great grandfather Kinchen's 10 kids all lived in Panola, although 4 of them died young. The oldest surviving daughter, "Sissy", first married in 1852 at the age of sixteen (!) and had one child. Her first husband died in 1853. She next married in 1857 at age 21 and had 5 children, but her husband died of disease while fighting in the Civil War in 1862. She married for the third time in 1865 at the age of 29 and had 7 more children.

Meanwhile, her younger brother (my great-great grandfather) was born in 1848, and in 1873 got married . . . to the daughter of his sister's third husband from HIS first marriage in 1853 (his first wife died in 1864, so he was a widower for all of one year before marrying my great-great grandfather's older sister). My great-great grandfather and his wife/sister's stepdaughter had 10 kids of their own and died in the early 1900s.

The kinds of things people would say nowadays about a woman who had THREE husbands and 13 kids, as well as a stepdaughter that married her younger brother . . . well, most people in middle-class society would find that bizarre and quite possibly uncivilized. But there was plenty of help on the farm.
posted by chainsofreedom at 11:56 AM on April 10, 2016 [10 favorites]

You mean the guy that went to Phillips Academy and Yale and Harvard ...

Yep, the rancher who was afraid of horses and sold his little Potemkin village right after he left the White House.
posted by ridgerunner at 12:00 PM on April 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yes, they relocated the Potawattamie tribe to reservations out west. The local histories show that the Native Americans left voluntarily and with sadness expressed from both the whites in their villages and on the farms, and the tribal leaders themselves.

as someone who's looked through the local histories of sw michigan, it was my impression that neither the settlers or the potawattamies wanted relocation to happen - it was imposed by federal troops carrying out a policy that was made by andrew jackson - settlers went as far as hiding people and trying to resist

they didn't get them all, either, as there's still some in the area
posted by pyramid termite at 12:10 PM on April 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

I can't get behind people who demonize small farms without contextualizing the evils of the alternative.

I get where you're coming from. I'm involved in Slow Food and active in local food/farm issues and absolutely agree that the industrial system has done ills to our environment and society that are almost impossible to calculate. At the same time, as a scholar, I am wary of the tendency to over-romanticize small farming, and especially at the way it oversimplifies farm workers and reduces them, and their challenges, to cartoons of themselves. I find that actually gets in the way of small-scale farming activism, because it makes people reluctant to confront issues like food pricing, the difficulty of choosing a farming life, how hard it is to make a CSA turn a profit, the kinds of injuries or family situations that can force you out of farming, the difficulty of acquiring land, the cultural isolation, etc. My farmer friends universally acknowledge these serious trade-offs and challenges.

This op-ed's a bit of a potboiler, and I can fault it for being much too sweeping to handle a specific comparison like the Michigan one above (I would also say 50 years is not a very long legacy on the land, so I think that at least is consistent with what he's saying - you get two generations at best, and before that and after it, everyone's neolocal). In agglomerating every aspect of rural life that diverges from the Ford-truck-ad version together, it creates an overall impression that he's damning the subjects. I don't think so, though. He's damning people who have a shallow, fuzzily nostalgic sense of what farm life represents.
posted by Miko at 12:17 PM on April 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

"Close quarters and cold nights meant that many men slept together, and in timber camps and other gatherings of migrant laborers, proximity led to sex."

Makes you think a little differently about the Lumberjack Song.
posted by wormwood23 at 12:18 PM on April 10, 2016

I always thought that's exactly what the Lumberjack song was about. In a clumsy way.
posted by Miko at 12:19 PM on April 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

Cf. Laxness' Independent People.
posted by clew at 12:26 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

S.O. went through high school in a NW logging town - very remote - and saw positively all this.
The local (only) minister was well known to be raping his daughter, and what the young men did in their spare time would simply shock most folks that I know. They were also profoundly hardened from working in the woods in the days before chainsaws, and were quite dangerous people to be around.
Really dangerous.
People had accidents, so, no murders.
posted by Alter Cocker at 12:34 PM on April 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

And then my father regaling me with tales about double and triple weddings where a group of sisters would marry a group of brothers and one of his aunts who serially married and buried three brothers.

In the family tree of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House fame, there were several intermarriages in the Ingalls and Quiner families. Ma's sister Eliza married Pa's brother Peter, and Pa's sister Polly married one of Ma's brothers. I wonder how much of that was due to the large rural families (lots of siblings) and very little opportunity to meet many eligibles (no Match or Tinder) so if your sister's husband had a nice brother, you might as well marry him.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:40 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

one of his aunts who serially married and buried three brothers

Well, that is the biblical model of marriage she was following there.
posted by ambrosen at 12:47 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Pyramidtermite: you're right, they weren't strictly voluntary relocations - but unlike the relocations of say, some of the tribes in the Sioux nation, they were peaceful and one of the authors of the time remembered the native Americans that were forced to leave as being quite sad about it, as were the settlers. It was seen (as you point out) as the government involving itself regardless of what the local populace wanted.
posted by disclaimer at 12:49 PM on April 10, 2016

Please Stop Trying to Save Our Family Farm

I've thought about this Onion piece for years.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:56 PM on April 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

Miko: I agree, the article is too sweeping and I think it makes generalizations that aren't fair to localized examples specifically because, well, back in the day EVERYTHING was local. Most people rarely traveled more than a day's walk or ride from the farm or village. The local large city (Pontiac) was a half day's ride on horseback from my ancestor's farmhouse. Going there was A Big Deal that required preparation. And it was not seen as a pleasant trip - my 3rd great grandmother described it in a diary as "fraught with risk to her soul" to attend a wedding there.

My point is that many, many farming communities were isolated this way. The research I've done and the history of these areas I've studied are absolutely typical stories, found all across the midwest.
posted by disclaimer at 1:02 PM on April 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've grown older and so has my grandmother and her friends, so they talk about many things in front of me now. Wisconsin Death Trip is not an inaccurate book at all. "Oh yes, that woman was well known to be insane and mistreating her children." "That cousin was always an alcoholic before he went to jail for killing his wife." "What was the name of that brown dog we had? The one that someone killed and put back in his doghouse for us to find?" And this was in the 1930s and 1950s, not exactly the 19th century. (I've done ancestral research--the 19th century was more of the same. I think the best was the death roll of my ancestral county: "Found dead whiskey" and "Poisoned by wife" were my favorite causes of death.)

Plus, most of my ancestors married brother- or sister-in-laws just because there were so few people their age within fifty miles. (No cousins but I think it was illegal by the time they got here.) My father recounted an aunt who had said that she had "three choices of last name" when it came time for her to marry.
posted by Hypatia at 1:05 PM on April 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

One element of the clean, polite "family farm" legend is precisely that it was run just by the family. That was possible if you had a large number of surviving children and/or if yours was one of the less human-labor-intensive types of farming, but especially on the bigger holdings father West and on ranches, there was also a lot of casual, itinerant labor involved. Hired hands had all the disadvantages of rural isolation without the stability and it was apparently a godawful disenfranchised, lonely life. You could live your entire life sleeping in a filthy bunkhouse or on a cot in a corner of an outbuilding, without ever having your own space, property, family, or community, and then die indigent.

Also, the anonymity, low skill, and high demand meant that it ended up as a catch-all for people who didn't fit into society for a reason. Jud Fry the obsessive, arsonous hired hand from Oklahoma! definitely came out of a real stereotype.
posted by ostro at 1:06 PM on April 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

Cf. Laxness' Independent People.

My theory on how to prevent Iceland from being overrun by tourists is to require everyone to read Independent People first.
posted by praemunire at 2:12 PM on April 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

(It's also my theory on how to prevent people from becoming libertarians, because that's what life is actually like when you have to provide essentially every service for yourself.)
posted by praemunire at 2:13 PM on April 10, 2016 [17 favorites]

"fraught with risk to her soul"

The mention of soul (as opposed to body) would suggest to me some of the stuff in the article - a lot of drinking, maybe fighting or gambling, flirting. Weddings, of course, could be a scene.

I'm in my 40s and I have a good friend whose parents each had a sibling married to the other's sibling - it's not that far in the past, especially in the rural South. So his cousins are called "double cousins," cousins on both sides.
posted by Miko at 2:44 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I happened to meet someone who was both a second cousin once removed and a third cousin of mine, Miko, precisely because that had happened early this century. Now I've forgotten how that worked exactly -- I would have to go look at the chart again.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:16 PM on April 10, 2016

Absolutely, yeah. She saw "the city" as a den of inequity, and it was: there was open drinking, pool halls, outsiders, and sinners. She was very concerned that exposure to these terrible elements would infect her and her family with sin.
posted by disclaimer at 3:46 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Rosie M. Banks: " I wonder how much of that was due to the large rural families (lots of siblings) and very little opportunity to meet many eligible"

Two of the families on my dad's side owned something like 11 sections of land between them in adjoining blocks. Between rail grants and quarters reserved for townships if you stood in the centre the extended family owned all the privately land for miles around. It was a huge deal when great-grandfather bought the families first car.
posted by Mitheral at 3:47 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

my theory on how to prevent people from becoming libertarians

I'll read that stat and order 20 copies if it might help save some decent folk from a horrible fate.
posted by Alter Cocker at 4:00 PM on April 10, 2016

Absolutely, yeah. She saw "the city" as a den of inequity, and it was: there was open drinking, pool halls, outsiders, and sinners. She was very concerned that exposure to these terrible elements would infect her and her family with sin.

Libertine men and scarlet women and ragtime
posted by asockpuppet at 4:18 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

She was very concerned that exposure to these terrible elements would infect her and her family with sin

And where did all those sinners come from? At least some were the children of farms in outlying areas. I think both sides of this picture reflect reality.
posted by Miko at 4:35 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

My family also had that sibling marriage thing. The story is that when my great, great grandfather's first wife suffered an early death, he wrote to her family and they shipped him the next-eldest available sister as a replacement. There was an enormous oil painting of her in my grandparents' living room that would turn my blood to ice if I looked at it for too long.

To this day, I do not know whether I'm the descendant of the first sister or the second.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 4:56 PM on April 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

Alter Cocker, it is only surpassed in "unexpected maggots" by Grave of the Fireflies.

I don't find it an indictment of libertarianism as much as patriarchy, though.
posted by clew at 5:06 PM on April 10, 2016

Most of my famly history happened on a farm of some kind of another. Some of them were rich farmers. Some of them were poor farmers. I'm a couple generations removed from worrying about the crop yields or the best strategy for bringing in the harvest, and yet, I've heard just enough to convince me that I would Just Rather Not Ever, thank you. Whenever people express surprise at the Faulknerian tales from my family's walk-in skeleton closet, I want to be like, "Did your grandparents grow up on a farm? Dollars to doughnuts, grandma's holding out on the good material, friend."
posted by thivaia at 5:39 PM on April 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

She was very concerned that exposure to these terrible elements would infect her and her family with sin

And where did all those sinners come from? At least some were the children of farms in outlying areas. I think both sides of this picture reflect reality.

Well, yeah, she was well aware that young people were migrating to cities, and were certainly participating in unsavory activities that she certainly disapproved of. She was a staunch Baptist. She ended up living in the city herself at the end of her life. The farms had all been sold.

I don't have some fantasy in my head about the moral nature of my ancestors or the families and farms I've researched. Just one of my 3rd great grandfather, his behavior, the rampant alcoholism, the broken families and the strange census entries all point to a tough life full of people doing bad things. Let alone other ancestors in my tree that also misbehaved. I just don't agree with the article's assertion that bad behavior was as widespread or as pervasive as the author portrays.
posted by disclaimer at 6:06 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Last night I played link Hop-scotch with the Jukes and the Kallikaks. According to the eponymous chronicles, their habits were vile and their habitats were loathsome.
[F]ornication either consanguineous or not, is the backbone of their habits, flanked on one side by pauperism, on the other by crime. The secondary features are prostitution, with its complement of bastardy, and its resultant neglected and miseducated childhood; exhaustion, with its complement intemperance and its resultant unbalanced minds; and disease with its complement extinction.

During the winter the residents lie on the floor strewn with straw or rushes like so many radii to the hearth, the embers of the fire forming a centre towards which their feet focus for warmth. This proximity, where not producing illicit relations, must often have evolved an atmosphere of suggestiveness fatal to habits of Chastity....Domesticity is impossible. The older girls, finding no privacy within a home overrun with younger brothers and sisters, purchase privacy at the risk of prudence, and the night rambles through woods and tangles end, too often, in illegitimate offspring.

Genre painting of rural people through the 14th-19th century showed grotesque features. This was linked to local inbreeding, so that tiny eyes, large ears, out of proportion to the shape of the head, was a comical shortcoming that could be exaggerated for caricature.
posted by ohshenandoah at 6:16 PM on April 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

This isn't new. You can go all the way back to the 18th Century to see these seeds being planted.

You can go back further than that. The Romans had the ur-version of the 'virtuous yeoman', Marie Antoinette had a hobby farm. It's a recurring trope, and not just in Western Civ - cultured and cosmopolitan Baghdadi poets of the 9th century hailed the simple virtues of their nomadic Bedouin forebears. Ever, it seems, have we been extolling the morality of the simple past, and decrying the decadence of the present.
posted by eclectist at 6:17 PM on April 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

Good god, did that need an editor. I have no doubt that that passes for a scintillating prose in the pages of whatever journals he's used to publishing in, but when you've desiccated your writing to such a degree that merely sounding out the words in your head chokes the brain with dust, you're doing yourself a real disservice to your point. Especially when your point is: "Sheep fucking. All the time with the sheep-fucking. Like you wouldn't believe. Holy shit, you guys."

Which...I don't quite get the pearl-clutching tone that other people are picking up on, but it does feel a bit lopsided, this depiction. Gospel and the blues: Two sides, same coin. That there was a thick, muddy layer of debauchery going on just beneath the surface is I'm sure correct. But there was also a militantly manicured surface being maintained up top through rigorous applications of caster oil and the Book of Revelations. For every saloon, a temperance league, for every cathouse two churches. That people let loose at certain cordoned off designated venues --- little release values --- should not obscure the fact that they spend 90% of the time slowly cranking up the pressure.
posted by Diablevert at 6:26 PM on April 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

If i'm not mistaken, the removal of the Potawattamie happened in the 1830s under Andrew Jackson. "Their removal was peaceful and they were supported by local settlers" is kind of a nasty thing to say in defense of settler colonialism considering Jackson and his murderous policies' support among white settlers in general.
posted by thug unicorn at 6:31 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

The book may be good, but I agree that the article is something of a mess, throwing every non-urban area in America together into the Vitamix regardless of its place in history or geography; in particular, the latter can make a huge difference. Yes, sparsely populated areas may have certain things in common, both in terms of relative isolation and in terms of certain types of people being attracted to them precisely because of that isolation (for example, Laura Ingalls' father dragging his family further west to be rid of the booming metropolis of Pepin, Wisconsin, although how much of that was really true and how much of that was her daughter Rose's invention remains in dispute). For example, Appalachia, which remained a subject of fascination in America long after it ceased being the frontier because of the alleged wildness and incestuousness of its residents, is intrinsically different compared to central Illinois, where I'm from; it can be very difficult to get from one point to another that are relatively close as the crow flies in the mountains, leading to social isolation. Alison Bechdel refers to this in a few different places in Fun Home when she's describing how many of her family stayed in and around a small area in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, which is in the Allegheny Front. (I was startled when I saw one of the maps that she drew, since it seemed to show U.S. 150 going through her hometown; it also goes through my hometown, as well as the city that I live in now. It's actually Pennsylvania state highway 150, although I-80 does go near there and also cuts through north-central Illinois.) That twisty-turny geography allows for the hiding of a lot of things; moonshine stills, for example.

Rural Illinois, on the other hand, just generally seems easier to traverse, something that was probably helped a lot by the fact that it was settled at a time when transportation was getting speedier, first with the railroads (which are also easier to build across relatively flat prairies) and then with internal combustion engines. That speed of transportation isn't always a net positive, of course; the intersection of I-80 and I-39 is about an hour and a half from Chicago and three different states...which makes it an attractive route for shipping drugs, which have bled into the nearby communities, leading to a mini-epidemic of heroin overdoses and addictions in communities that are ill-equipped to deal with them.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:38 PM on April 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

If i'm not mistaken, the removal of the Potawattamie happened in the 1830s under Andrew Jackson. "Their removal was peaceful and they were supported by local settlers" is kind of a nasty thing to say in defense of settler colonialism considering Jackson and his murderous policies' support among white settlers in general.

Local historians, one writing in around 1860 and the other in the early 1900s, wrote that the relocation of the local, small Potawattamie tribe from the Commerce Township/Walled Lake area, was described as "peaceful" and "sad". Other histories describe the local Native Americans as being friendly traders and good neighbors. In one account a local chief was upset that a farmer had put a fence across a trail; the farmer took down the fence, apparently without complaint (and yet this was significant enough to be documented, so...). Another farmer fenced in a native burial ground to protect it from plowing, at the request of the local native population.

I infer from these accounts that neither the white settlers or the Potawattamie that lived there wanted the relocation to happen. I haven't found any local newspaper accounts of the time demanding the removal of the natives from the area.

If you think I'm being "nasty", well, I don't know what to tell you to make it better but I'm not rewriting history to fit a modern narrative, here, I'm just stating what those old historical accounts said. It was what it was: two populations, both very small (I doubt there were a hundred white people in the area in 1830, and I seem to recall that there were quite a few less native Americans than that). One was forced to relocate at the will of the US government. It was recorded by local people as a sad event. Take from that what you will.
posted by disclaimer at 8:52 PM on April 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

My mom came from a small rural town in southern Germany. Her family lived in town and her father was a truck driver. The town was surrounded by small farms. To her the word "farmer" was a term of ridicule and derision.
posted by telstar at 11:52 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was doing some research on Ancestry out of boredom one night while unemployed. My dad's side of the family always made a huge deal about being Illinois farm folk. And indeed they were. In fact if you go to any Civil War monument memorializing Illinois troops you'll find scads of us. But jumping around the generations, I came upon something interesting: one of that line in Indiana.

At first I thought it was just westward migration. But doing more digging I found something interesting. Namely there was a "John Edward Smith" in Indiana (using pseudonyms, obviously) and an "Edward John Smith" in Illinois that went by "John". And before that, none of our line was in Illinois. And it turned out they were born in the same year. And in the same city. And had the same parents. And those parents only had the one son, John Edward.

John Edward married a woman and had a kid in Indiana.

A few years later, Edward John popped up in Illinois marrying a different woman. And the first woman and kid were still alive.



So yeah as near as I can tell the entire reason we're the descendants of fine upstanding Illinois farm folk is some distant ancestor ditched his wife and kid in Indiana and moved to Illinois then married some other woman and had a bunch of kids with her.

Shortly thereafter I got a job and quit digging into the past, but I work with a woman from Indiana. And she knows a Smith from the Indiana branch of my treebecause they are cousins. So I work with a relative from when a distant relative of mine ditched his family and moved to Illinois to start a new life.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:12 AM on April 11, 2016 [11 favorites]

Yes! I do a lot of random genealogy for local history, and let me tell you, I was surprised in the beginning (and not anymore!) how often people would just up and leave their spouses and create new families, reverse their names or take new ones...

It was also common for a never-married but determinedly single (or possibly lesbian) woman to claim to be a Mrs. in order to escape all kinds of censure. (Better to be a widow than an unmarried woman, of course.) Two "widows" living together was perfectly normal.
posted by RedEmma at 7:54 AM on April 11, 2016 [9 favorites]

Another thing I've found is that people of the laboring classes thought nothing of changing their name entirely if they encountered any legal trouble at all. Leave town, change your name and never look back.
posted by RedEmma at 7:59 AM on April 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm surprised that some people take this as a criticism of rural life/communities. I think the article's point is simply that we have a romanticized notion of rural life and rural people, and in reality, they were no different from everyone else - and in some instances, due to necessity, were comfortable doing things which we would never expect them to do.

I have done some genealogical research, and this is generally in line with what I found - marriages between people of much different ages, marriages between families that were so intertwined that they lived together, divorces, separations, people leaving their spouses in other states.
posted by RalphSlate at 8:02 AM on April 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

"People had accidents, so, no murders." Alter Cocker

I recently had a discussion with a group of friends about the constant crime news in the media. One friend maintained that there is certainly more crime now. I countered that there was just as much crime in earlier times but it was not publicized like it is now. And I also posited that many "accidents" were actually murders covered up by the rest of the family in isolated places. After a fatal family dispute, they did not want to lose another person for work on the farm by involving the police so many crimes went unreported. At home burials made it possible to hide the true nature of someone's death for those who wished to do so.
posted by narancia at 10:02 AM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Add me to those who have studied genealogy (well, that was mostly dad) and local history, and found a jumble of life. Here, many poorer people never even married, they were only "engaged" — but with the blessing of the church. Since our "family" farm was first recorded, it's never been in the same ownership for more than about 40 years, often less -- I'm the first to break that spell and my kids might well sell it.

Basically - just read the Laura Ingalls-books: they are always on the move and always in trouble. It's cleaned up for the audience, but in the books, you do get the sense of despair. Not so much in the TV-series.

Traveling through the countryside, visiting fellow breeders and other farmers, are some of my identity-forming childhood memories. There were the kids next door who tortured the pigs for fun, but also the other neighbor who loved his Hereford cattle so much he almost couldn't part with them. The worst were the places where the building for humans was more disgusting than the pig-sty. We would have our coffee in the pig-sty. I've mentioned the chicken-man here on the blue before: he had one room, no bath, no toilet. And a yard filled with chickens - they were certainly organic and lived from all the scraps he could collect in the village. But… And yes, I don't know of murders, but I certainly visited many homes where child-abuse was the norm.

Romanticizing rural life is a traditional aspect of urban life. As someone mentioned above, this goes all the way back to antiquity. There are really good reasons people move into town, and succes at farming requires an enormous amount of discipline and luck and good credit, even given good land. If it weren't that way, if the family farm was a simple, realistic option, the food industry would never had been able to corrupt farming to the extent it has.

As a species, we need the farms and the farmers. But as countries and consumers, we are not willing or able to create the infrastructures of roads, schools, healthcare, services for the elderly etc. in order to make agriculture a part of society. Maybe a few European countries are better at this than the global median (not mine), but generally, it is appalling how governments ignore the needs of agricultural families.
posted by mumimor at 10:15 AM on April 11, 2016 [10 favorites]

Great comment, mumimor. As a scholar of some 19th century and Progressive Era topics, reading this makes me appreciate all the more the efforts many people and organizations made to remediate the miseries of rural life. The Grange, churches, ladies' organizations, model farms, cooperative extensions and things like the Rural Electrification Project - as well as 4H, whose origins I had never given a thought to before reading this - were all aimed at improving the rural experience and increasing public health.
posted by Miko at 1:38 PM on April 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've long suspected that previous era's purported 'morality' and general way of life is highly suspect, and subject to romanticizing. You know - "nice" people don't divorce, there were two parents in every family!, etc.
Partly this is because of my own family history - my great-grandmother (died at 100 in 1979) was left on a farm in Oklahoma when she was 10; her mother (long widowed) took up with a man and the two of them took off 'to town' and left my great-grandmother home to care for her two younger sisters. She (GG) had been going to school, but had to quit in order to get her sisters off to school, procure food (including "...shooting a skillet of squirrels for dinner), milk the cow, collect the eggs, do the laundry, etc. Her mother and companion came back after six months, presumably having gambled and who-know-what-else. GG said that occasionally a nearby neighbor would look in on them, but it was assumed a 10-year-old girl could keep a household by herself.
My maternal grandmother was "adopted" - likely by someone in the family; and my mother's parents were both dead by the time she was 10 (1927), so she got farmed out to a grandmother, and was raised and cared for by the grandmother and three aunts. Nothing in either side of my family resembles the storybook background I've read in popular fiction.
So yeah, long way of saying that life was extremely hard for past generations, and we've probably never really realized how hard - especially for rural folks (and there were more of them).
posted by dbmcd at 2:08 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

My family history is much the same as others here - they were no different.

One third-great-grandfather is utterly missing. My 3rd great grandmother worked as a laundry washer, my great grandfather was born in a "house of ill-repute".
Another great grandmother is also missing a father, and took her mother's surname.
Another 3rd great-grandfather was married 3 times- it's quite clear that his stepkids from the last marriage disliked him - they refused to take his name or be adopted. And it's also clear that he married his second wife after his first wife died - he met the second wife through his daughter.
And another 3rd great grandfather had 21 kids by three wives, and only 13 kids lived to adulthood - smallpox was a bitch. And a 4th great grandfather drank himself to death - an article in the local paper describes his widow as penniless, having had her family "ravaged by the serpent, the saloon". The community brought staple foods to the funeral instead of flowers.

My ancestors were up to as many monkeyshines as modern folks. I don't dispute that, I just feel the article is a little judgmental about the way farming communities functioned.
posted by disclaimer at 2:31 PM on April 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

"You can go back further than that. The Romans had the ur-version of the 'virtuous yeoman',"

Yeah, Horace was well-known for that pastoralism — the Country Mouse, City Mouse was his.

My uncle farmed, and none of his kids will — at one point, he tried to tell the youngest that it was his duty to maintain the farm after my uncle and aunt were gone, since the other two kids were significantly older and had already left. My cousin's response was a hearty, "Fuck, no." This is up in rural Wisconsin, and there are regular generator parties at barns where people drink shine and listen to regional cover bands — there's no end of shit to get up to, and kids get bored. Hell, you're not supposed to park your car on the side of the road since Amish kids on Ramsprungen will shoot at it with shotguns. And I've long held that a couple summers on the farm will help suburbanite kids come to terms with sex and death better than almost anything else — seeing the blood of lambing, and that you can't bury the ones that don't make it because the ground is too frozen, that'll leave an impression that videogames can't match.

"Local historians, one writing in around 1860 and the other in the early 1900s, wrote that the relocation of the local, small Potawattamie tribe from the Commerce Township/Walled Lake area, was described as "peaceful" and "sad". "

Those were local historians working in the era of edifying history, and assuming that they gave an unbiased account is dubious, especially since they were writing significantly after most of the removal had happened — the Treaty of Saginaw was an outgrowth of the War of 1812, and was signed in 1819. The Treaty of Fort Miegs was signed in 1817, and negotiated by Lewis Cass, then governor of the Michigan territories.

" I just don't agree with the article's assertion that bad behavior was as widespread or as pervasive as the author portrays."

I think you may be both ascribing to a bias that normalizes written autobiography and local history without recognizing that much of what your progenitors would have regarded as bad behavior was unlikely to be documented by them, as well as misreading some of the descriptions as negative — that homosexual contact was widespread is not particularly surprising, and it's only "bad behavior" so much as heterosexuality is normalized.

I'll also note that I would find it surprising if the rural areas around Pontiac were significantly more virtuous than those around Detroit or Ann Arbor, both of which have fairly well documented accounts of debased shenanigans throughout the 1800s.
posted by klangklangston at 3:07 PM on April 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

My maternal grandmother was "adopted" - likely by someone in the family;

Another common pattern is that an unmarried teenage daughter would become pregnant, and the family would pass the baby off as the youngest sibling, raising them as sisters rather than as daughter and granddaughter.
posted by Miko at 3:27 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

narancia: "One friend maintained that there is certainly more crime now. I countered that there was just as much crime in earlier times but it was not publicized like it is now."

Everything else being equal there should be more crime now; legislatures spend most of there time making things illegal and rarely revoke laws. Add in things like Martial Rape which was just accepted as expected let alone not being illegal and there are way more chances to run afoul of the law.

I don't know what it looks like long term but even with more things being illegal crimes rates have been on the fall in the States pretty consistently since the 90s.

On adoption: My mother is one of 5 sisters. I have an "uncle" too who just sort of moved in with my mother's family about the time he was 7-8 and lived with them for several years. The story was his father was physically abusing him and his mother double downed with mental abuse because they didn't like him for whatever reason out of a half dozen kids. None of that (either the abuse and abandonment or the quasi-adoption) was was reported to any sort of authority it just was.
posted by Mitheral at 6:36 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I tend to think crime rates were not phenomenally inconsistent with what they are now, though the mix has probably changed. I think rape is a crime even though there were times it was legal. The crimes committed against people under slavery (setting aside the legality of slavery itself) are uncounted. And the abuse that happened to your uncle was criminal even if it was not addressed in law. As was the common-as-dirt sexual predation and "dirty old man" incidents that all of my older female relatives experienced. It seems like murder was rare until we consider genocidal murder and unreported spousal murder and lynching and death through assault. And just because there are more laws now doesn't mean that they are all enforced equally. People break laws all the time.

I think what I'm saying is that if we construct "crime" only in terms of "violated a current criminal statute and was prosecuted for it," we're blinding ourselves to the routine violence and regular rights violations experienced by people during every era previous to our own. As a historian, I'm pretty convinced that on the whole, life is a lot less violent today for the average person that it was at most times in the past. That doesn't mean there aren't concerning trends and issues that seem out of line with the general decline - like gun violence - just that we should not wear rose-colored glasses about the violence of the past.
posted by Miko at 5:39 AM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

So, I went through a local newspaper's digital archive - The Milford Times - from February to June, 1871, and culled out the crimes, injuries and deaths (and some random happenings) that were happening around town. I didn't list them all, mainly because the paper reported crimes and activities from well outside the area. The results are below. My take on this is that yes, there were crimes; yes, a significant number were probably never reported (just like today), and that the news that hit the paper was overly dramatized for effect.

This was a small, rural community, although larger than Walled Lake or Commerce. In the period from February to June 1871, most of the reported criminal activity came from railroaders building the railroad or happened elsewhere. I really do think that (just like today) crimes, unreported or otherwise, were committed by a small number of people who were often outsiders and/or who lived on the fringes of society.

February, 1871 (the first issue of the paper)
General news: The railroad west to Pickney is nearly complete.
Old age: 1
Inflamation of the lungs: 1

Murder: In a nearby county, a 1 year old boy, repeatedly kidnapped by his father from his adoptive parents and finally killed by the father, who remains at large.

March, 1871
General news: In a snippet titled "Mud." - "The streets of our village are in a horrible condition, especially for those whose business compels them to flounder through them. When will our village Fathers have crosswalks laid down? It is now two years since the village was incorporated and we have not a single cross walk upon our principle business street, of all places in the village the mosts needed. Hurry up Gentlemen don't let those large piles of oak plank decay where they lie when they can be put to better use."
Also: Wanted immediately at the offices of the Milford Times, 500 subscribers.
A Mr. D Trump has opened a fine grocery store.

A man was kicked to death by a horse.
Injuries: A man was thrown from a horse, received a broken leg and other serious injuries.

Fighting: Several people - "Our village yesterday was the scene of several most disgraceful fights, among the laborers on the Railroad. It being the anniversary of St. Patrick's day, our village was filled with them, and under the maddening influence of whisky, dispensed from the filthy holes which infest our village, and fights innumerable were the order of the day. In attempting to quell the disorders, Constable Giddings was roughly handled by the drunken crew. We understand that writs are out for several parties, who will be severely dealt with for resisting an officer of the peace while in discharge of his duty."

April, 1871
General news: Just an interesting ad: "Use Petermans Ague Cure for chills and fever. None better - try it."

Deaths: Didn't see any listed.
A man was thrown from a horse, found in an insensible condition after a short ride, not expected to survive.

Near Misses:
In Pontiac, three six year old boys attempted to copy their elders by starting a bonfire. Unfortunately they did this in a barn. Two ran out, leaving one behind - neighbors rushed to the scene and saved the boy, but the barn was gutted. One rescuer lost most of his hair and eyebrows. No alarm was given as the fire had advanced too far to require assistance from the fire department.

An Iowa schoolteacher, a woman, has been discharged for forcing a big boy to show her how he kissed the girls in the wood-house.
A man was accosted near White Lake by two men, who asked for a ride in his wagon, and then bound him and took him back to his farm, where they tied him up with hay ropes in the barn, and searched him, finding and taking all twenty cents he had with him. After they left, the man went to a neighbors house, where he identified his accosters by name. They were arrested and could not make bail.
The Kalamazoo Sheriffs Gates and Vanderpool were seen walking in the direction of a saloon in Grand Rapids. The newspaper editor reports that it is impossible to move in any direction in Grand Rapids without it being in the direction of a saloon.

May, 1871:
General news: The local cemetery, having had a new fence installed, is being used as a cow and hog pasture. The newspaper editor would like it to be advertised as a large sum might be realized from this source.

Deaths: 1, the aforementioned insensible man who was thrown by a horse.
Injuries: A man was flayed alive by machinery in a flour mill, but is expected to survive.
A man in the employ of the PPA received several cuts in the leg from an ax. The cut was sewed up at the scene.

Several railroadmen are lying about drunk, it being payday.
The post office in Walled Lake was broken into and robbed of about fifty dollars in money and stamps. The local saloonist and the Boss of the Pile Driver were arrested. Oh, wait: They were released, apparently "Uncle Sam is evidently on the wrong track and will have to look elsewhere for the criminals".
A court case for false imprisonment resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff, and damages of $15 were rendered against the defendants. The facts of the case: Two men (the defendants) were hired by a local sheriff to convey the plaintiff (a drunk) to the lock-up. Evidence in the case did not show any unnecessary violence toward the plaintiff, and the defendants were discharging their duty as good citizens and would have been fined if they refused; the newspaper editor is concerned about how this could have come to pass.

Robbery - a local house was robbed of $60. A local man was arrested, found not to be the criminal, and released.
While the wagon belonging to a local woman was standing outside a local store, some miserable wretch purloined two dress patterns the woman had bought in Milford that day.

The post office in Pontiac was broken into and robbed, apparently by the same gang that robbed Walled Lake's post office. About 300 letters were gathered together and their contents riffled, among them two registered letters, one containing $100 and the other $60. The same night, several stores were entered and their contents thoroughly rummaged in search of plunder, but nothing of value is reported missing.

June, 1871
General news:
The will of the man thrown by a horse in March, who died in April was uncontested, the heirs having settled it among themselves. Good for them, but bad for the lawyers.
James Marshall posts a notice: "I herey give notice forbidding any person or persons harboring or trusting my wife on my account, as she has left my bed and board without any just cause or provocation".

A local and popular auctioneer was found dead outside a Pontiac hotel.
A Groveland man died after being struck by lightning. His watch was melted into a solid mass and the chain melted in several places.
A Fenton man died of old age.

Injuries: One of the hands at the Pile Driver hat the little finger of his left hand jammed nearly off by being caught between two timbers.
Runaway horse: a local man was thrown from his carriage and suffered minor injuries. His wife, "with true feminine heroism" held onto the reins and maintained her place in the carriage until it was nearly reduced to kindling wood.

In Dubuque, Iowa, 170 wedding guests were mysteriously poisoned, and 40 may never recover. The culprit is believed to be the ice cream, which was stored in a copper refrigerator lined with tin that had not been cleaned.

A man attempted to rob a local train by placing a tie across the track. The engineer, thinking fast, slowed the train and pushed the tie further down the tracks, averting disaster for the train passengers. The newspaper editor believes that the scoundrel who placed the tie on the tracks should take the place of the tie.

The post office at East Saginaw was broken into and pretty thoroughly rummaged. The amount of plunder is unknown.

A railroader was arrested and charged with resisting arrest; sometime between Wednesday and Thursday gave leg bail and is undoubtedly enjoying liberty in the Queen's dominions, where he belongs (translated: he ran away to Canada).

Fifty three students at the University at Ann Arbor bolted and attended a circus, result their suspension for the balance of the year.
posted by disclaimer at 11:13 AM on April 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

"February, 1871 (the first issue of the paper)
General news: The railroad west to Pickney is nearly complete.
Old age: 1
Inflamation of the lungs: 1

Murder: In a nearby county, a 1 year old boy, repeatedly kidnapped by his father from his adoptive parents and finally killed by the father, who remains at large.

In 1870, the population of Milford was about 1,700, according to the federal census.

A murder rate of 1 per 1,700 is roughly equivalent to 58 per 100,000.

In 2014, the FBI reports that the national murder rate was 4.5 per 100,000. The highest murder rate in the country was St. Louis, at 45 per 100,000.

A person was more likely to be murdered in Milford in 1870 than in St. Louis in 2014, even assuming that there have been no advances in crime reporting or detecting.
posted by klangklangston at 2:22 PM on April 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

A man was flayed alive by machinery in a flour mill, but is expected to survive.

Jesus, did he want to?

Thanks for that, disclaimer. I cannot get enough of old newspapers and used to spend a lot of time at
posted by Countess Elena at 3:46 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Akenfield is a famous set of interviews of lots of the people in the small rural town Akenfield in the 1950s or 1960s, so lots of the speakers had worked pre-WWI or even been trained by nineteenth-c. standards.

The visiting nurse mentions that she found a lot of the old people put out of the way, behind a door or sometimes in a cupboard. Children weren't so tenderly taken care of, either.
posted by clew at 3:51 PM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Klang: the murder happened in, I think, Allegan County. Milford had no murders in the village that year.
posted by disclaimer at 4:43 PM on April 12, 2016

...but you're right: the murder rate in small populations is a lot higher.
posted by disclaimer at 4:45 PM on April 12, 2016

Akenfield is a famous set of interviews of lots of the people in the small rural town Akenfield in the 1950s or 1960s

I am SO glad you made that comment. I heard about that study on a radio podcast sometime in the last 6 months, but I was out running or something while it was on, and I told myself I'd look it up when I got home and, of course, totally forgot. I'm so glad it resurfaced. Looking forward to digging into that sometime.
posted by Miko at 5:06 PM on April 12, 2016

disclaimer: "...but you're right: the murder rate in small populations is a lot higher."

Isn't this just a quick of the statisictal reporting? IE: if you have a town with a million people that experiences 10 murders; 2 towns with 100,000 people that experience a murder and 10 towns of 10,000 one of which expereinces 1 murder the real murder rate is the same everywhere (1/100,000) but the small town of 10K with 1 murder appears to have a rate of 10 per 100,000 or 10X the country average.
posted by Mitheral at 10:43 PM on April 12, 2016

Yeah, I worded that badly. You're right.
posted by disclaimer at 4:23 AM on April 13, 2016

Interestingly in Canada the rural murder rate is higher than the small urban and urban rates while in the US the urban rate is higher.

I'm guessing the split in both cases is dominated by demographics but I wonder if a little bit of Canada's increased rural rate is the distance to emergency services. But I couldn't find a location break down for attempted murder (which is sort of a fuzzy statistic anyways).
posted by Mitheral at 9:42 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I recently moved from Winnipeg to the province's second biggest city (50k on a busy day). Despite only being two hours away, the locals' antipathy towards "The City" is really jarring, with a lot of "Oh, I couldn't live there!" "It's scary!" "My cousin's girlfriend's stepson went there, and someone got killed 10 miles from his place!" Annoyed and curious, I looked at 2014 police reports for both places and found that while my new home has 6.5% of the capital's population, reported overall and violent crime incidents are 10% of Winnipeg's. I don't know if that actually means something statistically, but it's enough to shut up the goddamn farmers and their "Sodom & Gomorrah on the Red River" b.s.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:53 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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