The Country Life Movement was a sometimes loosely organized reaction to the challenges faced by those who lived on farms and in rural societies during the early twentieth century. These difficulties included a mass movement of people from the country to the city. Urbanites and sociologists thought that rural residents were demoralized because they faced an inability to succeed at agricultural production. These reformers pushed for reforms that would preserve the countryside as the embodiment of American values and as the agricultural wellspring of the nation. The reforms they proposed were not merely agricultural but affected broader rural social structures as well. As the Progressive movement began to look at reforming the cities, some also turned their attention to reforming these rural communities.
Industrialization concentrated new job opportunities in the cities. Simultaneously, small-scale farmers and farm laborers faced difficult economic conditions, which made the better paying work in the urban centers a powerful magnet. Black Americans were also migrating out of the rural South, heading north to take advantage of these bountiful industrial jobs. Rural school systems were falling behind their urban counterparts. As land prices rose, more farmers were forced into tenancy, creating a vicious cycle of debt. Some also feared the increasing number of immigrant farmers who flooded the Great Plains and other open areas, feeling that the newcomers’ farming practices were not up to par.
Just before he left office, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 instituted a Country Life Commission to address these concerns. He appointed Liberty Hyde Bailey of Cornell University as the chairman of the commission, which sent out hundreds of thousands of surveys across the nation and conducted hearings across the country. Bailey submitted a report to the president that made a number of proposals to improve country life, including the reform of country churches and schools. These institutions could be strategic in providing skills training that would keep people on the land. President Roosevelt did not have the time to push the commission's initiatives through Congress, and the recommendations were not acted upon by the next president or congress.
Even though its recommendations were not immediately adopted, the commission's impact led to a number of advancements. One result was the founding of the American Country Life Association in 1918, an organization that had many of the same concerns as the Country Life Commission. The efforts of this movement eventually resulted in the formation of the American Farm Bureau. The Cooperative Extension Service also arose out of the Country Life Movement. The Extension Service was, and is, an invaluable liaison between farmers and agricultural research. Country Life played an important part in the budding conservation movement.
The response of local churches to rural renewal efforts was less successful. Some country lifers criticized the lack of unity of churches. Others insisted that churches should offer nonreligious outlets for area residents. Some churches did create humanistic missions to help local people via educational outreach and other programs. Yet many churches rejected these as an interference with their autonomy. Some churches viewed the Country Life Movement as promoting the social gospel, which had been more popular in cities. The social gospel emphasized changing society as a whole rather than bettering the world through individual conversion.
The American Country Life Association continued to hold annual meetings well into the 1970s. However, World War II drained resources away from the association, and it never had the same influence again after the 1940s. In addition to the Extension networks, the Country Life Movement succeeded in making better roads in rural areas and instituted a parcel-post delivery system that eliminated the need to go to town for every supply.
See also: Bailey, Liberty Hyde (1858–1954) ; Peonage ; Public Education ; Roosevelt, Theodore (1858–1919) ; Social Gospel
Bowers, William L. The Country Life Movement in America, 1900–1920. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1974.
Roth, Dennis. “The Country Life Movement.” In Federal Rural Development Policy in the Twentieth Century. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. http://www.nal.usda.gov/ric/ricpubs/rural_development_chap1.pdf . Accessed January 3, 2013.