Rural Americans have long been misunderstood.

July 27, 2015

 

In 1915 a national magazine,The American Magazine,published an article, written by the highly regarded health expert Dr. Woods Hutchinson, entitled “ Health and Horse-Power.” Dr. Hutchinson discussed how the urban areas in America had caught up to the rural areas regarding personal health. He cited that despite the huge slum numbers and masses of immigrants the efficient handling of epidemic and contagious disease brought about a death rate equal to those folks living in the country. The cities were able to provide more access to medical care for those living in urban areas. Country living, at least in the category of personal health, had always been the standard to achieve. The noisy, nasty industrial cities had always been viewed as not the healthiest,or most desirable places to live.

What Hutchinson was saying was not new. In 1912, both Chicago and New York were considered the healthiest big cities in world. Their death rate per thousand was significantly less than the rest of the country. Since the rest of the country was still rural, it was suggesting that it was healthier to live in the cities than rural America. The author did not offer any detailed scientific evidence to prove his point.

If Hutchinson’s work had ended with the discussion on health, his article would have been acceptable, although a bit stuffy. The physician, however, decided to end his article by making a personal attack on rural people. He included the findings of two university reports that made a statement about incoming male students. According to the studies, male students from urban areas “were taller , stronger, and more vigorous men than country men.” The reports also described many rural students as “higher physical defects, horrible to relate, stoop shoulders, narrow chests, flat feet and curvatures of the spine.” Dr. Hutchinson tells us that the most mentally capable students were not from the rural areas, but the city. The article attributed the physical differences to the demanding daily work on farms. Many rural children began helping on the farm at an early age, and, sometimes worked seven days a week.

The writer decided to take one last swipe at rural Americans when he stated that most of the world’s star athletes came from the city and not the country. So, according to the eminent Dr. Hutchinson, rural Americans were pretty much worthless. His work was clearly intended to mislead and prejudice his readers. It seems that his true mission was simply to tell America that he thought rural American were just inferior to their urban cousins. The larger problem was that most readers believed him.

The writer failed to recognize rural Americans for their standards of hard work, or even remotely suggest that maybe country students were too busy and worn out from farm work to be a “vigorous” student, or a highly regarded athlete, but wait — what about such sports stars as Jim Thorpe ( all-round best athlete in the world) Ty Cobb, (Hall of Fame baseball) Jack Johnson (world heavy-weight champion), Honus Wagner (Hall of Fame baseball) and a number of other world class athletes who were making daily headlines in the sports pages of that period — and, they were all born and raised in rural America.

A century ago, urban America was not joking when it came to stereotyping rural Americans. Referred to as hicks, hillbillies, country bumpkins and much more, the image of rural Americans was twisted from its inception. By the 1920s and 30s country folks were fair game for poking fun at. With the invention of the phonograph, recorded music became a huge favorite in the country, but soon that form of recorded entertainment targeted rural people, in what was referred to as “Rube sketches”. Rubes, of course, are country bumpkins. The settings were always the same : country stores, barn yards, or blacksmith shops and the comedy skits reinforced the prejudices of Dr. Hutchinson that rural Americans were unsophisticated, uncultured, uneducated bumpkins, and worthy of only jokes.

Yes, jokes, and by the 1940s, and 50s rural America didn’t seem to mind. They laughed along with everyone else. Al Capp created a comic strip entitled “Li’l Abner” that combined all the negative stereotypes that Dr. Hutchinson had preached about. Capp was raised in the city and actually knew very little about the lives of rural Americans, but, by the 1950s his comic strip became so popular that it was circulated daily to over 60 million readers. Capp’s daily comic strip planted a deep stereotype of rural Americans as hillbillies — uncultured, unsophisticated, and certainly unattractive. And, just as Hutchinson had written about nearly a half century earlier.

Then, along came television smothering its viewers with such comedy shows as: Andy Griffith Show, HeeHaw, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Gomer Pyle, and plenty more all designed to further reinforce Dr. Hutchinson’s opinion of country people and to entertain America, but at the expense of demeaning rural Americans. If your name is Goober, Gomer, or Barnie, you are probably a bumpkin. If you have a pig, whose name is Arnold and he just happens to live inside the house with you, you are probably a bumpkin. And, chances are you are a bumpkin if you wear high-water pants, and your favorite expressions are “sha-zam” and “gall-lee”. These are humorous memories. Many Americans still define rural America by these stereotypes. That is the problem.

Unlike a century ago, a cultural divide between urban and rural Americans does not really exist anymore. Some may protest my thinking and point to the larger employment and social opportunities available in the metropolitan areas. True, but much of life is a trade-off for happiness, success, adventure, or whatever way we want to measure our own life meter. The point is, rural Americans now have choices, and lots of them. With an abundance of technology and educational options, if you miss the boat, it is probably your own fault. A century ago, however, the choices were few, and for the most part, you were just stuck with your situation. Rural Americans just dealt with the tough issues of hard work, few opportunities, poverty and isolation. And that’s why the image of rural Americans needs to be revised.

The industrial revolution (1820-1870) established the footprint of America’s largest cities. By the turn of the last century the population growth in the cities was exploding. It was due to the expansion of industries drawing more workers, and the millions of immigrants who were flooding into their ports. Until that time residents in the rural areas were fairly well balanced in the ‘haves’ and ‘have not’ department compared to their city cousin, and so, a cultural gap was barely noticeable. And there were no jokes.

As late as the 1880s the majority of Americans were still living in rural areas, but between 1910 and 1930 that changed dramatically with a mass population exodus to the cities. By the end of the 20s more than 70% of Americans lived in cities. Currently only 20% of Americans still reside in rural areas.

Job opportunities were not the only attraction to the cities. Larger populated areas were the first to receive all the new innovations of that time. Most urban areas had electricity and telephone service by the turn of the century, and certainly by 1910. That meant that many urban households also had electric appliances such as refrigerators, radios, stoves, and running water for their kitchens and bathrooms. This was a huge distinction of living standards.

Some farm families also had radios, but they ran on batteries. Nearly a half century later many rural areas were still waiting for electricity, telephone service, and in-door plumbing. In the 1940s less than 30% of all farmers had these services. The larger issue, however, were roads. With the development of cars and trucks urban industrial areas also built roads — and good ones. They were black-topped asphalt surfaced highways that encouraged travel and the transporting of products. The roads in the rural areas, however, were nearly always dirt, or actually, more often like huge mud holes that were the result of winter storms and spring thaws. This limited most families from traveling far from their homes. With the passage of federal highway laws in the 1930s rural roads finally started to improve and were finished after World War II.

Like economic poverty, some people have developed a perception that hardships that impact other Americans, are not really hard for rural Americans. The pastoral idyllic myth that things just aren’t so bad down on the farm is misleading, at best. In this generation, those notions don’t really matter any more.

Sadly, the inaccurate stereotype that Hutchinson and others created, is still alive and well. In the last three decades a number of films, television shows, articles and books , continue to portray rural Americans as unpolished, naive, ignorant and completely out of touch with the faster pace of urban society. In any society, urban or rural, there are plenty of folks who fit that definition. It is unfair to suggest that rural Americans represent such a ridiculous stereotype. It is frankly time to stop with the jokes. Maybe it is time to have some jokes about our city cousins!

There is an odd cultural contradiction that Dr. Hutchinson failed to address. If country folks are just unsophisticated hicks, hayseeds and rubes, as he thought , why, on the other hand, are rural Americans still viewed by a good number of citizens, as a repository of American values? That is the correct image of rural Americans. As far as Hutchinson’s thoughts on this, I guess we will never know.

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