Cows, Cars, and Criminals:
The Legal Landscape of the Rural Midwest, 1920-1975
Rural Americans have been in the public eye lately because of the 2016 presidential election and the opioid epidemic raging through their communities. Yet, it is not only journalistic commentaries that miss the complexity of rural communities. Urban historians have framed twentieth-century challenges in education inequality, infrastructure, law enforcement, economic instability, and land use as quintessential urban and suburban problems. They were not. There are still millions of Americans living in local governments that are neither urban nor suburban—local governments for which current legal and historical scholarship inadequately accounts. Today, the local government law in our textbooks is urban law.
Law does not land on all spaces equally. Despite the attention to the relationship between space and power that urban and suburban historians of the twentieth century have brought to the fore, there is remarkably little scholarship examining rural communities on their own terms—not as aspiring cities. Cows, Cars, and Criminals: Rural Communities, Law, and Nation in the Twentieth Century, tells a nuanced narrative of rural communities that is entangled with, but far more dynamic than, narrative tropes of rural decline and nostalgia. Like their counterparts nationwide in urban downtowns and suburban cul-de-sacs, rural Americans confronted challenges of inequality, but the legal efforts to maintain and improve rural communities in the face of those challenges, however, took distinct forms shaped by rural geographies, economies, and social norms.
I argue that the process of legally reconstituting the rural was a central feature of twentieth-century America. I examine the remaking of rural America through a series of case studies rooted in the Midwest surveying a range of legal mechanisms and legislation, including prosecutorial discretion, rural zoning ordinances, labor law, property rights, and education policy. I argue that in meaningful if circumscribed ways, many rural communities were able to assert local values through legal mechanisms and adapt to an increasingly urban physical, social, and political national landscape. At the same time, those local values, especially around issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, were contested through individual uses of, and resistance to, the law.
Thus, the legal history of rural America in the twentieth century reveals neither a story of linear decline nor growth,
but one of constant remaking.
1. The People's Pendleton:
Michigan State University
Michigan State University's Special Collections and University Archives hold the papers of several early Latino studies professors. While these collections contain useful reports and academic studies, they also provide insight into the perspective of migrant workers not captured in the collections of government officials or religious outreach organizations.
Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State
I am reviewing several collections housed at the Reuther Library, including the Agricultural Workers History Collection and the Michigan Farmworker Ministry Coalition to explore outreach to rural Mexican-American migrant workers in the mid-twentieth century in Michigan and neighboring Midwestern states.
State Historical Society of Iowa
From the State Historical Society of Iowa, I am reading the papers of Charles E. Pendleton. Pendleton was a small town lawyer between 1920 and 1970, and he wrote extensively about his experience of lawyering before WWII.
Minnesota Historical Society
From the Minnesota Historical Society, I am working primarily with the collection of Margery Burns, a rural advocate, Republican, and Equal Rights Amendment supporter. A former rural teacher, she dedicated many years later in life to opposing rural school consolidation. She believed in the value of the small schools characteristic of rural education and was a serious advocate in opposing Minnesota legislation encouraging consolidation.
Wisconsin Historical Society
From the Wisconsin Historical Society, I am examining several collections pertaining to rural life, zoning, and education. Especially fruitful collections include the papers of Isabel Baumann, the papers of Raymond J. Penn, the Rural Women's Oral History Project, Professor Wileden's records for his Rural Community Analysis Course, and public service commission records for telephone utility lines.
Bentley Library, University of Michigan
The library houses materials on Michigan history, including the 1950s records of the Michigan Migrant Ministry which worked in labor camps and conducted outreach on farms before labor organizers fought for the right to organize in labor camps. I am also reviewing the records of the Farm Labor Health Program in the Solomon Jacob Axelrod papers.
University of Iowa, Iowa Women's Archives
A rich collection of rural women's papers have been preserved at the Iowa Women's Archives. Currently, I am exploring the papers of Shirley Sandage, an advocate for migrant farm workers' rights in the 1960s.
The Newberry in Chicago offers records of the BIA's relocation program during the 1950s and 1960s, including both document and photograph collections. It also is home to two dozen oral histories of individuals who moved to Chicago from reservation through the BIA's relocation program.