Cows, Cars, and Criminals:
Rural Communities, Law, and Nation in the Twentieth Century
The dissertation explores how rural communities articulated rural identity through their use of law, and how the law worked to constitute the rural. It does this in the context of a twentieth century historiography that focuses on urbanization and suburbanization and a focus in legal scholarship on federal and state government. It asks, what is rural in an urban America?
Working Chapter Abstracts
The People's Pendleton: A Modern Rural Lawyer
Scholars have recently acknowledged the important role that legal life writing can play in legal scholarship. Neglected voices in the profession—traditionally women and people of color—can be brought to the fore through autobiography. While biographies of nineteenth-century country lawyers, most notably of Abraham Lincoln, are prevalent, there is strikingly little written about rural legal practice in the twentieth century. Self-published and unpublished memoirs, like those of Charles Pendleton provide one entry point. Pendleton’s memoirs provide a broader view of ‘law’ and ‘society’ by illuminating the entanglement of personal life, community life, and legal life in rural communities.
One might expect, given traditional agricultural narratives of the rural heartland, that rural lawyers were farmers’ lawyers, and certainly there is truth to that: farmers have always needed and used lawyers. However, other conflicts over debt collection, divorce, ethnic identity, foreclosure, gambling, government benefits, homosexuality, inheritance, the Ku Klux Klan, mortgages, personal injury, politics, poor relief, prohibition, religion, social clubs, taxes, and unwed mothers reveal a narrative of rural communities that goes far beyond farming. Today, it is common for rural Americans to be portrayed as a monolith in the popular press, but Pendleton’s law practice reveals deep tensions within rural communities along multiple lines of class, gender, and ethnic inequality. In his reflections on his work as an community arbiter, Pendleton addresses individual conflicts based on his ideas of manliness and racial and ethnic hierarchies, which for him are inherent in his position as a rural lawyer.
Modern Pioneers in Oneida County: Rural Zoning in the Midwest, 1933-1953
Twentieth century history is dominated by urban and suburbanization narratives, and as part of a larger project challenging that traditional narrative, this chapter sets out to use rural zoning as a way to investigate local governance in the rural Midwest. It uses rural Oneida County, Wisconsin, to trace the development of rural zoning between 1933 and 1953 from the perspectives of outside elites and local community members alike.
Rural zoning ordinances were largely formulated by experts at the University of Wisconsin as a way to address rural tax delinquency and restore Wisconsin’s cutover area to protected and productive forests during the Depression. Local communities were initially receptive to proponents of rural zoning for two reasons. First, the depression had increased the perceived, if not also the real, number of transplants to the communities of the rural cut-over, increasing demands on local relief resources. Second, soon after rural zoning was passed, federal agencies targeted already zoned communities for investment. Those who zoned were made eligible for grants to move isolated settlers and buy out sub-marginal land.
In the years that followed the initial passage of rural zoning ordinances across Wisconsin, local communities often forgot that they existed or purposefully ignored their enforcement. That narrative reveals three things: First and foremost, the process illustrates ways in which rural communities pushed and pulled on outside efforts to define and regulate rural communities. Second, the debates and “talk” around rural zoning illuminate the different ways distinct groups conceptualized what it meant to be rural or live in a rural community. And third, the chapter argues that the Wisconsin example helps to explain why rural zoning did not prevent suburban sprawl in the postwar period by moving past other scholarship that overlooks local efforts by focusing on state and federal governments.
Roads in the Hinterland: The Federal Highway Act
This chapter focuses on the ways in which the construction of the Federal Highway System in Kansas affected the relative physical and social distance between rural communities and larger towns, cities, and seats of government. The chapter draws on labor and capitalism histories of hinterland traffic routes, but focuses more intensely on the role of local government in articulating rural identity and social values through new rural highway construction and creation of rural manufacturing jobs.
Midwestern Migrant Workers & Rural Communities that Move
This chapter examines Mexican-American migrant laborers in the post-World War II period. Often considered a Californian or Texan narrative, Midwestern farmers and rural towns relied (and continue to rely on) the labor of migrant workers. In fact, many rural communities in the Midwest survive today only because of growing numbers of Latino and Latina community members. This chapter explores not only the ways in which existing rural communities interacted with Mexican-American migrant laborers through local ordinances and law enforcement, but also the ways in which migrant laborers formed rural communities of their own as they traveled from Mexico or Texas through the Midwest and their uses of legal advocacy to obtain better labor and housing conditions.
Tilting at Windmills: Rural Schools in a Modern America
This chapter examines conflict over school consolidation legislation in rural Minnesota from 1967-1972. It does this as part of a larger project challenging the focus on urbanization and suburbanization in twentieth century historiography. Two basic claims undergird this chapter: first, the use, manipulation, acceptance, resistance, and outright rejection of legal tools and mandates in rural communities can be read as an expression of rural identity, and second, school consolidation and reorganization was, and is, a method of drawing community boundaries, both physically and socially. Thus, school consolidation as mandated by state legislation provides another site to explore how community identity and boundaries are shaped through law in rural places. Minnesota during this time is a particularly useful case study in part because of its non-remarkableness: this narrative of school consolidation appears and reappears in the Midwest throughout the twentieth century. The choice of date, however, is deliberate. It highlights the persistence of narratives of rural decline and backwardness late into the twentieth century, and it also provides an opportunity to explore how the gendered debate and women’s activism around school consolidation fit into our understanding of second wave feminism.
Accordingly, this chapter attempts to make three claims. First, the ways in which a local community reacts to, and makes use of, school consolidation as a legal mandate originating outside the community is distinctly determined by the governmental hierarchy. Unlike the ability to determine whether to enact a zoning ordinance, local communities were not able to reject consolidation all together. They could either proactively seek a consolidation favorable to them or challenge the state law in court. Second, consolidation is a perpetual concern and thus is similar to, and part of, the narrative of rural decline. Narratives about who rural people are and how they educate their children matter, and they help us to understand the ways in which school districting laws worked to physically and socially redefine rural communities. Third, the chapter argues for a gendered reading of school consolidation conflicts that also accounts for geography. I take Margery Burns as an example of Midwestern women’s political activism. She not only helps us to understand the gender and geography of the contest over rural school consolidation in the late 1960s, but also her style of advocacy helps us to understand a conservative women’s activism and politics as distinct and yet a part of larger gender change during the period.