The Farmer's Last Frontier: Agriculture, 1860-1897

By Fred A. Shannon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
Nature and the Farmer

THE TRADITION OF INDIVIDUALISM

THE American farmer has rarely been prosperous, as his experiences in the later decades of the nineteenth century amply illustrate. Fortuitous circumstances brought occasional periods of seeming profit, or just enough of the real thing to give courage for renewed efforts. Periods of inflation, generally an accompaniment of war, stimulated the prices of agricultural products so as to induce the farmer to expand his holdings and operations. Then came the inevitable deflation of everything but mortgages. Depression and hopelessness generally settled on the farmer before they reached other economic groups, and remained there longest.

If producing for the market, the farmer was utterly dependent on many forces outside his single effort to control, yet he remained an incurable individualist. He might band with his neighbors in a log rolling, husking bee, or threshing crew, but only when this form of cooperation had proved indispensable to himself. He formed squatters' rights associations to curb the grasping activities of land speculators. He engaged in rent riots, Shaysite revolts for monetary reform, and vigilante groups to suppress horse stealing. He joined local ' or national parties for free land, greenbacks, free silver, railroad legislation, restrictions on bankers, brokers, and middlemen, and for myriad other minor objectives all calculated to bring back lost prosperity or create it where it never before existed. But each time an end was gained or definitely lost he slipped back into his wonted habit of dependence on himself and

-3-

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