Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Revisiting the Rural Revolution in East Carolina [*]

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Revisiting the Rural Revolution in East Carolina [*]

Article excerpt

The new factories that are sprinkled through the area reveal that the release of the farm labor force by the mechanization of the leading crop, and the concomitant growth of industry that has been attracted by that released labor force, have enabled eastern North Carolina to make the transition from an agricultural to a mixed economy... in less than a single human generation.

John Fraser Hart and Ennis L. Chestang, 1978

Whereas much was made, in the early 1980s, of the supposed urban-rural shift in manufacturing industries; it is now far less clear how rural regions are to fare in the post-Fordist international economy.

Terry Marsden, Philip Lowe, and Sarah Whatmore, 1990

In 1978, as changes swept eastern North Carolina, nothing less than a "rural revolution" was heralded. Two geographers, John Fraser Hart and Ennis L. Chestang, argued that mechanization of flue-cured tobacco production had "emancipated" a large labor force from agriculture and that this changeover was in turn attracting new factories (1978, 435). A signature of the transition to advanced capitalism has since been said to include the decentralization of manufacturing operations in North America and Europe (Knox and Agnew 1998). What became of the rural revolution in North Carolina? Did the reconfiguration into an industry-based economy continue after the 1970s? And is globalized manufacturing serving to reduce the competitive advantage of eastern North Carolina and other rural regions in the United States?


Interstate 95 traces a boundary of no mean significance across North Carolina. It marks the divide--physical, historical, cultural, and economic--between the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont and Mountain regions of the state (Bascom, Carey, and Zonn 1996, 203). Thirty-eight of the forty-one counties in the Coastal Plain were designated as "rural" by the 1990 census, constituting the largest rural bloc in any single state along the eastern seaboard (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1992) (Figure 1). The region has nonetheless received more than its share of shocks, including an unprecedented blow in September 1999 when Hurricane Floyd inflicted an estimated regional damage of $6 billion (Associated Press 2000) (Figure 2).

"Down East" has long been the "backwater" region of the state, its agrarian roots slow to die. "King Cotton" reigned here at the turn of the century. After the boll-weevil plague came tobacco. Vertically integrated chicken and hog operations were added to the landscape in the 1970s and 1980s (Hart and Chestang 1996a, 1996b; Hart and Mayda 1998). And cotton is now making a dramatic comeback (Chestang 1996; Lord 1996). Agricultural changes notwithstanding, 1967 was the crossover year, in which more eastern North Carolinians were employed in factories than in the fields.

Clearly, the diminishing role of agriculture in rural America prompted a movement of industry from the city into the country. By 1970, improved transport and communication technologies had severely eroded distance as a barrier between big business and a supply of cheap labor, creating a "permissive" environment and the decentralization of production (Knox and Agnew 1989, 92). Small towns in rural areas competed for factories, offering infrastructure and sizable-perhaps at times extensive-tax breaks. Especially in the South, manufacturing came to be associated with branch plants in rural environments (Lonsdale and Browning 1971, 257).

North Carolina's Coastal Plain was precisely such an area. A large, comparatively cheap labor force there was newly furloughed from agricultural employment yet still relatively untouched by union organizers. The 1970s witnessed dramatic industrial growth-a 34 percent increase in manufacturing jobs for the thirty-eight rural counties in the North Carolina Coastal Plain. Nonmetropolitan industrial growth appeared to have the brightest of futures (Seyler 1979; Summer and Selvik 1979). …

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