"Edison Urges All Men to Farm," Detroit, MI Free Press, September 12, 1911, 7.

Back to the Land Movement: A 20th Century Battle Between Rural & Urban Living

Image: “Edison Urges All Men to Farm,” Detroit, MI Free Press, September 12, 1911, 7.

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The opening and subsequent expansion of the Henry Ford Factory in 1903, among many other factors, led to the population of the city of Detroit skyrocketing to one million residents between the years of 1910 and 1920. The rapid expansion of urban populations led to concerns that the remaining farmers would not be able to grow enough to feed them all. Some urban intellectuals suggested that people should move “Back to the Land” in order to ensure a sufficient food supply for the country.

In September of 1910, for example, an article in the Detroit Free Press used the upcoming census as a chance for people to react to both urban and rural growth. The author believed that after decades of urban growth, the country would finally outnumber the cities nationwide. The author attributes this shift to the disadvantages of country life compared to the urban advantages of technological advancements such as the trolley, the telephone and mail. He also suggests that farmers should make a lot of money because they have to feed all the people in the cities.

Almost exactly one year later, another editorial with similar themes was published about the “Back to the Farm” movement. A sociologist named Dr. L.H. Balley from Cornell opposes the movement, saying that there are enough farmers to feed the cities. He calls for a “co-ordinate relationships between city and surrounding rural areas” where both city and farm living is healthy for the well-being of the human population as a whole.  The author in the Detroit Free Press editorial is enraged at this doctor and angrily questions the existence of sociology and the doctor grouping society as a whole instead of leaving it up to the free will of individuals to make choices.

A few days later, a third article stated that Thomas Edison visited Austria and declared that everyone should have a small plot of land to grow food for themselves and their families. He says that “rural life is the basis for human happiness,” and calls urban settings “artificial.”

The arguments in this series of editorials sets up the city and countryside as polar opposites, when they are actually inherently related. We see the relationship between the cities and the countryside in the first two editorials, where the city-dwellers depend on the produce from the countryside to feed themselves and their families. The article that features Thomas Edison goes so far to fetishize the wilderness as sacred, like nineteenth-century romantics, and inherently better for the human soul and psyche. We can see here the creation of binaries that will affect the way the human beings treat the earth in modern times.

  • “Back to the Farm,” Detroit, MI Free Press, January 25, 1911, 4.
  • Cronon, William, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Out of the Woods, ed. Miller, Char and Rothman, Hal (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 28-50.
  • “Edison Urges All Men to Farm,” Detroit, MI Free Press, September 12, 1911, 7.
  • “Is the Farm Gaining on the City?,” Detroit, MI Free Press, September 19, 1910, 4.
  • Keyes, Jonathan, “A Place of Its Own: Urban Environmental History,” Journal of Urban History 26 (March 2000): 380-391.

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