Planned Rural Life

When I was a soldier in France, I saw something of village life over there. There was a church—generally only one, or at most two. The churches were rather pretty, constructed of stone, with color inside, and trees outside. A few wine shops and a public square or two. I saw many communities engaged in semi-agricultural, semi-industrial life. People had trades, and worked in the fields. The village was the center, and the fields lay all around. Even through the dreadful destruction and disorganization of the war, most of these little villages had their orchestra and band.

Possibly what I say is too pretty a picture. It seems a long time ago. But I am sure there was something of color, of a center, and music.

But village life, rural life, seems haphazard and vague in Texas, and in America generally. I have lived out in the mesquite and chapparal brush of Southwest Texas. Sometimes I have worked range cattle or dairy cattle, or have just visited around. But no matter where you are the heat literally burns you up all day long.

You can see this heat rolling around in the light of day, and it sometimes stays with you until midnight. Just as you fall asleep, a razorback hog scrapes his back on the floor joists. You curse the razorback's ancestors for certain animal lineage, nor do you attribute to him the ancestry of a cat. If you fall asleep again, a coyote yelps and howls down in the pasture and the cur dogs in the yard set up a noise and clamor that puts an end to sleep.

I can travel from San Antonio to the Mexican border, a hundred and fifty miles, and see thousands of houses standing alone on the plains with not a tree near the house. Neither are there flowers, or beauty of any kind. The house sits in the middle of a field, with crops growing close to the house and up against the very walls. Some farmers have little screechy windmills, but many are forced to haul water in old whiskey barrels.

This is a realist's picture, and an accurate one not only for Texas but for many parts of the nation. It is different from the romantic versions. The pictures of the big farm house and the percheron horses and fat cows and beautiful fences look good, but they are not often to be found. The true house is a tumble-down shack, known as a "box house." It is built without anything but boards, single walls, no insulation, flimsy, hot as hell in the summer and cold as Iceland in the winter.

There is a belief in many of these places, especially the Southwest, that trees attract lightning. This idea was built up by the lightning-rod salesman a generation ago, and by the landlord, too, who wants all the trees out so more land can be put in cotton. In any event, a house is built, generally with a corrugated iron roof. The prevailing heat outdoors is from 95 to 110 degrees; the corrugated iron generates more. In the absence of trees, the sun strikes directly on the roof.

In this dreadful shack the wife and little children must stay all day long. The bigger children can stay in an equally hot schoolhouse, or in a blistering field. Just as in the rest of America, people live on separate farms, isolated, and with little or no social life.

It is all simply unbearable. No wonder the people are willing to go to town, run hamburger and coca-cola stands, work in dreary factories, or stand with their hands out in the relief line. Somehow the "religious" life is not "cold" as it must have been in early New England; the word does not fit, for everything is dusty, sweaty, hot. It is something other than has ever been told in books, but it is ugly and unattractive. In a "community" which is indefinable and vague anyhow, we have anywhere from one to five or six churches. The pastors are all hungry and starving to death.

The school districts are not quite so bad, because they are kept up by taxation. But the schools themselves are usually out in some flat country in a location apparently picked because of the absence of trees. Usually there is no water or sanitation. The churches are literally falling to pieces. I do not know whether these churches ever stood straight up and were well painted, or whether there were any flowers planted around or any color inside. It seems to me ever since I was born that they have been about to topple over. I can remember one church which has not been painted in thirty-one years.
Rural American life is plan-less, heed-less, and hope-less. Obviously, if we are to have conditions even reasonably decent, there must be a change in mode of life.
What then, should we do? I cannot answer with an exact pattern of existence. Naturally there will be large, middle-sized, and small cities; communities, farming districts, ranching districts and straggling villages. But there must be some general pattern, or "plan," whether the "Liberty" Leaguers like the word or not. For a plant is simply necessary if we are to exist and save the land.

The life, then, of the farmer in America is dull not only because of his poverty, but because of his isolation. In France, as every schoolgirl knows, the people originally lived in villages for defense; in America the people spread out widely, took good lands, killed out the Indians, and continued to live in isolation from each other. This isolated living has continued, and as we know, it continues because of the large amount of cheap land.

But the cheap land is either worthless now or rapidly becoming so.
The isolated living on rapidly depreciating land, with no advantages of community action, causes an ever decreasing standard of living. So our Americans must learn to preserve their own existence through the common preservation of their resources, and by other methods of community endeavor.
Suppose then we talk of a model village. "Model Village" sounds bad to the "practical" man, downright sinister to some, and the press doesn't like the idea. Take a five to twenty thousand acre rural area, with a scattered population of a few hundred families.

What would these people do if they could rearrange their lives to have a central village, with facilities otherwise impossible? Most of them, I think, would prefer it. Others would find it necessary to reside on their ranch or farm; with the development of a higher standard of living, it will often be possible to live part time in the village, and part time in the rural district, necessitating two houses or homes.

If there is running water, it could be hitched up to a small hydro-electric plant. If there is none, it is probable that electricity could be obtained from some big dam near there or by installation of Diesel engines in the village. Electricity must be furnished, in any event, from a single system, and used cooperatively. In many Texas towns and other parts of the United States where natural gas is available, there can be a centralized gas system. Houses could be planned with roads radiating to the various farmsteads, which would be near, and in this way there could be some village or city life where people could get together and not go crazy from isolation out on the burning prarie.

Living in town, in my opinion, will prove not only more human, but less expensive. Even on churches money could be saved, but more important, a few community churches could be built where people could get religion and some joy out of life; and the preacher could be decently paid. A library would be possible, either an independent one, or a branch of a county system. There could be a town hall, and either in the village or nearby, a movie. This centralized location should provide adequate facilities for intelligent and unintelligent conversation, gossip, instruction in agriculture and science; transportation on good roads to the bigger units of cities or towns, a store or two, adequate water for all purposes; heat, light and power—possibly a central washing and drying system, a central system of cold storage, and marketing facilities.

No such village will be established in America without fierce opposition. The very idea that houses must be moved—or torn down and new ones built—land re-allocated, titles swapped and changed, all this does violence to our ideas of liberty. Courts will grant writs, newspapers will howl, lawyers will perorate, some of the ministry will speak of Sodom and Gomorrah. For indeed, our concepts of title, our belief in precedents, instead of causing our insitutions to conform more and more to nature, are forcing our institutions further away from nature, and endangering free democratic government and civil and religious liberties.

For instance, I have seen during my life thousands of farms—and all of them in America are the same—that have been marked off and plotted by artificial lines which have no relation to nature, or drainage. A misplaced fence on one farm, cutting across a slope, is likely to destroy hundreds of other farms. No one has adequately understood these processes until the last few years.

The Soil Conservation Service of the United States Government has mastered this problem from the physical viewpoint. I had thought until a year ago that they could never get any farmer to co-operate because of the inhibitions and ideas of "pussonal proppity." But the Soil Conservation Service has changed fence lines to conform to drainage problems, and has re-allocated pastures and fields. Strangely enough, this has often been accomplished among the bitterest of enemies, but eventually titles have been adjusted, some lands exchanged and other lands held in common—and the old time haters have turned into friends.
Farmers see the vital necessity of collective (or co-operative, if the word sounds better) endeavor. They now know, through actual experiences of an intelligent branch of government, that natural forces can only be utilized or preserved by the collective method. No socialist lecturer taught them that.
All these measures of co-operative endeavor, this common endeavor, may, as Rex Tugwell says, involve the necessity of "making America over,"—or "even of rolling up our shirt sleeves." But if I know the American people, they will refuse to live as they are now living. Telling them that it is unconstitutional to live decently, will not keep them from wanting to live decently. They know.

And if farm life is not made more bearable, the people will be forced to pile into the cities. This will cause a further waste of our natural resources from the lands which are abandoned, and further increase our slum problems, and the problems of modern industry. The net effect is an ever decreasing standard of living for the nation as a whole.
The basically important thing is not the particular plan, but the idea—the idea that our haphazard life, under any form of government whatever, cannot go on. Co-ordinated action is just an ordinary essential of any kind of government, whether you give it the label of communism, fascism, or a democracy.
This unbearable farm life I saw when I was a boy in Texas, but it didn't trouble me. There was enough for a boy to think about in the excitement on the other side of the Rio Grande.