Present conditions[edit | edit source]

Up to the Civil War and for some years after, our people were almost wholly agricultural. National activity contented itself with settling and developing the vast areas of the public lands, whose virgin richness cried aloud in the wilderness for men.

The policy of the government, framed to stimulate rapid occupation of the public lands, had attracted hordes of settlers over the mountains from the older states, and immigration flowed in a steady stream into the valleys of the Ohio and the Mississippi.

A system had grown up in the South almost patriarchal, based upon cultivation by slave labor of enormous areas devoted exclusively to cotton. In the North, New England had developed some few centers of industry, drawing their support from the manufacture of the great Southern staple. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were growing as outlets for foreign commerce, but as yet manufacturing flourished but feebly and in few localities.

Such manufacturing and commercial enterprises as existed had been laboriously built up by long years of honest working. The free lands of the government, by giving laborers an alternative, kept up wages,forcing employers to bid against each other for labor; and monopoly thus being checked, individual equality was possible.

The mineral resources of Pennsylvania and Ohio were all but unsuspected, and the calm of a people devoted to the peaceful pursuits of agriculture rested over the country.

Railroads were few and inefficient: telegraph lines but in their infancy. Intercourse among the people, outside of a narrow fringe on the Atlantic coast, was cumbersome, and impeded by many obstacles.

Primitive conditions everywhere prevailed, and communities brooded in silence, growing stragglingly in sluggish indifference, content with coarse food and coarser living.

Such, in general, were the conditions up to 1861. Then came the storm of shot and shell, the rain of blood, the elemental rage of passion called the Civil War. There was a total upset of business.

Such periods of hard times as had occurred prior to that time had been caused by the tinkering of untrained minds with the money system or by land speculation, and not by lack of access to the riches of nature. After four years our people awoke, as from a nightmare, to find the old life swept away forever. In the South,the Confederates, bitter and sullen, groping amid the ruins of their institutions, sought to find some substitute for the agricultural despotism exercised for generations by their slaveholding families.

In the East, the first families of the Revolution, secure in their preeminence, assumed again the manufacturing-banking-social prestige. The far West was still almost unknown, and remained in possession of the buffalo and the Indian. Settlers poured, in increasing numbers on to the unappropriated lands still left in the states of the central West, and the center of political power shifted rapidly to this fertile region.

Already men of keen insight foresaw a time when oil, timber, coal,and iron must become the stay of a vastly expanding industrial system, and bent their energies to secure the chief sources of supply. From the nature of their work the men who built railways first became aware of the riches of nature, and aided by an enormous public sympathy with their efforts, monopolized all the natural opportunities of value. Coupled with industrial development was the gradual appropriation of the land. The time soon arrived when the late comers either stayed in the manufacturing centers at the railways terminals or were pushed farther and farther away from the centers. As the landowning families multiplied, the young men were confined to the same choice. Forced off the land, the tendency has been to crowd the brainiest blood of America into the cities. In addition, the competition of the new Western lands, brought into use by railway development, has exiled the youth of New England, who found in their rocky acres no incentive to toil. They, too, joined the ever-increasing flow to the cities, and entered into the savage competition of our great towns.

In our time the pendulum has swung to its extreme. At every depression of business, armies of the unemployed perish in sight of the land they abandoned in the hope of a brighter future. Their children have forgotten the traditions of the soil, and the energies of our people must now be concentrated to reverse the aimless tide of human sufferers, which under stress continues to flow city-ward,and to send it to repeople the silent places whence it came. The fight will not be easily won. Changes in the national land policy are imperative. To give one generation privileges which enslave all who succeed it, is intolerable and will not be permanently endured.

It is easy to determine upon a policy in the quiet of the study; different is the problem of applying a comprehensive scheme to repeople the idle land. In the first place, where is the idle land? In all parts of our country it exists in abundance. Almost every state in the Union has lands which either have never been alienated,or which have reverted to the state through nonpayment of taxes. In the East, particularly, the competition of Western lands, aided by discriminating freight rates, now so notorious, has resulted in the abandonment to the mortgagee of vast areas in New York, Connecticut,New Hampshire, Maine, and to some extent in New Jersey. These are now largely resold.

Declining fertility and exorbitant and oppressive transportation charges have helped to keep these lands out of use, and some still lie idle and neglected, to excite the wonder of the social and economic student. To use the abandoned lands of the East, equal rates on agricultural products is a basic necessity.

The first step, now well under way, is railroad control by the Government. Equal access to transportation is as essential as equal access to land, for transportation is indeed an attribute of land.

Extending the inquiry westward, the coal and oil areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio are all controlled by a few hands. The original fertility of the farming areas of these states, together with the fact that they have been producing for only about a century, has enabled them to hold their own until recently, but now only the best located tracts are in maximum production, and this can he maintained only by the most advanced agricultural science. In spite of greater advantages, the crowded cities and deserted country districts are beginning to repeat in the fertile alluvial valleys of the interior, the tragic story of the East.

In the Mississippi valley, conditions seem better. Values of farming lands are increasing rapidly; the farms are rich and growing richer;food products are cheap and abundant; certain staples are produced in enormous quantities and sent to feed the cities of the East and the industrial population of Europe. The railroads transport these products nearly one thousand miles for the same prices as they charge in the East for transporting them one hundred miles. Wealth,activity, and political power concentrate at the inlet and outlet of the railway funnel, leaving vast areas of unused and unusable land between the terminals. Access to markets determines value. That is why the favored lands of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin, one to two thousand miles from market, have risen in value to as high as three hundred dollars per acre, and the lands of New England, New York, and New Jersey go begging at twenty to sixty dollars per acre, unless they lie within the artificial prosperity of the cities.

Farther west in the irrigated regions of Colorado and Utah,restricted areas are held for special fruit crops, at prices ranging from three hundred to two thousand dollars and up, per acre. But here, again, monopoly, now a monopoly of natural opportunity, is a factor in creating prices; on this, however, the vast irrigation projects of the government, bringing into use larger and larger areas of these favored lands, were expected to exercise a check. Up to 1918 little has been sold. Their reclamation cost too much.

The willingness of the Southern planters to sell their lands, and so to release them for intensive cultivation, has partly turned the tide of immigration from the Eastern ports to the South, and the market garden system is reaching increasing areas. The development of factories to make cotton fabrics and to utilize the formerly wasted cotton seed by turning it into meal for cattle and other animals, as well as into the various food products, such as cotton-seed oil, cottolene, etc., has stimulated the use of the waste land around these budding factory centers, thus tending to encourage intensive use of small, well-located tracts.

With a climate much milder and more equable than that of the Northern states, with a potential fertility of soil, equally great under proper management, the South is making greater strides than any other part of the country.

The foregoing shows that in every section opportunities of getting the people to the land exist. Where a man should go is determined by a variety of things. If he be a newly arrived immigrant used to land work in Southern Europe, he would find his best chance in the South;if a German or Russian, or from any of the Northern European countries, he would find the beet-sugar sections of Michigan Colorado, or California more to his liking; if American born,without much knowledge of out-door work, and feeling the need of social life, the cheap farms of New York, New Jersey, and New England would probably be most attractive.

Many persons write me that I say it is necessary to get good land near population or with cheap and assured transportation facilities--and that it must not cost more than it is worth for gardening. "I find," they say, "that such acres are held as 'lots' at wildly speculative prices" and they ask "Where can I find such land?" But this is a book on agricultural use of land. Why land costs too much and where the remedy lies are other questions, dealt with in my "Things as They Are."

However, probably the best chances now for intensive cultivation are in New Jersey, in the backwoods of the Middle states now made accessible by cheap autos--and in the South.

What can be undertaken with good prospects of success will be outlined in the following chapters.

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