Ohio History Journal

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Subsistence Homesteading

Subsistence Homesteading

in Dayton, Ohio, 1933-1935



by Jacob H. Dorn




"The United States was born in the country and has moved to the city,"

wrote Richard Hofstadter in a provocative study of modern American re-

form movements.1 The tide of migration from rural areas to urban centers

has been, with few exceptions, continuous and irresistible since the begin-

ning of the Industrial Revolution. Driven along by a host of economic,

social, and psychological forces, it reached a symbolic watershed in the

1920's, when for the first time the majority of Americans lived in urban

areas. City dwellers, however, have often maintained a wistful longing

for restoration of the simpler, individualistic values of a rural past and

even organized movements to reshape American society through back-to-the-

land experiments. The belief that rural life--with its idealized contact with

the soil, virtuous self-reliance, and basic economic security--is superior to

urban conditions has never lacked spokesmen, many of them consciously

indebted to Jeffersonian precepts. Periods of urban-industrial crisis, more-

over, have been especially conducive to nostalgic--and sometimes reac-

tionary--revulsion against the city.2 The Great Depression that followed

the stock market crash of October 1929 was one such crisis, which suddenly

and unexpectedly quickened the hopes of faithful disciples of rural life.

The intellectual foundation for the back-to-the-land movement of the

1930's was laid by a variety of individuals and groups who had developed

in the previous decade a full-blown agrarian philosophy. It may seem sur-

prising that these agrarian theoreticians turned to a rural panacea during

the 1920's, when acute agricultural depression stood in sharp contrast to

urban prosperity, but these would-be reformers retained a romanticized

vision of life on the land and, in fact, blamed urban-industrial centraliza-

tion for rural America's problems. Whether designating themselves New

Humanists, Distributists, or something else, they shared a common concern

for the preservation of a rural life that was threatened by urbanization

and industrialization, the forces they considered to be the causes of ma-

terialism, waste, ugliness, and dehumanization in American life. A unified

cry was heard in the twenties for a return to decentralized social and

economic activities.3 The onslaught of depression enhanced this appeal