(originally published 3/12/20)
Sometimes history is something you go looking for, and sometimes it comes looking for you. Regular readers may recall that the State Historical Society of Missouri is a favorite resource for illustrating the stories covered in KC Backstories. This week’s offering would not have even appeared on my radar as a topic were it not for the photos I found perusing through the SHSMO website. The story of a magazine covering Missouri’s agricultural landscape is not an obvious choice for inclusion in a site devoted to Kansas City history. Yet agriculture is at the very heart of what formed modern Kansas City. The city’s ties to trade naturally tie it to the crops and livestock that were among our earliest traded goods. When the railroads broadened Kansas City’s trade area, it did so by shipping in the grain, the cattle, the timber, and the poultry of the country’s agricultural heartland to Kansas City’s industrial center, and shipping out the meat, the flour, the lumber and the by-products to a growing nation. Land dedicated to agricultural uses dominated Jackson County until well after World War II. Even today, about 62 percent of the land in the counties within the Kansas City metro area are farmland.
The Missouri Ruralist, the original publisher of the photos included here, has been a fixture on the Missouri agricultural landscape for over a century. Started in 1901 as The Ruralist, it became The Missouri Ruralist in 1910, circulating news on “the interests of agriculture, horticulture, stock-raising and kindred industries,” focused on Missouri farms and farm families. The Missouri Ruralist was the first place Laura Ingalls Wilder published the stories about her life that became the basis for her world-renowned “Little House” book series. Today, The Missouri Ruralist continues as an on-line publication. In 2003, the publisher donated over 4,100 photographs from the magazine’s archives to the State Historical Society – photos dated between 1933 and 1978. Those that appear here are generally between 1948 and 1968, selected to give a glimpse of how Missouri’s agricultural communities responded to their changing world. The photos captions attached to these images are the original captions from the magazine.
I curated this collection by reviewing about a quarter of the total collection, filtering down to come up with photos with something to say about Missouri farming of the last 100 years. The photos fall into three categories – the philosophical approach to farming during the period, the range of interests of the farming community, and innovation trends that emerged during those times.
Approach to Farming
Missouri apparently was among the first – if not the first – state to embrace the concept of balanced farming. In 1948 (which appears to be an early year in the movement), J.W. Burch published “The Philosophy of Balanced Farming,” in a professional journal, where he explained it is “as essential to have a sound plan for a farm as it is to have a blueprint for a building. Balanced Farming is farm management in its broad sense. It calls for the establishment of a farming system that will make the best use of the resources of land, labor, and capital available for a particular farm.” At the time, this program was one of two that was the target of all the Missouri Extension Services resources (the other being 4-H). Based on the photographic evidence, the results were as varied as the approach promised. Farms and farm families who diversified crops, upgraded facilities, improved resource management, and adopted management systems are the subject of most of the balanced farming images.
Range of Activities
The Missouri Ruralist covered subjects beyond the boundaries of the farm. Stories introduced the reader to the roles, resources and responsibility of other organizations like the US Weather Service and the state Department of Natural Resources. It talked about programs for educating returning veterans for work as farmers, for connecting farms through rural electrification, and for public and workplace safety awareness. The magazine also became a social center for the state’s farm families. They extensively covered 4-H events, state fair competitions, farm and implement shows around the state and the meetings of all the local home economic clubs. It’s hard to imagine a Missouri farm being complete without a current copy of The Missouri Ruralist spread out on the kitchen table.
Many of the photos in the “Ruralist” collection feature new products or techniques. Fairly or not, farmers are often thought of as reticent to change. Surely a thorough and objective discussion of the new technologies in a trusted magazine went a long way toward encouraging adoption of new ideas.
American industry was on the rise then, and almost every day researchers were discovering new uses for raw materials that had long been discounted by farmers. Ready-mix concrete was only 30 years old, so the idea of laying concrete floors for production buildings would have seemed an unnecessary expense, until it was linked to cleanliness and in turn to livestock diseases. In a few cases, images taken 40, 50 or 60 years ago are more chilling than intended, like those with farmers broadly spreading herbicides and pesticides across their fields.
Finally, I found the photos in this triptych below a good group to summarize the intersection of the features of The Missouri Ruralist I’ve highlighted here. We see Jimmie, a young man on the threshold of becoming a farmer, who’s won a $200 scholarship for using farm resources to create and apply technology toward the improvement of farm operations – provided, of course, that the wiring holding his inventions together doesn’t set the house on fire.