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No phase of the social progress of the Twentieth Century is more significant or promises a more far-reaching influence than the rediscovery of the _community_ as a fundamental social unit, and the beginnings of community consciousness throughout the United States. I say the "rediscovery" of the community, for ever since men forsook hunting and grazing as the chief means of subsistence and settled down to a permanent agriculture they have lived in communities.


In ancient and medieval Europe, in China and India, and among primitive agricultural peoples throughout the world, the village community is recognized as the primary local unit of society. In medieval France the rural "_communaute_" was the local unit of government and social administration. Its people met from time to time at the village church in regular assemblies at which they elected their local officers, approved their accounts, arranged for the support of the church, the school, and local improvements. In most of France and throughout much of Europe the farm homes are still clustered in villages, from which the farm lands radiate. There the village is primarily a place of residence, and with the lands belonging to it forms the community.

New England was settled in much the same manner, being divided into towns which still form the local units of government, and which for the most part are single communities, though here and there more than one center has sprung up within a town and secondary communities have developed. The New England town meeting has ever been lauded as the birthplace of representative democratic government in America, and in its original form it was a true community meeting, dealing not only with the political government, but considering all religious, educational, and social matters affecting the common life of the town.

Although the New England tradition determined the form of local government in the areas settled by its people in the central and western states, the township was but an artificial town resulting from methods of the land surveys. The homesteader "took up" his land with but little thought of community relations. He traded at the nearest town; church was first held in the school-house and later churches were erected in the open country at convenient points; his children went to the district school; and his social life was chiefly in the neighboring homes. His life centered in the immediate neighborhood. As railroads covered the country, villages and town sprang up at frequent intervals, and gradually became the real centers of community life, but usually there was but little realization on the part of either village or farm people of their community interests. The farmer's attention was on the farm, the townsman's chief interest was his business, and not infrequently their interests were in conflict and they gave little thought to their real dependence on each other.

In the South the plantation system of the landed aristocracy, which as long as it existed was quite self-sufficient, gave little encouragement to community development. The county was the most important unit of local government and the "carpet-baggers'" efforts at establishing local townships were repudiated with the ending of their régime. Only in recent years have conditions throughout the South, largely the result of increased immigration and the breaking up of large plantations, favored the development of local communities.

In general, the American farmer has voted and taken his share in local politics and government, has attended his own church, has traded where most convenient or advantageous, has joined the nearest grange or lodge, and with his family has visited nearby friends and relatives and joined with them in social festivities; he has loyally supported these various interests, but until very recently, he has had little conception of the interrelations of these institutions in the life of the community or of the possible advantages of community development as such. But new wants and new problems have arisen which may only be met by the united action of all elements of both village and countryside. The automobile demands better roads and both farmer and businessman are interested to have them built so that the natural community centers may be most easily reached. Better schools, libraries, facilities for recreation and social life, organization for the improvement of agriculture and for the better marketing of farm products, are all community problems and force attention upon the community area to be served by these institutions. A consolidated school or a library cannot be maintained at every crossroads. Only by the support of all the people within a reasonable distance of a common center are better rural institutions possible.

The trend of events was thus bringing about a recognition of the place of the community in the life of rural people, when the Great War hastened this process by many years. Liberty Loan, Red Cross, and other war "drives" were organized by communities which vied with each other in raising their quotas. A new sense of the unity of the community was brought about by the common loyalty to its boys in the nation's service. Having created state and county councils of defense, national leaders came to appreciate that the primary unit for effective organization for war purposes must be the community, and President Wilson wrote to the State Councils of Defense urging the organization of community councils. Thousands of these had been organized when the Armistice was declared, and although most of them were not continued, the importance of the local community was given national recognition and attention was directed to the need of the better organization of local forces for community progress.

What, then, is the rural community? Is it a real entity or is it merely an idea or an ideal? Where is it and how can we recognize it?

We are indebted to Professor C. J. Galpin, now in charge of the Farm Life Studies of the United States Department of Agriculture, for first developing a method for the location of the rural community. Professor Galpin[1] holds that the trading area tributary to any village is usually the chief factor in determining the community area. He determines the community area by starting from a business center and marking on a map those farm homes which trade mostly at that center. By drawing a line connecting those farm homes farthest from the center on all the roads radiating from it, the boundary of the trade area is described. In the same way the areas tributary to the church, the school, the bank, the milk station, the grange, etc., may be determined and mapped. The boundaries of these areas will be found to be by no means coincident, but it will usually be found that most of them center in one village or hamlet, and that the trade area is the most significant in determining the area tributary to this center. When the areas served by the chief institutions of adjacent centers are mapped, it is usually found that a composite line of the different boundary lines separating these centers will approximate the boundaries of the communities. A line which divides adjacent community areas so that most of the families either side of this line go most frequently to, or their chief interests are at, the center within that boundary, will be the boundary between the adjacent communities. Thus, from the standpoint of location, _a community is the local area tributary to the center of the common interests of its people._[2]

As indicated above the business center may usually be taken as the base point or community center, from which to determine the boundaries of the community. However, in the older parts of the country or in hilly or mountainous regions, the trade or business center is not always the same as the center of the chief social activities of the people, and may not be the chief factor in determining the community center. Not infrequently a church, school and grange hall located close together may form the nucleus of a community which does its business at a railroad station village some distance away, possibly over a range of hills. The chief trading points cannot, therefore, be arbitrarily assumed as the base points for determining community areas, but those points at which the more important of the common interests of the people find expression should be considered as community centers. It is not simply a question of where the people go most often, but of where their chief interests focus.

With this concept of a community it is obvious that the "center" of a community must be the base point for determining its area. It would seem that the community center is essential to the individuality of any community: The community "center" need not necessarily be at the geographical center of the community; indeed in many cases it is at or close to one of its boundaries, though in an open level country it will tend to approximate the center.

The term "community center" is here used in a literal sense of being the center of the activities of the community. It should be distinguished from the "community-center idea" which refers to a building, whether it be a community house, school, church, or grange hall, as a "community center." Such a building in which the activities of the community are largely centered may be a community center in a very real sense, but in most cases these activities will be divided between church, school, grange hall, etc. No one of them can then be a center for the whole community, but taken together they constitute the center in which the chief interests of the community focus. Every community must necessarily have a more or less well defined community center; it may or may not have some one building in which the chief activities of the community have their headquarters. Such buildings, of whatever nature, may well be called community houses or social centers.

Although attention has been directed to the area of the community, the community consists not of land or houses but of the people of this area. Its boundary merely gives a community identity, as does the roll of a company or the charter of a city. The community consists of the people within a local area; the land they occupy is but the physical basis of the community. The nature of the community will depend very largely upon whether its people live close together or at a distance. In the Rocky Mountain States many communities are but sparsely settled and may have a radius of forty or fifty miles and yet be true communities, while on the Atlantic seaboard a definite community with as many people may have a radius of not over a mile or two.

Nor is the community a mere aggregation or association of the people of a given area. It is rather a corporate state of mind of those living in a local area, giving rise to their collective behavior. There cannot be a true community unless the people think and act together.

The term "neighborhood" is very frequently used as synonymous with "community," and should be definitely distinguished. In the sense in which these terms are now coming to be technically employed, the neighborhood consists of but a group of houses fairly near each other. Frequently a neighborhood grew up around some one center, as a school, store, church, mill, or blacksmith shop, which in the course of time may have been abandoned, but the homes remained clustered together. Or the neighborhood may be merely six to a dozen homes near together on the same road or near a corner. The school district of the one-room country school is commonly a neighborhood, but as there are no other interests which bind the people together it cannot be considered a community. Likewise people associate in churches, granges, etc., but church parishes overlap, and the constituency of any one of these associations is not necessarily a community. Only when several of the chief human interests find satisfaction in the organizations and institutions which serve a fairly definite common local area tributary to them, do we have a true community. In many cases the neighborhood, particularly the school district, forms a desirable unit for certain purposes of social organization, and, indeed, in many cases it may be necessary to develop the neighborhood as a social unit before its people will actively associate themselves in community activities, but the neighborhood cannot function in the same way as the larger community which brings people together in several of their chief interests. The community can support institutions impossible in the neighborhood, such as a grange, lodge, library, various stores, etc. The community is more or less self-sufficing. A community may include a variable number of neighborhoods. The community is the smallest geographical unit of organized association of the chief human activities.

Bringing together these various considerations concerning the nature of the rural community we may say that _a rural community consists of the people in a local area tributary to the center of their common interests_.

Obviously the community thus defined has nothing to do with political areas or boundaries, for very commonly a community may lie in two or three townships or counties. That rural areas are actually divided into such communities and that the community is the primary unit of their social organization may best be tested by taking any given county or township and attempting to map its area into communities on the basis above described. In most of the northern and western states and throughout much of the South, most of the territory may be quite readily divided into communities. This has been demonstrated by the rural surveys of the Inter-church World Movement[3] and by the community maps made by County Farm Bureaus.

A very large part of the South, however, has no natural community centers and in such sections it will be found very difficult if not impossible to define community areas. The store may be at the railroad station, the church in the open country, and the district or consolidated school at still another point. Some people go to one store or church and others to another. Under such conditions, no real community exists. Usually, any form of social organization is more or less difficult under such conditions, for the people are divided into different groups for different purposes and there is nothing which makes united activities possible. It seems probable that only to the extent that certain centers of social and economic life come to be recognized by the people, and community life is developed around them, will the most effective and satisfying social organization be possible.

Recognition of the community as the primary unit for purposes of rural organization has now become quite general. Several mid-western states have passed legislation permitting school districts to combine into community districts for the support of consolidated schools or high schools, irrespective of township or county boundaries. The present tendency in the centralization of rural schools seems to be in the direction of locating them at the natural community centers. Rural churches are coming into a new sense of responsibility to the community and the community church is increasingly advocated. The American Red Cross in planning its peace-time program is recognizing the importance of the rural community as the local unit for its work. The County Farm Bureaus, working in cooperation with the state colleges of agriculture and the United States Department of Agriculture, very soon discovered the value of the community as the local unit of their organization, and carry on their work through community committees or community clubs. Possibly no other one movement has done so much to bring about the definite location of rural communities and their appreciation by rural people. A conference of national organizations engaged in social work in rural communities held in 1919 summed up the experience of a group of representative rural leaders in the statement: "In rural organization it is recognized that the local community constitutes the functional unit and the county or district the supervisory unit." In other words, it is the rural community which really "carries on," whatever the executive organization of the county or district may be.

The strength of the rural community as a social group lies in two facts. First, it is not so large but that most of its people know each other. The size of the community in this regard does not depend so much upon the actual number of square miles involved as upon the number of its population. People may all be acquainted in a sparsely settled community covering a ten-mile radius, and there may be less acquaintance in a small community with a dense population. Secondly, the great majority of the people in the average rural community are dependent upon agriculture for their income, either directly or once-removed. These two facts make possible common interests and a social control through public opinion which is not possible in larger social units such as the county or city. Sir Horace Plunkett appreciates this when he says:

      "Our ancient Irish records show little clans with a common ownership of land hardly larger than a parish, but with all the patriotic feeling of larger nations held with an intensity rare in modern states. The history of these clans and of very small nations like the ancient Greek states shows that the _social feeling assumes its most binding and powerful character where the community is large enough to allow free play to the various interests of human life, but is not so large that it becomes an abstraction to the imagination_."[4]

This inherent social strength of the rural community, the fact that the community is relatively permanent, and the appreciation that only through community effort may rural people realize their natural desire to enjoy some of the advantages of cities, force the conviction that the community must be the primary unit for the organization of rural progress. It is from this point of view that we shall discuss the community aspects of the various human interests of the farmer and the consequent relations of "The Farmer and His Community."


[1] Galpin, C. J., "The Social Anatomy of an Agricultural Community." Research Bulletin 54, Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Wisconsin, May, 1915; and also in his "Rural Life," Century Co., New York, 1920.

[2] The following four pages are revised from the author's bulletin, "Locating the Rural Community," Cornell Reading Course for the Farm, Lesson 158.

[3] See Reports of the Town and Country Department, Committee on Social and Religious Surveys, 111 Fifth Ave., New York, or Geo. H. Doran, New York.

[4] "Rural Life Problem in the United States," p. 129. Italics mine.