A rural renaissance

I was raised by parents who had grown up in a time when families provided for their own basic needs. My mother and father, children of immigrants, survived the Great Depression and knew how to make something out of nearly nothing. When I was a little girl, my mother grew most of the vegetables we ate. She tilled, planted and weeded a huge garden. She grew strawberries by the gallons, raspberries, and currants. She made jams and jellies from the wild plum trees and chokecherry bushes in the shelter belt. We ate beef from our own cattle and chickens plucked by my mother’s hands. Many of the clothes I wore were hand made by my multi-talented mother.

We lived a long way from town, but not so far from the rest of the world that we weren’t influenced by the attitudes of the society around us. School, radio, television and magazines taught us different values. I learned that things bought in the store were worth more than things that were “home made.” I was embarrassed by the fact that my dresses had been sewn by my mother, even if my friends never said so. The superior quality of the sewing in my clothes was lost on me. I yearned for clothes that were “store bought” and new, not handmade or handed down. We acquired a taste for foods that were processed elsewhere, like pizza that came in a box, frozen french fries, and packaged macaroni and cheese.

The delicious vegetables grown in my mother’s garden were shared freely with others when they were in surplus. Strawberries, juicy and rich with flavor, were given away when our freezer would hold no more. My mother shared her talents with the neighbors and they shared with us.

Somehow, that sharing and giving was not viewed as having worth, possibly because no money was exchanged in the transaction. Perhaps these foods, services and clothing grown and created with my mother’s labor seemed cheap because women’s labor was not deemed to be worth much at the time. Because she was not paid a salary, my mother, who got up at sunrise and worked until dark to do all these things, was not really considered to be working. The modern, industrial model of post World War II America implied that working for a wage and buying what we needed was more modern and promised a higher standard of living. Those of us wearing home made clothes and eating handmade bread were depicted as being backward. Fresh garden grown, home cooked food and hand made clothing became less valuable than things purchased in a store. We were convinced that eating out, buying clothes and importing all our necessities was a better way.

Until very recently we have expected locally grown and made products to cost us less than the mass produced, generic, cheap commodities shipped from around the world. Not only have we devalued things grown or made in our local community, we have considered our community to be of lesser value. We have bragged of our children who lived somewhere else and worked at important jobs. We’ve all been guilty of thinking, on the other hand, that those who stayed here were somehow setting their sights too low. Since we, ourselves, were here, that must have also reflected our own self image. We valued the opinions of experts from somewhere else more highly than our own. When someone moved here, we asked, “Why would they want to move HERE?” When we sought an inspirational speaker we found a local person who had left and had been successful somewhere else.

Values are changing. People are recognizing the wonderful taste and nutrition of locally grown, fresh foods.  A new appreciation for the craftsmanship of handmade things is resulting in expanding markets for products made one at a time. The abilities my mother used to feed and clothe us are again being admired and valued. The skills once abandoned are being learned by a new generation. There is a new-found pride in the young families who move back to small towns to start new enterprises or to take over where retiring business leaders leave off. Small towns are seen as good places to raise families. Computers and the internet has brought the rest of the world close by making rural living less remote and cut off.

Main Street will not look the same as it did in 1960, but there is a renaissance of rural living and self-sufficiency that bodes well for small town North Dakota. We should welcome newcomers and returning young families to our communities and support their efforts to create a life here.

Copyright © 2016 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains