Action Alert!

Standing on Both Feet: The Rural Homestead

by Rev. Patrick T. Quinlan

Descriptive Title

A Necessity for an Era of Reconstruction


Fr. Quinlan deals with the rural homestead as a necessity for an era of reconstruction. He teaches how to work in the city and live on the land.

Publisher & Date

National Catholic Rural Life Conference, November 10, 1944

As serious minds turn to the study of the national population trends of the past century, they become convinced that such trends cannot long continue if the nation is to endure. There was a time when the country's population was made up of twenty-five percent urban people and seventy-five percent rural. This was a healthy situation. But times have changed. Today our population is twenty-five percent rural and seventy-five percent urban. This change has had serious consequences.

One of the tragic effects of this change has been the rapid decline of births, beginning with the 1820-1830 decade and continuing in every decade with but one exception down to the present time. (Cfr. Appendix, Table I 1800- 1934)

One would naturally object that an immediate decline in population should have followed the birth decline. However two circumstances have saved the nation up to now from such a disaster. Until recent years immigrants with large families poured into our country. This is no longer the case. Moreover, a predominate rural people supplied us with a surplus rural population. This surplus is no longer provided. As a result a decline in population now threatens. Those who are sufficiently interested to make a study of the 1940 U. S. Census Report will readily conclude that the most serious cause of our imminent population decline is our present top-heavy urban population.

The necessary brevity of this pamphlet does not permit us to develop in detail the figures which have brought us to this conclusion. (Cfr. Appendix, Table II) Suffice it to say that no city of the United States of today with a population of 100,000 or more is reproducing itself. Typical of this urban trend we present the figures of seven cities of seven parts of the nation which provide the following hopeless record:

(U. S. Census Report, 1940)

Atlanta, Georgia............... 194
Boston, Massachusetts.......... 219
Chicago, Illinois.............. 197
Kansas City, Missouri.......... 186

New Orleans, Louisiana........... 196
New York, New York.............. 184
San Francisco, California....... 161

Students of population statistics remind us that practically four children should be born per family to reproduce the race. In view of this fact the records of our cities are discouraging indeed.

Is "Back to the Farm" the Solution?

Many, recognizing the gloomy effect of our urbanward trend, are ready to suggest a movement "back to the farm" with the hope that this might save the nation from impending ruin. At first glance this does seem to offer a solution. The rural record of births even today presents a far more encouraging picture than does that of the city as is made clear by the records of seven States, predominantly rural, in seven parts of the nation:


Georgia.................... 435
Iowa ........................ 384
Louisiana................. 461
New Mexico............ 480

Oklahoma.............. 456
Vermont................. 370
Virginia.................. 374

As much as such a movement toward the land might seem to serve in warding off disaster we fear that this is beyond the realm of realization. We have not forgotten the manner in which the mechanization of our farms within the past generation has uprooted the farm family from the soil and set it adrift always in the same direction, toward the city skyline. The millions of migrants of depression years are still vivid in our memories.

In spite of the drastic reduction of our farm population, due at least in part to the increased use of machinery, we are realists enough to expect that the postwar period will see an increase rather than a reduction in its use. This no doubt will be followed by a continued rise in our urban population and a consequent decrease in our national growth, unless some other mode of living is adopted by our displaced rural people. For both the city family which would go ruralward and the rural family, uprooted from its holdings and tending cityward, we recommend the Rural Homestead. If necessary let them place one foot in industry but let them at the same time keep one foot in the soil.

An Urban Dweller Dreams of the Country

That there is already an urban-rural trend is evident from the mail which reaches the desks of our Rural Life Directors. That this trend will gain momentum in the postwar period we have no doubt. However it is in need of direction. With proper guidance it can turn out to be a tremendous blessing for the nation. Without this it might well end in chaos.

The city dweller who dreams of a life on the land must frequently be directed to curb his enthusiasm. He does well when he consults the Rural Life Director of his diocese. Typical of the city resident who is anxious to take up rural living and yet is wise enough to seek counsel of one who might be expected to give sane advice is the writer of the following letter which, we feel, merits to be quoted practically in full.

Reverend and Dear Father:

Since you are located near me I have chosen to address these inquiries to you.

I belong to your Faith. I am nearly forty years of age and have a metropolitan position and my family consists of a wife and two sons. Within a reasonably short time I shall be entitled to a pension. For some time I have dreamed of quitting the city, getting out into the country and establishing myself on what is know as a Productive Farm.

Although I could at the present time afford to purchase a modest place, I had planned to rent a small place until I saw whether or not I would like the life of a farmer, liked the location, neighbors, also whether friend wife would take kindly to this life, for like myself she is city born and raised.

I had thought of a small house, about twenty acres, a cow, some chickens, maybe a pig and I also was determined to raise the feed for these animals in addition to the vegetables for myself and family. Of course it is understood I know nothing about farming or farm life but from several books I have read I thought that I might make a go of it. Recently, however, I have been reading some articles that might make this idea of a city man establishing himself on a farm appear to be the height of idiocy. A farmer bulletin of the U. S. Department of Agriculture on subsistence farming paints a dismal picture and an even blacker outlook is sketched by a senator of a farm State in a recent article.

In view of the foregoing, if you could give me an answer to the following inquiries, I would be deeply grateful:

  1. Is my idea practical?
  2. Are there any books or pamphlets which you recommend which might aid me in coming to a decision?
  3. What opportunities do the rural areas afford toward giving my children a Catholic education?
  4. Should I wait, say ten years, until they have at least a high school education?
  5. Is farming at my age too hard in view of my inexperience?

I shall be ever grateful for any advice that you might be able to offer.

Respectfully yours

He Looks Before He Leaps

The author of this letter shows himself to be both sensible and humble. He seems fully aware that, should he set out to realize his plans without seeking advice, he might easily overrun his mark.

He is indeed overambitious when he dreams of a productive farm. Farming is not for him, since he admits his inexperience in this way of life.

To rent an acreage would be for him a serious mistake. There can be no stability on rented land. It is like building a house upon the sand. Neither is there any incentive to improve the land, since no tenant can transmit the results of his efforts to the next generation.

The author of the letter could never become a farmer unless he is gifted with rare powers of adaptability. Farming is a traditional way of life and a city-bred person can seldom hope to succeed at it. Twenty acres would for this reason be too much for him to handle. Twenty acres, if fertile, is a lot of land and, if not fertile, he will have little use for it.

It would require much farm experience to successfully raise food for a "cow, some chickens and perhaps a pig."

The bulletin of the U. S. Department of Agriculture to which he refers, may be correct in painting a dismal picture for a city dweller who looks forward to becoming a subsistence farmer. It could not, however, reasonably discourage him from becoming a productive homesteader.

Much wisdom is shown by the writer of the communication. He manifests prudence when he desires to "quit the city." His intention to carefully choose the place likewise manifests great prudence. The location must fit his individual as well as family circumstances.

He treads cautiously in this venture in view of the fact that both he and his wife are "city born and raised." It is well that he realizes that unless "friend wife" joins with him wholeheartedly in this venture, it is doomed to failure before it gets well under way.

We are pleased to note that he is not tempted to start a chicken farm, thus literally putting "all of his eggs in one basket." He wisely believes in diversification, "a cow, some chickens and maybe a pig."

He does not intend to raise vegetables as a business. He knows that should he succeed in raising sufficient for "himself and family" he will do well for a former city dweller and he will go far in relieving pressure on the cash income provided through his pension.

He has done well to have read literature on the subject; although he was unfortunate in having chosen just that which might discourage, while there is much written which might have had the opposite effect.

He asks many practical questions, questions which are milling through the minds of many these days; seldom are these questions so pointedly and clearly expressed.

What Are the Answers?

The questions presented by the author of the letter are so very practical that we do not hesitate to give the answers to them which might be given by the average Rural Life Director of the average diocese.

  1. Your idea is a very practical one in particular in this our day. By putting it into effect you will not only promote your own individual welfare and that of your family, but you will also assist the nation in the solution of one of its most grave problems, the achievement of a balanced urban-rural population. We would only suggest that you aim at rural homesteading rather than farming.
  2. There are many constructive and encouraging books and pamphlets on this subject and more are constantly coming from the press. We recommend that you keep in touch with the Book Department of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, which Conference aims to keep homesteaders informed concerning literature on this subject. (A brief list is given at the end of this pamphlet.)
  3. In some dioceses, such as St. Louis, the Rural Life Program has developed to such a degree that rural children have excellent opportunities to acquire a parochial school education. In other dioceses the Rural Directors are bending every effort in cooperation with the rural pastors to imitate the success of the pioneer St. Louis Bureau. These programs are not always successful in providing parochial schools for the children; but in many places, such as the Diocese of Trenton and Syracuse, groups of sisters are located in central places from which they go forth to the surrounding territories and instruct the rural youth, in season and out of season, in religious matters.
  4. Should you delay for ten years before you begin to put your plan into effect you will find by that time that your children have grown firmly into city ways and habits and your dream will end up merely as a dream.
    Take time by the forelock. As soon as you have chosen the proper location and you are free to leave the city, depart.
  5. Farming at your age and with your background would indeed be difficult if not entirely impossible. Rural Homesteading would be within your powers and we are convinced that you and the members of your family would find it most satisfying.

Advice along these lines was given to the author of the letter by the Rural Life Director to whom he had addressed his queries. The return letter of gratitude gave much satisfaction to the Director and merits to be quoted here.

Reverend and Dear Father:

Thank you very much for your kind and most encouraging reply to my inquiries. What you call "Rural Homesteading" is, I believe, what I want to do. I'll certainly be content if I can live off my land — my family and myself. I feel that it will be one of the best moves of my life when I go from the city to the country. I view with alarm the pagan, anti-religious, materialistic elements that have practically taken over the city and I am most anxious to remove my children from this environment. Further I feel that it will do all of us a world of good.

For the next two years I shall be plotting and planning and praying to Saint Isidore to help me to attain my objective.

Respectfully yours

The Urban Counter Inducement

Certain urban leaders, recognizing this sane trend toward rural living and fearing the effect it might have upon their financial and political status, are doing much to discourage the very thought of it and are promoting projects which they hope will induce the city dwellers to remain within city boundaries. In doing so they would keep the families small and the people propertyless.

The mayor of a great metropolis, in a recent broadcast, pointed with pride to a postwar project of an equally great insurance company which would settle some 1,250 families upon twelve acres of land within the city limits. A city journal, far from voicing opposition to the plan, gave approval and publicity in the following words: "For middle-classed families, the new project will embrace 1,250 apartments to shelter 3,400 persons at an average basic rental of approximately $12.50 a room a month."

A project such as this may succeed in concentrating votes within a given area since it professedly aims to shelter 2,500 husbands and wives. It will do little to increase the future population of the nation since the total number of apartments will house but 900 children, that is, an average of about seventy-two one-hundredths of a child per family.

The Rural Homestead

The question might well be asked: What is meant by the Rural Homestead as distinguished from the Farmstead? Both indeed should promote family living. Both should be characterized by ownership. Whereas the Farmstead is established upon an acreage sufficiently large to support the family through agricultural pursuits, the Rural Homestead is established upon a small acreage upon which the family dwells and from which the breadwinner goes forth to the nearby place of occupation that he might earn the cash income for the family.

The Rural Homestead should not be established upon a narrow lot but rather on no less than one acre of fertile land. We cannot insist too often upon the fact that the property should be owned by the homesteader, for only ownership tends to make of the members of the family permanent dwellers. It should be purchased within a commuting distance from the place of employment of the breadwinner. It is very important that the system of education within the homesteading area give proper direction and training to the children of homesteaders that they might do their part in assisting the family to derive full value from the acreage.

Every inch of space should be properly utilized by the homesteader who occupies this blessed acre. The house should be sufficiently large to accommodate not only the actual family but likewise a goodly potential increase in numbers. (At least the initial plans for the home should be such that when finally executed the house might serve this purpose.) There should be a shelter for a cow or a goat, as the case may be, a coop to house enough chickens to supply the family with eggs and an occasional fowl for the table.

A playground should be provided for the little ones that they might recreate without "getting on their neighbor's nerves." The garden plot should be large enough to permit the growth of a supply of potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, beets, onions and numerous products which will provide a varied table diet throughout the summer months and a well stocked cellar for the seasons during which vegetables do not grow. Such a cellar proves itself to be of greater value to the homesteader and his family than are treasures hidden in vaults. The dollar may be inflated or deflated but a quart of peaches remains a quart of peaches.

There is room on an acre for a variety of fruits: apples, pears, cherries, peaches. Here the essential importance of ownership is again brought to light. No person will be tempted to plant strawberries, asparagus or the like on rented land, since these demand more than one season before production. A tenant garden frequently turns out to be of the victory garden type which so frequently is grown on borrowed ground. The soil is often returned to the owner, mined and in worse condition than that in which it was taken over.

The Chinese ruralist follows an excellent principle which might well be adopted by the homesteader from the start. The Chinese father hopes to transmit the land to his children in better condition than that in which he received it from his elders. A tenant will not be ambitious to plant fruit trees, since years must pass before a yield may be expected.

The members of a family firmly established on an acre or two will soon fully appreciate their way of life. Potatoes, cabbage, a mess of beans fresh from the garden plot, a supply of eggs from the hen house, a pail of milk, fruit from the trees and bushes will require little cash outlay, are little drain upon the earnings of the breadwinner, which earnings are necessary to meet the bills which demand cash transactions. Those who have been fortunate enough to have already experienced this way of living now say: "It isn't what you earn that counts today. It's what you save."

Rural Comforts

The day is now past when city comforts surpass those of the rural area. The rural homestead can and should be located upon a good and, if possible, upon a hard surfaced road which will be quickly swept clear of winter snow. Electricity, with all the conveniences provided by such power, can be provided for these homes. Communications with the outside world are plentiful since there is the radio, telephone, the daily journal, and the mail brought to the door. Frequently there is to be found the artesian well, the pure and limpid waters of which will flow in convenient places.

The homesteader will seldom crave the movie or public amusements as does the city dweller who finds them necessary as absorbers of surplus hours; and yet these are within the reach of the homesteader should there be an occasional demand. There are in addition to all these, the beautiful dawns and twilights, the vast skies by night revealing a galaxy of brilliant stars, exercise in the open and dustless air, surrounded by the glories of God's creation. These are comforts which build up the soul of man and are not to be found in artificial surroundings.

Development of Personalities

Not only are the urban comforts of today within the reach of the rural homesteader but moreover rural living offers to both husband and wife exceptional opportunities for the development of their personalities. The task of the average city worker presents him with little or no chance to develop his talents. Frequently he performs but a single operation throughout the day along the assembly line. Should the city worker be at the same time an urban dweller he seldom finds it possible to exercise creative talents during leisure hours. But should he be a homesteader, gardening, caring for the flocks, and landscaping will bring into play the initiative and the talents which would otherwise remain hidden. Homesteading will make of him a more complete man, a better husband.

The wife of the homesteader will also be given a fine opportunity to enjoy a more wholesome life. She will see the value of being surrounded by numerous little ones. With love and devotion she will give her hours to their care. She will be in a position to teach them better than she would have been, had she remained an urban wife. By working in the garden at the side of her husband, by sharing with him and with the children in the care of the chickens and other domestic animals, by preparing the products of the garden as well as the fruits of the trees for winter consumption, she will develop talents which previously would have been thought to have been beyond her powers. The personalities of each and every member of the family will benefit greatly by this way of living.

Homestead Groups

We have at times seen small groups of closely related families living on homesteads within close proximity. Grandparents are thus surrounded by their married sons and daughters and are frequently distracted, as they love to be, by the merry laughter of their numerous grandchildren at play. Living on the land provides additional comforts and joys for such groups as these.

However, since circumstances do not often permit groups of closely related families to band together as homesteaders, we would like to see families desirous of rural living settle together in a given area somewhat along the pattern of Amish agricultural groups. These groups are united not only by the common bond of religion but of nationality as well. Where there exists a common bond not only of religion but likewise of nationality there can be left little room for friction. Minor differences which might arise can be readily settled at meetings of the leaders of such homestead groups. In groups such as these the Cooperative Movement in its various phases might well play an important roll after careful study on the part of members of the group.

We are aware that settlements made up of families which are blessed with the common bond of nationality and religion are not within the reach of thousands of those families which would settle on the land. For these thousands seeking relief from city living we recommend that they settle, even as individual families if necessary, in rural areas within reasonable distance of the church in the midst of a fair percentage of their co-religionists.

In order to give proper direction to persons who thus seek to establish themselves on the land, Rural Life Directors of some dioceses are giving serious thought to the establishment of a land location service in cooperation with reliable Catholic real estate agents; which service will make it possible for potential homesteaders to readily find places within three miles of their place of worship and surrounded by a goodly number of their co-religionists.

Practical Points for Homesteaders

  1. Establish your homestead within three miles of your church. Your personal zeal may inspire you to keep up your religious practices at a greater distance. This zeal may not be transmitted to your children.
  2. Settle within an hour's commuting distance of the place of employment of the breadwinner of the family if his work takes him into a great metropolis. Should he be employed in a smaller city it may be possible to establish the homestead within a half hour of his place of work. Thus you will have one foot in industry and one foot in the soil. This is real security.
  3. Unless both husband and wife agree that rural living is the proper way of life, do not attempt it. To disregard this counsel is to invite failure.
  4. If possible settle on a hard surfaced road not too far from a state highway. Federal and state roads are usually cleared first after winter storms. (There are some exceptions to this rule.)
  5. Make sure that the water supply is adequate the year round. The cost of digging a well is always a question mark until the well is dug.
  6. If you plan to construct your home rather than to buy one already completed, buy your acreage now, make your complete plan for your future home, and then build as circumstances and finances permit. Much is being said about prefabricated houses in the postwar period. Look into it. It may have something to offer.
  7. Do not be tempted to invest in too much land. Buy what you think you can conveniently use. There are rural people who become land poor.
  8. Let no man tempt you to go into the chicken business unless you have had much experience. Inexperienced chicken farmers often lose small fortunes which have been acquired throughout the greater part of a life time.
  9. Let your children share early in the labors of the homestead as well as in its joys. It will teach them initiative and will make of them industrious and good citizens.
  10. Prospective Catholic homesteaders should seek advice concerning proper locations from the Rural Life Director of the Diocese to which they belong or in which they hope to settle. In case you do not know the name of the Director of your Diocese nor his address, mail your letter to the Rural Life Director, in care of the Chancery of the Diocese.
  11. Do not hesitate to become acquainted with your new rural neighbors. They are one of the finest assets of rural living. Ruralists are not isolationists.

A Final Word

We conclude these pages with a quotation taken from an article prepared by Louis Bromfield for the May edition of The Reader's Digest entitled: "The New Pioneer of the Land." Whereas the author directs his words to those who would reestablish farms, we feel that his words might be well taken by those who hope to pioneer in homesteading.

"There are in the armed services thousands of young men who are hungry for land and economic independence and security and dignity which come from all these things. There is no more free, rich and virgin land to give them, and the naturally rich land, if for sale at all, commands prohibitive prices. But scattered from one end of the country to the other are thousands of farms which need salvaging."

Many of these abandoned farms within reach of our large cities are being broken up today into small acreages and will in time be occupied by potential homesteaders. May you and your family become happy, industrious homestead pioneers.

© National Catholic Rural Life Conference

This item 10540 digitally provided courtesy of