Sunday, August 22, 2010

Life in Frontierville

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner noted a report from the Superintendent of the 1890 Census that so much of the country had been settled that "there can hardly be said to be a frontier line" for the purposes of the census, and lamented the end of what he called "the first period of American history." In the 400 years prior to this declaration, Turner said, the constant expansion into new areas of wilderness encouraged distinctive traits such as individualism, creativity, and "that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom." In short, for Turner, the frontier was what made America America.

Nearly a century later, Frank and Deborah Popper (of "Buffalo Commons" fame and/or infamy) took note of population losses on the Great Plains and theorized that Turner had prematurely declared the death of the American frontier. Florence Williams, writing in High Country News, describes this phenomenon as "the frontier revers[ing] itself early in the 20th century, making a U-turn east." I would argue that it never really left.

I started thinking about this on Saturday night when, after attending Mass in a neighboring town, we watched The Sound of Music with Gabi, the exchange student living with us this year. (Gabi is from Austria and has heard, from at least a dozen Americans in her first two weeks here, "Oh, like in The Sound of Music!" So, we thought we'd fill her in on what everyone's talking about.) As you may remember, the movie's cinematography focuses a great deal on the natural beauty and historic architecture of Austria. During one of the shots the exterior of Maria's abbey, Gabi exclaimed, "Wow, the churches here really look different from the ones in Austria."

The particular church we had attended that night was hardly recognizable as a church at all, in fact. It is a wood-frame building with plain, white siding. It has a few small stained-glass windows, but during the daylight hours it is hard to notice them. Without the sign in front, one could easily mistake it for a house. It actually was built as a church (originally a Lutheran one) during the 1920s, then used as a Masonic Lodge, then finally turned into a Catholic church in 1949.

What struck me about Gabi's comparison was the age of the structures. The abbey used for the exterior shots (the interior was a Hollywood soundstage) in The Sound of Music had been there in some form for well over 900 years before the church we attended on Saturday was built. Much of what you see in the movie is "newer" additions... they're only 380 years old now

The thing is, the church built in the 1920s is one of the older buildings in that town. Colorado only became a state in 1876, and most of the towns in northeastern Colorado (where I live) weren't established until at least ten years after that. People of European descent have only lived in this area for just a little more than one lifetime (and well under two average lifetimes, by today's standards).

To put this in context, Turner says it took about the same amount of time after the founding of Jamestown for Virginia frontiersmen to cross (in any significant numbers) the Allegheny Mountains - the western boundary of... Virginia. And the era of frontier expansion in Europe, according to C.J. Bishko of the University of Virginia, took place over three 200-year phases. Chronologically, my little corner of the world could certainly still be called "frontier."

It is still a frontier demographically, as well. The census standard quoted by Turner in 1893 is purely based on population density: two persons per square mile or fewer. As of the 2000 Census, the five counties (in three states) between Interstates 76 and 70 and straddling the eastern boundary of Colorado averaged a little under 4.2 persons per square mile. At least one county within about a 90-minute drive in each of the four directions from this spot sits at 2.0 or fewer.

Partially as a result of the Poppers' work , the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funded the development of updated standards for the designation "frontier" which would be "more generally acceptable than using only a single factor - population density within a county." Essentially, the new definition combines the old measurement of population density with distance and time of travel required to reach particular services and/or markets. In the case of telehealth, the travel time and distance cited are 60 miles or 60 minutes away from a hospital with 75 beds or more.

Using this model, every county touching either side of the eastern border of Colorado is considered "frontier" (see map here), as are huge chunks of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West. According to Florence Williams, "Over a third of the Plains' counties - 900,000 square miles - hold fewer than six people per square mile, and nearly half of those counties hold fewer than two people per square mile."

All of this raises the question of whether or not it really matters whether the places many of us in the Rural Republic live are considered "frontier" or not. As a practical matter, it really makes no difference what you call it (except with, perhaps, eligibility for certain programs through organizations like the Department of Health and Human Services). But I think there is a difference in the way we live.

One hundred and seventeen years ago, Frederick Jackson Turner wrote:

[T]o the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom-these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

All of these traits are on constant display where I live, and I'm sure those of you reading this from similar backgrounds can identify with at least some of them. It was these frontier traits that Turner believed defined the character of our country and, in short, made America great. Despite Turner's lament, the frontier is still alive and, I believe, the people who live here may hold the key to what can make our country great again.

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