The Latah County Historical Society is pleased to share that later this year it will once again welcome a Smithsonian Museum on Main Street traveling exhibit to Moscow.
“Crossroads: Change in Rural America” will open at the Chamber of Commerce downtown office, located at 411 S. Main Street, Aug. 23 and will be on display through Oct. 4.
This nationally touring exhibition considers how America’s rural communities have changed over the last century, the forces that brought about those changes, and what towns across the country are doing to adapt, innovate, or disband.
How we actually define the term “rural” is a prominent question posed by the exhibition. Can you articulate the characteristics that set rural places apart from other parts of the country?
The U.S. Census Bureau uses the word to refer to “open country and settlements with fewer than 2,500 residents,” thus defining all parts of Latah County outside Moscow as rural. So does that make Moscow an urban community?
The United States Department of Agriculture prefers to use a different dichotomy, comparing metro and nonmetro counties. Latah County falls into the latter category because our urban center is not part of a larger metropolitan area.
Still other government bodies will use population density or land use to determine the exact borders of rural America.
Those sorts of measurements feel hollow, however, and do little to explain the concept of rurality.
Perhaps it is more of a “know-it-when-you-see-it” sort of thing. A variety of elements, experiences and practices likely influence how you understand rural America. Access to land, for example, is fused with the idea of rural living.
Private land ownership was foundational to the development of the country, and Thomas Jefferson’s vision for an agrarian society was based upon the assumption individuals who owned and worked their own land were morally superior to those living in urban areas.
For the earliest white settlers in Latah County, access to productive farmland was a gateway to financial security and a sense of worth. For those they displaced, the Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, and Palouse peoples, the land was sacred and sustaining.
As Americans traversed the continent in search of adventure, prosperity or autonomy, communities sprang up at crossroads, lending a great deal to the character of rural America. For urbanites, small towns in far-off places are easy to caricaturize, reduced to either quaint Mayberry-like utopias where everyone gets along or a whistle-stop in the land that time forgot. Those of us in said rural places (or nonmetro, if you prefer) know how beautifully complex our communities really are.
We take pride in being self-reliant, civic minded, entrepreneurial, and in forging fellowship with our neighbors. As the exhibition notes, however, changes in America throughout the 20th century took a toll on rural towns, a fact that is easy to verify in Latah County’s own history.
Deary, for example, was a community built around the timber industry that enjoyed early success as a stop along the Washington, Idaho, and Montana Railway. In 1914, it had two churches, a bank, hotel, four sawmills, a weekly newspaper and more than a dozen other businesses.
By the mid-1920s, however, lumber jobs were already becoming scarce. Though reduced in scale, the town sustained itself on agriculture over the last several decades, boosted by the dedication of resilient community members. Today Deary’s residents are investing in other innovative industries, including artisan foods.
Besides the loss of major local industries, other contributing factors to rural community hardship include changing demographics, school consolidation and lack of infrastructure like highways or internet.
Onaway provides an early example of the third factor. Originally founded as a stagecoach stop “on the way” to mines in the Hoodoo district, Onaway was greatly reduced in size when Potlatch Lumber Company roads bypassed the community. It continued to serve an important role in the ecosystem of rural Latah County, though, opening its saloon doors to the men of Potlatch, then a dry town.
A strong case could be made that adaptation is central to the definition of rural. The Smithsonian sums it up thusly in their exhibit guide: “Rural Americans believe in their communities. Many seek solutions to problems rather than abandoning the places where they live. Every community is different and each has unique challenges and opportunities … Challenges may seem daunting, but country life remains inspiring for many, and people persist.”
Throughout this summer and fall the historical society will be offering programs that examine themes presented in “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.” The first program is July 2 and will consider how Moscow’s growth reflects larger trends in 20th century America with a visit to Maynard Fosberg’s property. Please visit our website, www.latahcountyhistoricalsociety.org, to find a full description of the exhibit as well as a calendar of events.
Dulce Kersting-Lark is executive director of the Latah County Historical Society.