Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 1982, pp. 168-83.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


An American literary and scholarly tradition upholds the Midwestern town as a bastion of social stability. In novels by William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and a host of nineteenth century authors, comforting images of small town tranquility provide sharp contrast to scenes of urban turmoil in the age of industrialism. Even the town's critics, from Edgar Watson Howe to Sherwood Anderson, pay tribute to popular views of small-town folk as more sedentary and self-contented than the ambitious urbanites who crowded the streets of nineteenth-century New York and Boston and Chicago. These images were not restricted to works of fiction. America's first sociologists, including Jane Addams and John Dewey, accepted the stereotype of life in the provincial town as a guiding principle for reform efforts in the nation's cities during the Progressive Era. The survival of that stereotype, in fiction and in social research, into the present century is a testament to its power.

Unfortunately for those who would make sense of the social consequences of American urbanization, the stereotype has little basis in fact. Recent research on the character of American life prior to World War I reveals an entire society in flux. The impact of industrialization reverberated across the continent; small towns and rural areas were not immune to its effects. The transformation of the American economy pulled some men and women into the nation's cities and pushed others beyond the Ohio River Valley onto the western prairies. The result was social mobility on a par with anything uncovered by investigations of twentieth- century communities. On the eve of the nation's great industrial advance, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "a restless temper seems ... one of the distinctive traits of this people." Such restlessness has shaped the history of all American communities, including the allegedly tranquil country towns and provincial cities of the Middle West.


Nineteenth-century Sioux City, Iowa, typified the demographic turbulence of the age. During the 1850s the "Gateway City" of the Upper Missouri River gained and lost thousands of residents in response to changing conditions in the western land market. The collapse of the real estate boom in 1857 brought a decade of population stability, which ended abruptly with the coming of the Sioux City and Pacific Railroad in 1868. Thenceforth, Sioux City lived up to its nickname as each year thousands of persons passed through town on their way to new homes in the Upper Missouri country.