Abstract: Factories in the Fallows: Deindustrialization and the Making of Modern Rural Politics, 1945-1965

Keith Orejel


In the quarter century after World War II, government policies and technological innovations combined to produce major gains in agricultural productivity. As a result, the American farming economy experienced rapid consolidation, with wage laborers and small independent producers being forced out of the agricultural sector in floods. In the state of Iowa, a mass exodus of superfluous farm laborers from rural and small-town communities soon followed, causing rural churches to close, schools to merge, and businesses to fold. In response, rural small-town elites—primarily bankers, real estate developers, insurance agents, and utilities managers—organized industrial development corporations for the purpose of attracting manufacturing firms to replace disappearing agricultural jobs. Rural boosters looked to capitalize on the flight of business corporations away from heavily unionized urban industrial areas. Indeed, many rural Iowans asserted that "deindustrialization" offered a way of stabilizing decaying local economies. As I will argue, the aggressive pursuit of rural industrialization spurred the growth of conservative politics within the American countryside. Working closely with the state's business community and industrial development experts, small-town leaders helped to construct a distinct rural conservative economic ideology that framed pro-business, anti-New Deal policies—such as right-to-work laws, low corporate taxes, and business subsidies—as a necessary evil for attaining much-needed industrial employment.