The bucolic image of the family farm as the rock of American values is something that we can’t escape from in the political season. But as Gabriel Rosenberg points out in this excellent essay, not only does that myth cover up the genocide and ecological catastrophe behind the history of American agriculture, it also erases the panoply of sexual arrangements such lives created.
Rural people applied a make-do attitude not just to work and family, but to sexual intimacy as well. Camps, bunkhouses, lodges, taverns, and saloons were spaces rife with intimate and sexual relations that directly contravened dominant middle-class notions of sexual propriety: homosexuality, sexual barter and commerce, public and semi-public sex, and cross-dressing and gender fluidity.
Country folk were eager to pay for sex as well, and a distinctively rural infrastructure of sexual commerce met their desires. Brothels and prostitutes in rented rooms were common enough in frontier towns, but historians Estelle Freedman and John D’Emilio also describe euphemistically named “hog farms” — farms that also operated as brothels. Matching the mobility of rural populations, other enterprising sex merchants put their brothels on wheels. Many states worked to criminalize “cat wagons,” as the mobile brothels were known, forbidding prostitution in “any such prairie schooner, covered wagon or vehicle,” as a 1899 South Dakota law put it.
Rural spaces were also hotbeds for sexual diversity. Close quarters and cold nights meant that many men slept together, and in timber camps and other gatherings of migrant laborers, proximity led to sex. Historian Peter Boag surveyed reports about camps in the Pacific Northwest and found that reliable reports estimated incidences of same-sex intimacy among men (and often adolescent boys) ranged from common to pervasive.
Similarly, itinerant laborers were a constant source of sexual anxiety among the better sorts in agricultural communities: A hired man might corrupt the farmer’s daughter . . . or his son. Social reformers also fretted that constant exposure to animal sex on farms produced unnatural desires. The sociologist E. A. Ross memorably quoted a Wisconsinite who reported that farm boys “get together in the barn and while away the long winter evenings talking obscenity, telling filthy stories, recounting sex exploits, encouraging one another in vileness, perhaps indulging in unnatural practices.”
What precisely these “unnatural practices” entailed was left unsaid, but decades later Alfred Kinsey would report that homosexuality was most common “in particular rural communities in some of the more remote sections of the country . . . among ranchmen, cattle men, prospectors, lumbermen, and farming groups in general.” Such men often formed complex sexual communities with visible public components such as all-male “stag,” “bull,” and “cowboy” dances as well as stable intergenerational relationships between older “wolves” and “jockers” and younger “punks” and “lambs.”
Rural social events often scandalized middle-class observers. Rural people took the rare sociality afforded by fairs, festivals, and weddings to let loose. Such events rippled with gambling, drink, dance, and sex. Far from quaint, quiet, or orderly affairs, rural public events could be bawdy and rambunctious. Despairing of the corrupting effects of a “whisky, colored to resemble red lemonade,” an 1876 account from Dearborn, Ind., declared, “Thus did an agricultural fair, a promised event of sobriety and chastity, run to the resemblance of a drunken orgie.” Many fair associations responded to these problems by banning alcohol and gambling, but enough rowdiness persisted that in the 1920s the sociologist Alvin Good still bitterly complained, “Even the public dance in the rural community is usually sponsored by the immoral elements, and alcohol is usually consumed in abundance.”