In the Valley of Virginia


I TURNED to the County Agent in surprise.

‘A chicken farm in an apple orchard!’ I said.

The County Agent smiled.

‘ There are milch cows in the barn yonder, sheep on the far slope. They are all profitable.’

‘You mean they make money,’ I started to say. I did not say it. I was already under the spell of a peculiar land where profit does not quite mean money, where wealth is dignified by use.

I did say something about the encroachment of industry upon agriculture. I spoke of greedy mercantile interests fixing prices out of all relation to the prices of farm products; I talked of utility chains and brokers, of middlemen and financiers and foreclosures and insurance companies; of government subsidies, surpluses, crop reduction, parity-percentage loans, and the other hobgoblins that people the nightmares of the typical American farmer driven to the wall by the march of an industrial civilization.

‘In Rockingham County,’ said the Agent, ‘no one talks of the poor farmer. These folks would laugh at you if you talked about farmers being driven to the wall. Other things, yes. Big milk chains coming in from outside, high-priced retail stores, light and power and phone companies, insurance outfits, yes. Some of them never even got a toe-hold here, others went to the wall, sure enough. But the farmers, no. You see the farmers run most of this valley.’

Like most of the Valley people, the Agent is a quiet, reticent man. He works harder than he talks. I had the feeling that he worked some twenty-four hours out of the day; that, even in his sleep, he was planning. Perhaps — quite properly — he is suspicious of strangers until he is sure of their intent; he seems, in this way, more like a Yankee than a Virginian. But in the end he answered my questions, and he did far more: he showed me the first community I had seen where the diversified farmer is king. Beneath its life I saw the doctrine of use above profit in full career as a practical philosophy.

I do not mean that the practices I saw there do not exist in other communities. They do — often on a far larger scale. There is nothing new or singular about the farm-coöperative idea in America. There are books about it which date back to the beginning of the decline of the American agricultural tradition. In parts of Europe the farm coöperative is a tradition in itself.

But usually it has come through the promotion of a zealot or professional organizer or through a prejudice against some special destructive interest. It is in common use in the West where staple crops like wheat cover enormous acreages, though even there, as taxpayers know to their sorrow, it is not sufficient in itself to protect the farmer against economic disaster. It rarely prospers in a community of small farms — most of them a hundred acres or less — on which not only apples, but cows, sheep, turkeys, poultry, and the nourishment for these as well as the farmer’s family, are all raised by a single farmer.

In Rockingham County ‘coöperation,’ as they call it to cover the whole tightly organized system, is the result of a long, slow evolution. The idea was born in the Valley, sired by peculiar human and social conditions; it was not a formula imposed from outside. That the Valley people have borrowed details does not alter this fact, for in their borrowing they have selected only what was especially adapted to their needs. Step by step they have evolved something so modern, — so far, indeed, ahead of the modern norm, — so productive and so unified, that I came to think of it as a model for the country. It was then that I learned of the ‘imponderable’ which lay behind it, and I began to wonder about its application in other places.

It was the president of the mutual fire insurance company who enlightened me. I had asked him why coöperation here had been so nearly total and why it had achieved such success when other counties even in the same valley had hung back.

‘One of you writer people answered that question. I have forgotten his name; he came here years ago to study our people. But I remember what he wrote. “They are a sturdy, industrious people,” he wrote; “none are exceedingly rich and none exceedingly poor.”’


Rockingham County lies west of the Virginia Blue Ridge among the headwaters of the Shenandoah River. North of it is the County of Shenandoah, where the farms turn into apple orchards, and north of Shenandoah is Frederick, which is nearly all apples, an orthodox staple crop. Immediately south of Rockingham is the County of Augusta, which has taken on the Rockingham pattern.

Counties in Virginia have almost the distinctions, social cohesions, and local pride of counties in England. The ridge which divides the tidewater from the ‘Valley of Virginia’ is like a national or, indeed, a racial boundary. From it to the sea are the relics of the slave-owning tradition, the great tobacco plantations and the towns or estates that have grown out of them, peopled with the descendants of Church-of-England English. Here an old civilization of slave-built leisure is dissolving in the transition to the machine age. Here too the counties have their own legends, but the differences are smoothing out.

But cross the ridge and all the aspect alters. The Negroes — necessary to the plantation but never adapted to diversified farming — thin out until a black man is noticeable. Instantly there is the sense of work without break, a continuity of intelligent, sharing, and common labor; of the dignity of physical effort and cunning connivance with nature; of the selective adaptation of a machine, an era, a social invention, or a political phase to the old, primitive purpose. In a sense you pass, as you cross the Blue Ridge, from transition into eternity.

Now this is a remarkable thing to feel while crossing a state, rapidly, in a motorcar. The change does not seem to accord with the normal historic pattern of westward American migration. Normally a coastally settled people attacked by restlessness, land lure, taxes, or congestion, moves west across the mountains carrying its customs with it, and what social changes occur are imposed by the conditions of the new land. Parts of Ohio or Indiana or western New York became replicas of Connecticut or Massachusetts, the towns bristled with steeples dedicated to Calvin’s God, the Yankee merely expanded in a wider land. But here in the Valley of Virginia you will find scarcely a tint or a sound to suggest the tidewater, hardly a church or hymn or legend that descends from Jamestown or Williamsburg. The settlers, then, must have come from separate sources.

Occasionally in Harrisonburg, the Rockingham County seat, you will see a man with a wide-brimmed, low-crowned black hat or a woman with a stiff black bonnet tied under her chin. Perhaps you will catch a scrap of conversation between these folk and will be startled to hear an unfamiliar language. On a Sunday you may see many of these people driving buggies (less often cars) to a church which bears no relation to John Smith’s Church of England, and if you listen to the service you may hear singing in the strange tongue, or, in English, a long exhortation against war.

If you have come to the Valley of Virginia by way of Pennsylvania, especially the country round York and Lancaster, these sights and sounds may be reminiscent to you. For these plain-dressed, horse-and-buggy-riding religious people are Mennonites, and their language belongs to that altered German which is known as Pennsylvania Dutch.

Mennonites and German Baptist Brethren (known as Dunkers or ‘dippers’ from their doctrine of baptism through ‘trine immersion’) were probably the first white men to penetrate the Valley of Virginia. Historians differ as to when they came, and the first of them seem to have kept no records of their own. The earliest records of settlers report them as already there. The other Pennsylvania Dutch, when their migration began down the great Indian highway into the Valley, found the Dunkers on the Shenandoah in little colonies, dressed in the skins of animals, carrying on their special rites of trine immersion, feet washing, the love feast, and the kiss of charity, and living at peace with the Indians. And they were living, moreover (as they had done in Pennsylvania), on the land.

This they had always done, these dissident sects from Germany, until at last, because they repudiated infant baptism and other dogma, they had been hounded out of their native land. Mennonites, Dunkers, Amish, River Brethren, Pietists, and other faintly differing groups shunned ‘the world ‘ lest it corrupt them, but wanted to live at peace with it; refused to swear oaths, refused military service, refused civil office, distrusted luxury and ornament, but, most important to the story of the Valley, scorned money. Their idea of profit was nature’s increase: the growing of two blades where one grew before, or the multiplication of their livestock or of themselves. So the Mennonites and the Dunkers, as ‘ the world ‘ crowded them in Pennsylvania, followed the Valley trail, and the other Pennsylvania Dutch, following them, found them living in peace and plenty along the rivers and creeks as if the Lord would always provide for those who served Him with such devotion. Most of the Mennonites and Dunkers came to rest at last in what became Rockingham County.

The robust Pennsylvania Dutch who followed the Dunker trail were more worldly, but they had the same devotion to the soil and knowledge of it, and the same understanding of use instead of profit. They were joined at last by another people singularly like them, the Scotch-Irish who had leapfrogged over urban civilization in the east of Pennsylvania and scattered settlements all over the Valley. A symbol of their agricultural tradition was the great Cyrus McCormick reaper, invented in Rockbridge County (south of Augusta) in the 1830’s.

Thus, because the fertile Valley was settled by an oblique migration of German farmers and not by tidewater tobacco planters, and because the land was worked for use by tough, thrifty, oldworld peasants and not by Negro slaves, we come upon the sharp differences as we descend the west slope of the ridge. And because the Palatine Germans, with their stubborn persistence in an ancient, highly productive pattern of farming, formed the nucleus and, indeed, the majority of the population of Rockingham County, we find there a diversification, a cohesion, a coöperation, and a general prosperity which, in combination, may not be equaled anywhere in the United States.


The president of the fire insurance cooperative looked at me for a time and adjusted his mind to the curiosity of a stranger about matters which, for so long, he had taken for granted. He was a member of one of the oldest of the Mennonite families, and, if he was no longer active in the church, certainly neither the world nor insurance had corrupted him.

‘Coöperation,’ he said, ‘began with us right after the Civil War. You see, Sherman burned the barns up and down the Valley. So the farmers got to thinking about fire insurance and they got together about it. In ‘69 the Rockingham Home Mutual Fire Insurance Company was chartered as an organization not for profit. It was and is a complete coöperative, paying dividends to members.

‘When the telephone came in, the struggling local company was soon absorbed by a mutual system. Years later, when the Bell system ran its trunk line down the Valley, it expected our system to fold up. But the farmers said no. They wanted to keep their own lines. So we still have our own telephone coöperative. We tie into the Bell system for long distance.’

I was startled when he told me the subscribers paid a rate of $6.50 a year with unlimited local calls.

‘Well, you see, the farmers put up the lines and they make their own repairs. And nobody gets any profit.’

Then came the ‘beef clubs’ and ‘carload coöperatives.’

The farmers have never believed in selling all their produce for profit and then buying food at fancy prices from the shops. I have seen the results of such practice in other parts of rural America. I have starved for decent meat in the heart of cattle country; I have eaten stale eggs in poultry lands, and I have bought milk shipped from the city in a region where every farm was a dairy. Such things are an old and curious American custom which never took hold in Rockingham County.

When the butchers came and meat at fancy prices appeared in their shops, the farmers shook their heads. Yet to butcher your own beef, hang it, eat it as you wished, required storage space and ice. So the farmers formed beef clubs of eight members each. Every fortnight one member butchered one of his own animals, and for the following two weeks the other seven members shared it with him. Sometimes a club of sixteen would make a kill every week.

The beef clubs are over now, which certain Rockinghamers think a pity, because they were fun. Today the locker system has replaced them. In a coldstorage coöperative which functions on the quick-freezing principle, each farmer has a locker which he rents for seventyfive cents a month. The plant employs a butcher. The farmer takes his stock alive to the plant; it is butchered, cut into pieces ready for cooking, and put in the locker, where it is frozen as quickly as the commercial frozen foods. As the farmer needs a chop, a steak, or a rib roast for dinner he goes to his locker and takes out his own. When I was in Harrisonburg in May, people were eating last summer’s corn on the cob. It tasted as fresh as when it was picked.

When retail prices of all sorts of manufactured goods went so high that they threatened the survival of the farmer’s prosperity, he found a way out of that which has grown into a vast coöperative. He knew well enough that the difference between manufacturers’ and retail prices went to a line of middlemen, but he could not buy wholesale for himself. So he got together with his neighbors and together they ordered a carload of goods. When the car arrived these people went to the yard, unloaded it, and divided its contents among them.

Today the Rockingham Coöperative Farm Bureau does this job for them. It has 2800 members, operates five department stores, and does an annual business of more than a million and a half dollars. Its operating expenses are between 6 and 7 per cent of earnings. Members pay two dollars a year dues and receive dividends in proportion to their purchases. A member may buy anything from a pin to a refrigerator, from a bottle of pop to ten gallons of gas for his car. For all these things he pays approximately wholesale prices, for no one makes a profit out of the Farm Bureau. In addition to this, the Bureau does a considerable manufacturing business on its own in grinding feed from grain, and it markets livestock and eggs for its members.


‘So the Farm Bureau,’ I said to the County Agent, ‘also helps to find markets for the farmers’ produce. That means that the farmers do some business with the outside world. That they make money.’

‘They do a great deal,’ said the Agent. ‘Rockingham County does not eat half a million turkeys or drink more than twenty million pounds of milk in a year.’

I had hardly expected a 1941 farm to be self-sufficient in the sense that a New England subsistence farm was self-sufficient two centuries before. I knew that to survive in our modern civilization a farmer must make part of his profit in money with which to buy the things he cannot make. But the spectacle of a small farmer earning a respectable income over and above the cost of farm operation, and after he had provided food for the use of himself and his family, was an unfamiliar one.

‘Our thirty-eight hundred farms,’ the County Agent went on, ‘make an annual income of thirteen million dollars. They have not always done this. But it is a just reward at last after many years of devoted work.’

Love of the land came first. The desire for profit had never become more important than the devotion to the soil. While the organization of society permitted it, these people cultivated their land for use only. When society came under the industrial pattern, they adapted their way of living to it by selling and buying. Always they fought the impulse of profit for its own sake in themselves and in others. Because they had won that fight, the land repaid them with interest, and now a little surplus showed on their books. Meanwhile they lived as they wanted to live.

While they were doing this, others were exhausting the soil with crops which, for the moment, brought high prices. Others brought erosion upon themselves by overploughing for a temporarily profitable crop or overgrazing their pastures with enormous herds of livestock for which there existed a sporadic demand. In the end these others had gone down before the wave of prices exalted by profit-dominated industry because they were too sympathetic with the profit motive to combat it.

The County Agent brought me back from my dreams with a few practical explanations.

‘The coöperatives made it possible,’ he said. ‘You know, when a purchaser comes into a rural county from outside, he dictates the prices he will pay. Take milk. Our dairy farms are small — nine cows is the average. A little farmer with two or three cows finds it hard to stand up to a big buyer and demand a certain price for his surplus milk.

‘In 1921, in the first depression after the World War, Harrisonburg milk prices were the lowest in the state. They were ruinous. So the dairy farmers got together.’

This expression had become familiar to me by now. There was a brief showdown with the commercial buyer, who, in fear of the coöperative, suddenly offered attractive contracts. The farmers said no, and, though the coöperative was then scarcely started, they voted for it.

‘Today that coöperative is buying the milk from nine hundred to a thousand dairy farms. Now no one is paid too little and no one too much for his milk. The size of the farm, the weakness or strength of a farmer, make no difference. The cooperative makes no discrimination except for quality of milk. It can’t, because the farmers are the coöperative.’

The County Agent took me to the milk coöperative’s plant. It is the best equipped, most up-to-the-minute layout for the handling of milk I have seen. The milk as it comes in is tested for dirt, bacteria count, grading, butter-fat content, flavor. It is then classified for retail and wholesale distribution and processing into cream, condensed skim, condensed whole, butter, and dried milk or milk powder. The regulations are even more strict than the legal requirements, and farmers are constantly kept informed of any defect in their milk.

The coöperative sells to ice cream and other manufacturers in various cities. It controls 85 per cent of the retail milk business in Harrisonburg. The profits go to the farmers.

The farmers have an interest in the coöperative based upon their milk production. Dividends are paid according to this interest. Yet, in any election of directors or decision upon policy, each farmer has one vote, regardless of his financial interest.

I was next shown a poultry processing plant. Because of the decline in prices paid for live poultry in order to give profit to butchers, dressers, and other middlemen, the Rockingham farmers ‘got together’ and decided to make their own poultry ready for the ultimate consumer. In this modern factory (which suggests an automobile assembly plant) the birds hang from a moving conveyor and are successively killed, bled, plucked, scalded, hot-waxed, and eviscerated — 1800 of them every hour. Much of this work is done by machinery. The plant is 100 per cent coöperative.

In the country about this plant and the big cold-storage unit next it are Rockingham’s largest enterprises, poultry and turkeys. The big Ridgehurst farms that specialize in broad-breasted bronze turkeys, bred for their yellow meat, raise birds which at five months weigh seventeen or twenty-four pounds, according to sex. Successful business in turkeys is difficult enough to demand the concentration of experts, yet it has not prevented the turkey farmers from following the old design of diversification which everyone respects, and they raise their quota of sheep, hogs, cows, fruit, and chickens along with this ‘ornery’ and delicate bird.

The modernization necessary to all these enterprises demanded electricity. Incubators, brooders, processing machinery, and refrigeration require juice, and plenty of it in remote rural districts. The darkness before rural electrification by government is too well known among the millions of Americans who depended on private utilities to need further description. But it interested me to know how this Valley community anticipated the government’s work with a cooperative.

‘We started with a water mill,’ the manager of the new Rural Electrification Administration generating plant told me. ‘The farmers got together and hitched a generator to it. Then they built their own transmission lines to their farms.’

At the earliest rumor of government electrification the County Agent went to Washington. He wanted his community to be the first to have a plant. He went to Washington twelve times, with the result that the first generating plant ever financed by REA funds began operation in his county. It supplies the three counties of the Shenandoah Valley today, over more than a thousand miles of lines. The rate for a monthly use of over two hundred kilowatt hours is a cent and a quarter.

The honest Valley farmers shook their heads at first over the government project. The tradition of the religious sects that it is wrong to owe money was dominant among this sturdy folk who had avoided corruption by exceeding wealth or exceeding poverty.

‘Suppose,’ they said, ‘it fails to liquidate itself?’

In dollars and cents, they meant. They were not to be hoaxed by talk of ‘general welfare’ or abstractions about social improvement or imponderable community prosperity. They meant dollars and cents, cash amortization, and, because they meant these things, payments have been made on the dot.

‘We have stopped worrying now,’ said the manager, pointing to the place where a fifth Diesel generator would soon be installed.

And the County Agent, who rarely shows emotion, was plainly moved when he talked of rural electrification.

‘It is the greatest single thing,’ he said, ‘that has ever happened to the Valley people.’


I asked a question before I left which brought out a strange story.

I told the County Agent that I had studied and written about the late trend away from the farms — the lure of industry and the cities for the young farmers. I spoke of the effect of the movies on growing boys, of the glamour of high-paid factory jobs and short hours which had robbed the land in many places of its young labor and was especially likely to do this in the coming years of defense effort. I asked what these trends had done to the Valley.

‘In the boom of the twenties,’ the Agent said, ‘there was a migration of boys to the North. Yes, they went to Detroit. They got profitable jobs in the automobile factories.’

I had expected this. The picture I had seen was too perfect. For a moment, I was almost sorry I had asked the question.

But when I started to speak the County Agent stopped me.

‘You mustn’t jump to conclusions,’ he said.

Then for a while he studied me in silence, as if he wondered whether it was worth going on.

‘City people don’t believe this story,’ he said at last, ‘but we have documentary evidence. The boys didn’t leave the farms for the usual reasons. When industry, in the twenties, began going up, farms began going down. A lot of young men all over the country ran for the cities then like rats from a sinking ship. But our boys went to save the farms, to make them prosperous in spite of industry and everything else. The time had come, you see, when hard work alone wouldn’t do the job. So these lads went away to make money to put in the farms. They hated to go, but they saw the chance and went. And we have the proof that the money came back regularly in checks and money orders. Some was applied on new, unimproved land. Some paid installments on property already bought on time. Some went into improvements and repairs. In any case money flowed into this Valley at a time when it was flowing out of other farm areas.

‘Then, when the boys had made enough for these things, they came home. They will always come home, these people. You don’t understand that without the generations such folks have behind them.’

‘Will they go again,’ I asked, ‘for defense? ‘

They had shown no signs of it yet, the County Agent told me. They hope they may be put to work in the Valley machine shops where their factory-acquired skills would be useful. If the ‘bits and pieces’ or industrial ‘farming out’ plan went through, they could make tank

and airplane parts without leaving their farms.

‘The farms will be useful enough anyway. This Valley has already been a “breadbasket” for two wars.’

I have fully checked the County Agent’s story. A journalist friend of mine who was simultaneously charmed and suspicious when I repeated it sent a man to Detroit to investigate.


The Valley of Virginia celebrates its love of the soil and its joy in farm production by two folk festivals each year. Though more than 50,000 visitors come to watch the fun, and though the pageants are professionally directed, the feasts are celebrations of the people. They are financed by nickels and dimes. The costumes and floats are made by the people through the spare time of half the year.

The Winchester Apple Blossom Festival at the head of the Valley is already famous. It is timed for the moment when Frederick County’s 20,000 acres of close-planted orchard are at the flood of their bloom, so that, from the hills, the Valley is a sea of white like a cloud-ocean seen from an airplane. The guess is sometimes missed and on the day set the blossoms are finished, but the festival takes place nonetheless. The queen is crowned and fêted in the midst of a formal pageant as large and as fine as anything I have seen in rural America. The fun goes on into street dancing while the blossoms close and go about their secret business of making a harvest that will fill 700,000 barrels.

In October, the turkey festival at Harrisonburg is less famous, perhaps, but just as large. As the coronation parade, headed by its queen, moves through the streets, fat turkeys are thrown from the windows along its way and scrambled for by the crowd. The Rockingham County Turkey Festival, Inc., is a 100 per cent coöperative.

These symbolic carnivals provide the principal meetings between the Valley and the outside world. Every year between 50,000 and 100,000 festival visitors go home with a new knowledge of this country beyond what tourists gain from the Skyline Drive along the top of the dividing Blue Ridge. Whether these people penetrate beneath the gayety of the festive rites to the deep faith of which it is the visible sign is still uncertain. Faith in the soil is mystic and secret. The Valley people cherish it, like their old religion, with a peculiar reserve, protect it from the world’s corruption.

They are suspicious of publicity. They are jealous of their special gains, their achievements. Perhaps they have no ambition to stand as a model for farming America.

‘As a rule,’ one of them told me, ‘we don’t like reporters.’

A chicken farm in an apple orchard. Cows in the barn, heifers, turkeys, sheep on the far slope. All doing well, thank you. Not a new idea, certainly, but perhaps a forgotten one, in 1941, as a takeoff for the pursuit of happiness.