Creating a Garden Eden?

The Transformation of Rural California since the mid 19th Century

May 30-June 2, 2013
Workshop at the German Association of American Studies, Erlangen, Germany
Conveners: Uwe Spiekermann (GHI Washington) / Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson (GHI Washington)

The gold rush transferred modern California within a few decades from a backward and underdeveloped country into one of the most thriving states of the American Union. This was not only the result of mining and oil-drilling but of the development of modern commercialized and market-driven agriculture, which shaped California's landscape since the 1870s. California's moderate Mediterranean climate, its fertile soils, and its immense land resources made it to an ever-evolving cornucopia. The Golden State is the most successful example of capitalist transformation of land use: Coolie work, sub-constructing, irrigation, specialization and mono-cultures, the innovation of new commodities, the use of fertilizers and insecticides, agricultural subsidizing, re-cultivation-all were pioneered in the Western country before it was used in a broader scale in the United States.

The panel aims to describe and analyze the transformation of rural California since the 1870s and will try to use this as a tool for understanding the impact that the rise of the modern Western agribusiness had on American society. California early on established a unique model for commercialized agriculture in the American West, which today supplies more than half of the U.S. fruits and vegetables and more than a quarter of its animal products. Although profitable from the beginning, the Western experience marked also the ecological and social costs of a market-driven economy. 

We welcome papers exploring the following issues from the late 19thcentury to the severe changes during the depression, when dust-bowl migration changed the social and ecological balance of the rural areas again:

  • What were the effects of modern agriculture to the Californian landscape?
  • In what way were ecological problems perceived and discussed, and how were questions of sustainability disputed?
  • How did the innovation of an ever-growing number of new plants and animals change the use of soil, the landscape, the regional specialization, and the use of modern agricultural technology and science?
  • What were the interactions of immigration and agriculture in the American West? Did the late-comer status of the American West offer new conditions for technology and knowledge transfer both from Europe and the American Mid-West?
  • What consequences did the transformation of rural California have for race and gender relations at the countryside?
  • What was the role of the new class of rural entrepreneurs in the ingoing changes of rural California and the transformation of the Western society and economy in general?

Those interested should send a brief abstract and a one-page CV to both workshop chairs Uwe Spiekermann: spiekermann@ghi-dc.org or Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson: waldschmidt-nelson@ghi-dc.org.