Cows Got Into the Wheat Field

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Saturday, May 18, 1912:  What a doleful calamity. I had to watch the cows this morning, I mean this afternoon. I’m afraid that this is only the beginning. They got into the wheat for me.

Photo source: Kimball’s Dairy Farmer Magazine (June 1, 1912)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

I bet that Grandma’s father was upset with her for allowing the cows to get into the wheat field. The cows could have done a lot of damage as they tramped through the field and nibbled the lush green wheat plants.

The previous summer Grandma also complained in the diary about needing to watch the cows—and how they sometimes got into the corn field, orchard, and other places they weren’t supposed to be.

I continue to be befuddled. It seems like the cows should have been safely enclosed in a field surround by barbed wire fence.

Rural Leadership

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Sunday, February 11, 1912:  Went to Sunday School this afternoon. A lawyer from Sunbury was there. He was an excellent speaker. Ruth had some unusual news to impart after she arrived. Carrie was over a little while this afternoon. Gave her one of my pictures. Also gave my Sunday School teacher one.

Recent photo of McEwensville

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Sunbury is the county seat of Northumberland County. It is about 20 miles from McEwensville.

The lawyer may have spoken about the leadership.

As I mentioned last week, in 1912 the Country Life Movement was actively working to revitalize rural communities since many youth were leaving for jobs in the cities.

We’ll never know what the lawyer said, but I can tell you what was written in a magazine published in 1912 about the leadership skills needed to revitalize rural communities.

A well-organized personality reflects its efficiency in the organization in which it dominates, and vice versa.

Such are the qualifications of leadership and the organizing capacity which may be described as the ability to build and operate human machinery. It has its roots in tact and skill in dealing with men, in tenacity and in a certain instinct for construction.

One who possesses it sees a new person as social material and is likely to know what can be made of him better than he knows himself.

This type of ability was never in any such demand as it now is, particularly in the rapid rise of the Country Life Movement.

Rural Manhood  (January 1912) (A Magazine Published by the YMCA)


Carrie Stout was a friend of Grandma’s. Grandma had her photo taken by a professional photographer in January.

Weaknesses of Country Churches and Principles for Improvement

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, February 5, 1912: Back to my lessons again, I resolve to study until twelve, but it is more likely to be ten or a little later.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Yesterday, I wrote about how the church that Grandma attended closed a few years after she wrote these diary entries. Since the diary entry that I’m posting today is self-explanatory, I’m going to continue telling you about country churches in 1912.

A hundred years ago there were many more small churches in rural hamlets than there are now. The Country Life Movement, which sought to revitalize rural life in an era when many youth were leaving rural areas for the cities, was at its peak in 1912.  The media, many government officials, policymakers, and academics saw the churches as having a key role in this rural revitalization.

However, many of these churches were very small and struggling—and needed to revitalize themselves if they were to play a larger role in rural revitalization.

An article  on country churches in a 1912 issue of a magazine published by the YMCA called Rural Manhood  listed some “elements of weaknesses” and suggested principles that would lead to country church improvement.

Elements of Weakness

1. The chief element in the problem is the inevitable isolation in the open country and the depletion in thousands of villages; not merely in the loss in numbers, but in the improvement of the life of many of those who remain.

2. The element of Economic weakness: Impoverished soil, poor agricultural conditions and bad farming, which are found all too frequently.

3. Element of Business weakness. We seldom find any business system in the country church. As a rule, they have no financial policy, no plan for the future.

4. The element of Wasteful Competition, Altogether too many rival churches, due to the excessive individualism and lack of social co-operation, or the depletion of a once populous village, or the early blinders of too zealous denominational strategy. Wasteful sectarianism is a sin in the city, but it is a crime in the country.

5. Element of Moral Ineffectiveness: Many country churches have lost the respect of their communities and their local support, because of their lack of vital religion, of deeds of spiritual power for character making, because they do not prove their genuine brotherliness in an unselfish service of the community.

6. The element of Narrow Vision of service: The country church is often slow in responding to the progressive spirit of the times, and has little idea of the modern social vision. Few country churches as yet are seeing their great opportunity to serve broadly all the interests and needs of the whole community.

7. Lastly, the weakness is Leadership. The country ministry is in general an untrained ministry.


1. We must study the country church, or any other church, not as a machine, but as an organism, and we should remember that a body becomes as it functions. It develops by doing, or it dies from atrophy.

2. The pathway to success is adjustment to the environment. This necessitates a scientific, inductive method of careful study of environment and social contacts.

3. We must follow the natural method of redemption through resident forces, including of course among all personal forces, the might of the immanent God.

4. We must adopt modern business principles in the work of the church; Conservation of resources, combination of forces, elimination of waste and friction, for maximum efficiency.

5. As churches we must accept Jesus’ law of self-sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom. We must subordinate selfish personal preferences to community needs.

The Country Church (Rural Manhood, January 1912)

Since Grandma’s church, the McEwensville Baptist Church, was disbanded around 1920 it must not have been able to move beyond some of its weaknesses.

Stages of Country Church Evolution

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Sunday, February 4, 1912: Didn’t want to miss Sunday School this morning, but all the same I did. It was too snowy to walk, and that was my only way of locomotion, so I staid at home. It was so stale this afternoon.

The old McEwensville Baptist Church probably was located somewhere on the lot that contains this yard and house.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Wow, the weather must have been really bad. I believe this is the first (or possibly the second) time that Grandma’s missed Sunday School since she began the diary 14 months ago.

Some weeks Grandma was the only pupil in her class—but she always went the following week. Other diary entries noted that she was trying to memorize more than 700 Bible verses in the expectation of eventually getting a free Bible. (One week she memorized 27 verses!!)

It amazes even more that a teen like Grandma was so dedicated to attending Sunday School when I think that the church she attended was on its last legs. Grandma never mentioned the church by name. There were three churches in McEwensville a hundred years ago, but I believe that she attended the McEwensville Baptist Church—which closed a few years after she wrote the diary.

I recently found an article in an old magazine published by the YMCA called Rural Manhood that identified the four stages of Country Church evolution.

Stages of Country Church Evolution

1. The period of pioneer struggle and weakness, through which practically all churches have had to pass.

2. The period of growth and prosperity, sharing the growth of the community; or lacking this growth, a period of marking time under the burden of a building debt.

3. The third stage, in which I presume a majority of country churches are now found, is the period of struggle against rural depletion, and for many of them it is a noble struggle.

4. The ultimate stage of this evolution is the survival of the fittest, an inevitable and a desirable result of the struggle.

The Country Church (Rural Manhood, January 1912)

Using this taxonomy the McEwensville Baptist Church failed to successfully navigate Stage 3. I’m amazed how a hundred years ago Darwinian “survival of the fittest” language provided a lens through which to examine churches.

Re-inventing Small Towns for the 21st Century

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, June 14, 1911: There is nothing to write about for today.


Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since Grandma had “nothing to write about” a hundred years ago today, I’m going to get on my soapbox.

A hundred years ago this building was the Reader Hotel.
The building with the porch once housed a restaurant. When Grandma was writing these diary entries the other building was  Armstrong’s General Store. 

Sometimes I read other genealogy blogs. Jennifer in Climbing My Family Tree visited some small towns in Iowa where her ancestors had lived. She wrote about towns “that reached their peak a hundred years ago,” and then wondered what caused some towns to struggle or disappear while others thrived. I’ve often pondered similar issues regarding the towns in central Pennsylvania–

McEwensville Community Hall is the white building in the center of the photo. It would have been the center of community activities a hundred years ago.

I find the world within a 10 mile radius of the farm where Grandma grew up to be fascinating.

One hundred years ago the nearby towns were filled with shops and restaurants. Neighbors helped each other. A good Saturday night would involve doing things with friends and family—visiting the neighbors for ice cream, maybe playing a few cards—or on a big week-end there might be a box social or the high school students might put on a play that the entire community would attend. The local newspaper would report whose grandmother had come to visit-and who’d attended a picnic.

One hundred years ago the villages, towns, and small cities were thriving. Some regional economists today assert that many small towns no longer serve a purpose. When transportation and communication are poor that there is a need for more local and regional centers. But according to these economists when people can easily travel further to work and shop the need for many small communities begins to vanish.

Fred’s–the one  and only restaurant in McEwensville today.

Yet I somehow don’t want to give up on the small towns—and want to believe that they still have an important role in the 21st century. Personally I find the small towns in central Pennsylvania to be wonderful, friendly, relaxing places and believe that they are in the process of re-inventing themselves for the 21st century.

Many of our youth today participate in study abroad programs and know all about remote villages half way around the world. Our kids can tell us about the foods, agricultural practices, and cultural norms of tiny villages in Asia, Latin American and Africa (which I totally support and think is incredibly cool)—yet they are clueless about the awesome history and culture of the small towns outside their backdoor.

One young man I know recently told me that when he was growing up his parents regularly took him on trips to Europe—but they never bothered to show him America.

Last year he and some of his friends went on what they called a Rust Belt Tour—and explored and photographed towns in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that once had been thriving but now are really struggling. He talked with the people—and learned about the unique history, culture, and foods of each locale. And he discovered some wonderful places and people.

His perspectives and interests are unique in many ways, yet I’m thrilled that there might be a resurging interest (however small) in rediscovering some really cool places.

Role of Churches in Rural Revitalization

15-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Sunday, March 12, 1911:  Tweet slept with me last night. I was rather restless. Don’t know whether she was the cause or not. This afternoon I went to Sunday school and church, staid for catechize. Besse and Curt were out this afternoon. I guess they just happened to come because we had some ice cream left from dinner.  

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma faithfully attends Sunday school in the diary. I’m still trying to figure out why the Baptist Church in McEwensville which Grandma apparently attended closed and vanished from the scene a few years later (See February 5 entry).

The Baptist church building was demolished years ago, but it was located somewhere in this section of Main Street.

There were many different denominations and ethnically-based churches scattered across rural America a hundred years ago. And memories were still strong of the ancestors who had migrated to the United States for religious reasons.  Those who traced their ancestry to Germany often attended a Lutheran or Baptist church. The Scot-Irish generally were Presbyterian and so on.

There were a number of church closures early in the 20th century and the McEwensville Baptist probably was caught up in those closures. As the older generation  passed on–and the differences across the various protestant denominations seemed less clear to younger people–many tiny, struggling rural churches closed.

Also, in 1911 national leaders in the United States believed that there was a “rural problem” because so many rural youth were migrating into the cities. The Country Life Commission published a plan for revitalizing the countryside a hundred years ago. The Commission believed that little rural churches with few social activities and members who bickered with members of neighboring churches were part of the problem with rural life—but that churches had a role in revitalizing rural America. (I’ve heard elderly people say that in the old days you knew people didn’t get along if there were more churches in a town than bars.)

The present system of little struggling churches involves great financial and moral waste, divides rural people instead of uniting them. . . Still, federation and cooperation embody the dominant spirit of the age we are now entering . . .

If the church is to play any important part in rural reorganization, it must evolve a program for social betterment and make its ministrations such as will enable it to render effective social service. Only a giving church is a growing church. There are many real needs of rural people which today call for ministration, and the church should set itself the task of finding these and trying to serve them.

Rural Life and Education: A Study of the Rural-School Problem as a Phase of the Rural-Life Problem (1914) by Ellwood Cubberley

That said, in 1911 the McEwensville Baptist Church seems to be meeting Grandma’s needs. She mentions attending church or Sunday school every week in her diary.

The Country Life Commission

 January 9, 1911: Missing entry (Diary resumes on January 12)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

In 1911 the nation was focused on rural deterioration, and the perceived breakdown of rural institutions. Rural youth were flooding into the nation’s cities, and they were often unprepared for urban life.

Recent view of barn on farm where Grandma grew up.

President Theodore Roosevelt had appointed the Country Life Commission in 1908 to figure out ways to improve rural life. The idea was that rural youth would stay on the farm if the young men learned how to use scientific agricultural principals, and the young women learned how to make rural homes comfortable and attractive.

The Country Life Commission Report (as well as several other related reports) were published in 1911.

The repair of country life will come in those forms which give value to the things in the open country. The community must move and breathe in joy and enthusiasm of the country. The celebrations must be of country matters, not those of the city.

W. H. Wilson (1911)

George Wesner in his 1976 History of McEwensville described two-day long Farmers’ Institutes that were regularly held at the McEwensville Community Hall in the early part of the twentieth century. He wrote that “usually some outstanding farmers or professors from Penn State were speakers.”

In the years following the release of the Country Life Report home economists demonstrated the latest cooking and food preservation techniques at meetings attended by rural women and girls, They also taught the principles of interior design.

The Country Life Movement encouraged the support of local fairs. The fairs provided opportunities for people to socialize. Produce and livestock competitions provided opportunities for farmers to demonstrate to others the benefits of using scientific agricultural methods.

The Country Life Movement also encouraged the revitalization of rural churches.

 The church must provide directly some modern equivalent for the husking, apple bee, quilting and singing schools of the old days.

W. H. Wilson (1911)

The Country Life Movement also believed that a rural fraternal organization called the Grange had great potential to improve rural living.

At its best the Grange has a unifying power in the country community  . . . Especially in the community in which religious people cannot come to agreement in religious matters, the Grange infuses a spirit of unions among them through the discussion of every day interests and the social pleasures which it furnishes.

W.H. Wilson (1911)

The Country Life Commission asserted that education was needed to prepare students for life in their community and that it was important to provide an education that would be meaningful in a rural context. The Commission encouraged development of vocational agriculture programs, including school farms, that could provide the context for learning.

Today some people believe that there is a need for a new Country Life Movement to once again revitalize rural America. However, others argue that the Country Life Movement was an attempt by elite outsiders to control rural areas—and that the Country Life Commission created a consumer culture in rural locales when rural residents were encouraged to decorate their homes with the latest styles and use processed foods in recipes.

Grandma lived her entire life in within a 5 mile radius of McEwensville. Did the Country Life Movement help encourage her—and Raymond Swartz, her classmate and future spouse—to stay in rural central Pennsylvania? Who knows?—Though it can be said with near certainty that the implementation of policies recommended by the Country Life Commission affected Grandma’s life.