Good Ideas, not enough People

City and Hinterland: A Case Study of Urban Growth and Regional Development Roberta Balstad (Miller), 1979

Roberta Balstad says studies of population and industrial growth in America have too often ignored the “regional hinterlands” around dramatically growing cities.  She suggests national markets and inter-regional transportation “affected cities and their hinterlands separately as well as the entire city-region as a unit.” (4) Balstad defines the city-region so it’s synonymous with the county, which is convenient in that data is collected and stored at the county level.  While giving the customary nod to von Thünen and central place theorists, she points out that many American cities “did not begin with the isolated subsistence village economy...Nor did growing American settlements and their hinterlands experience well-developed intraregional trade prior to interregional trade,” so the American experience differs from theory both physically and temporally. (3-5) Balstad’s thesis is that “the differentiation of the frontier area into city and hinterland” resulted not from industrialization, but from “transportation innovations,” specifically in this text the Erie Canal and the railroads that followed it. (10)  The interesting twist is, she demonstrates that a rural area that was previously economically diversified was actually driven toward a market-agriculture-only form by the changes she describes.

Balstad tells the story of Onondaga County, settled by migrants from the east in the 1790s along the Seneca Turnpike. Mail service between Utica and Canandaigua began in 1804, an Academy was begun in 1811, and the Dutch and German farmers from the Mohawk Valley were joined by German and Irish immigrants attracted to the wage-work available at the Salina salt springs.  Balstad calls attention to several elements of Onondaga development that challenge traditional expectations.  First, she says “the county did not have a stable agricultural population,” but like other frontier areas, saw “a great deal of mobility within as well as into and out of the county during the early years of settlement.” (19) She says “The persistence rate...was low, even for those who were landowners...of the 203 men of...Camillus who were electors in 1807...only 41 percent were still present as taxpaying landowners in 1825.” (20)  Also, contrary to de Tocqueville (who she takes several  opportunities to disagree with throughout the book), residents “were not necessarily isolated from their families or their past,” but in many cases demonstrated a “pattern of serial migration within kinship and friendship networks” that Balstad believes was widespread during westward expansion. (which I
obviously enjoyed seeing, 20-1)


Rural villages were located, Balstad says, based on “social and commercial centrality for the surrounding agricultural area.” (22) But the fact that two townships “had 47 and 28 percent of their population in villages [almost immediately]...suggests that this was not a region of subsistence agriculture from which local trading villages would only gradually emerge.” Extractive industries (especially salt, which had been mined and traded by the Indians before the whites ever arrived) were immediately linked to the national economy, and by 1820, the county “had a diversified economy that boasted agriculture, processing and manufacturing industries...[that] did not suddenly surface after the population reached a specific size or density; rather, they were begun by the original settlers and expanded gradually with the growing population.” (23)  “Industrial activities were located in rural areas, independent of residential or commercial centers...[and] there were a number of rural industrial enclaves located on good water power sites several miles from any town or village.” (25-6) With the exception of salt and whiskey ($63,705.60 in 1810; there were fifty distilleries by 1820), most of the products of these sawmills (99 by 1820), tanneries, fulling and grist mills were sold to local people.  The high correlation of sawmills to population growth, Balstad says, indicates “the service areas of locally manufactured and processed goods were narrow.” (28)

The presence of salt springs and gypsum (“first discovered in the United States in 1792 in the township of Camillus” 29) gave Onondaga County an opportunity to participate in the national market.  A gypsum corporation was formed in 1809, and a year later sold 100 tons.  By 1810 the salt industry was producing 2400 bushels daily, which were sold throughout the northeast and Canada, and as far west as Cincinnati and the Michigan territory. (28)  Wood for barrels and fuel for the 444 kettles in continuous operation and food for salt-boilers and other workers were supplied by locals, providing a “multiplier effect” in the county’s economy.  By 1820 (the year the middle section of the Canal opened), the region shipped 458,329 bushels of salt over river-and-portage routes that reached Chesapeake Bay, the Ohio River, and Lake Ontario. (31) The salt trade was so substantial that it was mentioned by boosters of the Canal when they lobbied New York legislators (the State collected a salt duty on every bushel sold). So the coming of the Canal benefited Onondagans more, and more quickly, than others along the route.


Completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Oswego (linking the Erie Canal with Lake Ontario to the north) in 1828 created Syracuse.  Balstad does not mention the politics behind the choice of Syracuse as a meeting-place for the Erie and the Oswego canals, but it suggests how important Onondaga County must have been, in the minds of Albany legislators. Turnpike transportation costs were “30 to 70 cents per ton-mile during the first two decades of the nineteenth century.  In sharp contrast, canal charges were only 1.68 cents per ton-mile between 1830 and 1850.” (46) If the salt business had been profitable before, it was a goldmine after the opening of the two canals.  “In the first five years of the canal’s operation, before the entire canal was completed, salt production increased by an average of 70,492 bushels each year as compared to ...30,004 bushels from 1810 to 1820...Between 1826 and 1830...salt production increased by an average of 105,060 annually.  Shipment by canal facilitated the growth of salt markets as far away as Chicago and Cincinnati [where it was used to process pork] and gave Onondaga salt a competitive advantage in eastern urban markets over imported salt, which had previously dominated.” (64) “By 1830, the population of Syracuse [which swallowed up the old salt-town of Salina] had risen to 2,565 people...the largest settlement in the county.” (50)

The benefit to the salt-producers was offset somewhat by losses to the county’s farmers.  Ohio Valley wheat and wool began to out-compete New York produce in Eastern markets, “and by 1847 more than half the agricultural produce shipped on the Erie Canal came from the western states.” (61)  The decline of Onondaga farming was not absolute, though -- in either sense of the word.  Between 1820 and 1840, the number of farmers in the county increased by 69%, and “the number of acres of improved land nearly doubled by 1835.” (62)  Balstad says rural outmigration was caused by the “crowded and discouraging agricultural prospects of the county together with the inflation in the cost of farmland” and declining crop yields due to soil degradation. Another possible explanation is that farmers aware of the fragile nature of their exhausted soils may have capitalized on the opportunity to sell their lands at unexpected windfall profits, and moved west to bigger, more fertile farms. Similarly, Balstad says the canal “destroyed” the distilleries (which “shrank in number to eleven in 1835 and to six in 1845”) because “transportation costs for grain were so low that distillation became unnecessary” (66).  But does it make sense that existing buyers of whiskey in the east would abruptly stop, just because they could buy cheap grain and make their own?  There seems to be more going on here than the existence of the canals explains.

Balstad says the pattern of primary processing was altered.  People close to the canals produced fewer yards of cloth at home, presumably buying their textiles from the east.  But this would suggest that “carding machines and fulling mills [that] did custom work for farm families” would have moved farther from the canal, not “disappeared from the county.” (68)  And, “by the late 1820s and early 1830s...industry became increasingly concentrated in Syracuse,” indicating a shift in the reasoning of the people running mills and shops, who’d previously sited them “in rural locations and always near good sources of water power.” Why did they decide to move to the city?

These questions are important, because the point Balstad is trying to make is such an interesting one.  “The dispersed rural settlement pattern of the pre-canal period gave way,” she says, “the the now familiar agricultural settlement pattern characterized by large multi-purpose villages surrounded by farm lands inhabited only by the farmers themselves.” (68)  “Townships without sizable villages became more completely dominated by agriculture and between 1820 and 1840 experienced a decline in the proportion of the workforce engaged in manufacturing.”  But why?  What was it about the presence of the canals and Syracuse that all of a sudden made industry want to move to town?  Labor?  Customers?  A chance to make products for a seemingly unlimited national market instead of a known, finite local one?  Balstad said earlier that “industries ...were frequently owned and operated by the same people who ran the local commercial establishments...they built an ashery and a distillery to process their customers’ wood ashes and grain.” (27) These entrepreneurs were often merchants who got paid in produce, and had to convert it for sale in the markets where they got their merchandise.  Surely these weren’t the same people who took up manufacturing in the city? Or, if they were, they weren’t doing it for the same reasons.  Balstad insists, contra Lampard, that it was not “specialization of economic functions” that caused industry to move from country to city, because “urban and village industry in the county differed little from rural industry in terms of its technology or the organization of production.”  Commercial changes in “interregional marketing patterns” caused the change. (69) This means that, in spite of nothing changing in the country, an entirely new form of manufacturing for markets outside the region grew up in the city.

And this is the main question, isn't it?  Was this industrial growth, like the earlier “declension” in farming, really an instance of runaway growth on the one hand and stability or organic growth on the other?  Is the real point that the country wasn’t declining in absolute terms, but only relative to the explosive growth next door?  And if so, then the real story is about what people believed about the situation, at the time.  And this isn’t going to jump out of the data.  By 1840, “second-level villages which were scattered throughout the county...had recovered from the earlier competition of the canal villages and were thriving.”  (70) Why?  Their having “locational advantages in the growing regional transportation network” doesn’t seem like an adequate answer.

Between 1840 and 1850, Balstad says the “total population of the hinterland increased only 5 percent.  Given an estimated crude rate of natural increase for the decade of 21 percent, this...indicates that the rate of out-migration was 17 percent of the 1840 population.” (88) She seems to believe that this net number doesn’t hide any significant in-migration, even though she admits the northern township of Lysander “increased its total population in the 1840s by 35 percent.” In the 1850s, Balstad says hinterland population actually declined by 3%, but in order to arrive at that figure she seems to have reclassified Elbridge (at the western edge of the county on the canal) out of the hinterland, because it grew.  There’s clearly a change going on here, but Balstad’s presentation seems to gerrymander the data into a story of declension and stagnation.  She admits that “Farmers in the townships circling the city also began to plant more acres in garden crops to meet the growing needs of both the city of Syracuse and eastern urban markets,” but she doesn’t show whether revenues and profits from this activity were higher or lower than they had been in the earlier, wheat-growing regime.  In a chart of land values and holdings, Balstad shows the average value of an acre of land on the canals or railroads increased from $46 to $69 between 1850 and 1860, and away from the transportation network, from $34 to $48. (96) In both areas, the average farm size decreased by about ten acres.  This suggests to me that lots of farmers were taking advantage of higher land values by selling off unused (possibly unimproved) acres to generate cash. With such a windfall, many farm families may have been able to send sons off west to buy land, since clearly local acres were no longer going to be cheap.  The effect Balstad describes may be accurate, but instead of tragedy, it may have seemed like good news to Onondaga farmers.

Although Balstad leaves these social historical questions unanswered, the real value of
City and Hinterland is the data she uncovers that allows them to be asked. As Syracuse grows, (250 in 1820, 2,565 in 1830, 28,119 in 1860) foreign immigrants drive the growth until the majority of households are headed by people born outside the US. By 1855, 58% of Syracuse households are headed by foreigners, primarily German and Irish. (108) Many of the men had come to the salt-works before the canals were built, and then stayed on as construction workers.  Since Balstad has stressed the idea of “serial migration” and family solidarity among Anglo residents, it’s not unreasonable to suspect the early immigrants may also have brought over brothers and wives from the old country.  And, because immigrants’ children were tallied as Onondaga-born, a good portion of those in the “native” column are actually second generation immigrants living with their first generation parents. In the data, two thirds of Syracuse’s population came from outside the county.  These would have been the adults; most of the other third would have been children born in Syracuse.  And of that two thirds, roughly one third were Irish, one third German, and one third native (mostly New Yorker). (108-112)  In other words, there were twice as many foreign-born adults as natives in 1855 Syracuse.


Balstad says migration from the hinterland to the city was limited to “people in the upper levels of the socioeconomic hierarchy in rural and village Onondaga,” and that they took their money with them.  (127) This weakened the county’s hinterland financially, and in the loss of its “best and brightest.”  Farmers, she says, were committed to an agrarian lifestyle, and tended to leave for new western farms rather than the city. (139)  Rural persisters were likely to be the most successful landowners, who had a greater economic incentive to stay. Their ability to consolidate the useful parts of the properties of those who left may have helped them end up with “an average of 20.6 acres more per land-owning persister than per land-owning migrant.” (142) Their ability to change from wheat-growing to market gardening and dairying came at a good time, since soil exhaustion and western competition made the old practices unprofitable. This may have had the effect, as Balstad concludes, of changing “what had been a mixed rural economy into a specialized agricultural economy supported by occasional villages,” but the motivations and processes involved need closer examination. (153) As she says, looking at other “city-regions in other sections of the United States and over other periods of time” would indicate how representative this story is.  And looking into the minds of the people involved, if possible, might tell us whether this was a tragedy or a comedy.

Manufacturing and mercantile account books, centennial and memorial histories, census and tax records, and the letters and memoirs of merchants and industrialists provided a wealth of data, which Balstad used to paint a richly detailed picture of the changes in Onondaga County. But, except for brief moments, the picture lacks people.  I wonder if there were few opportunities to add contemporary reflections from regular people (even newspapers might have helped), or if Balstad thought it was beyond the scope of what she wanted to do in this case study.  And I wonder if anyone else has gone back over this territory, to find the people? Or gone forward, in the way she suggested, but also with an eye to the human story?  Might be something to think about doing...