Change has been a constant in rural America, according to a new exhibition showing in eight communities around Utah in 2023-2024. The Utah Humanities’ tour of the Smithsonian Museum on Main Street’s Crossroads: Change in Rural America is a traveling exhibition that provokes fresh thinking and sparks conversations about the future and sustainability of rural communities. Crossroads offers small towns a chance to look at their own paths over the past century – to highlight the changes that affected their fortunes, explore how they have adapted, and think about what’s next.
While ninety percent of the state’s residents live in urban areas, “Utah is an urban place with a rural heart,” says Gregory E. Smoak, history professor at the University of Utah and consulting scholar for the exhibition’s tour of Utah. “The vast majority of Utahns live in the densely populated cities of the Wasatch Front. Yet, if pressed, many of those urban dwellers might hesitate to think of themselves as city folk. That is because rural life holds deep and resilient meanings for many Americans, especially here in Utah.”
According to the United State Census Bureau, a town is considered “rural” if it has less than 2,500 people. Despite this, many Utah communities exceeding this population still identify as “rural.” This strong sense of rural identity in Utah takes many forms. For some, it represents a closeness to the land and wildlife. To others, it represents their community’s economic ties to industries such as agriculture, grazing, or mining. All rural Utah places have a strong sense of community and connection to the past.
As much as one might associate the term “rural” with the ideal of a town that is steeped in tradition and simpler times, change is an inseparable part of rural living. Much of what we currently know of rural Utah came about as an adaptation. Utah’s first LDS settlers displaced Native peoples from their homelands in order to build and sustain their vision of community in an unfamiliar arid landscape. But the outside world and change could not be held off. During the late-nineteenth century isolated Mormon communities found new economic opportunities after the construction of the railroad connected them to a national economy. Rural communities also accommodated an influx of immigrants and Americans from diverse backgrounds drawn by new extractive industries and labor shortages. By the early twentieth century, it was not uncommon to find newspapers in different languages or a variety of religions practiced in rural Utah. Later, during World War II, increased industrialization reshaped rural landscapes. The communities along the shores of Utah Lake sat in a valley of fruit orchards until Geneva Steel Works transformed them into an industrial mecca. Beyond the Wasatch Front, dangerous minerals such as uranium were extracted from Native land during the Cold War, causing long-term health effects in some of our state’s most vulnerable rural communities. In other areas of the state, tourism and arts have given rural economies a new way to flourish and adapt. With that perspective in mind, looking at the towns we now still call rural, one can only wonder what changes will happen next, and what will rural living look like in 10, 20, or 50 years from now?
The Crossroads exhibition asks the question, “What will your future look like?” With an estimated population growth of 66% within the next 40 years, the culture of Utah’s smaller communities is brought into question. Rural communities are an integral part of our history, and now those same communities are once again at a crossroads. This exhibition will be a meeting place to discuss those changes and opportunities, and decide as a community how they want to help shape the future for themselves and for America.
Rural communities across the state are facing a variety of challenges. In rural Utah counties, exponential growth is pricing out local businesses, and housing prices are pushing out long-time community members. New challenges -- such as population growth and rapid development -- present themselves alongside ones that have long required adaptation from previous generations. These include a harsh environment, lack of economic opportunity, and great distances from necessities like healthcare. But rural communities have consistently proved themselves resilient in the face of these challenges.
Smoak puts it this way, “Contemporary pressures that drive change may seem daunting, yet adaptation has always been core to rural life in Utah. The changes and challenges facing small communities today are not unprecedented, and considering the ways Utahns have navigated decision points in the past might help us think about the future of rural Utah.”
A crucial part of the Crossroads tour is connecting with the communities hosting the exhibition and exploring their unique history, evolution, and potential future. Megan van Frank, Director of the Center for Community Heritage at Utah Humanities, is coordinating the Utah tour. In explaining the role Utah Humanities plays in bringing the Smithsonian to Utah, she says, “We are proud to bring the Crossroads exhibition to eight communities around the state in 2023-2024. This collaboration among national, state, and local organizations strengthens Utah’s cultural community and helps preserve and share Utah history. We work closely with host sites to leverage the national exhibition to bring focus to their own experiences and bring context to an understanding of rural identity, land, and community.”
Community organizations will partner with Utah Humanities, not only to host the exhibition but to develop their local stories through companion exhibits and other public programming. These include expert lectures, workshops, oral histories conducted with longtime community members, and more. Van Frank hopes that “visitors to the Crossroads exhibition will come away with an appreciation for the tension between cherished ideals and challenging realities of life in rural Utah. The exhibition and each local project is an opportunity for Utahns to explore change and adaptation in rural America and Utah as part of local, state, and national conversations.”
If you are part of a rural community, or feel connected to rural living and what it means to you or your history, plan to visit one (or all) of the eight venues, because the Smithsonian is coming to a town near you!
September 16 to October 28, 2023 | North Summit Unite with Summit County History Department at the Ledges Event Center, 202 Park Road, Coalville, UT 84017
November 4, 2023 to January 12, 2024 | Wasatch County Library, 465 E 1200 S, Heber City, UT 84032
January 20 to March 3, 2024 | Utah State University Eastern, Student Center, 498 N 300 E, Price UT 84501
March 9 to April 28, 2024 | Silver Reef Museum, 1903 Wells Fargo Drive, Leeds, UT 84746
May 4 to June 22, 2024 | Brigham City Museum of Art & History, 24 N 300 W, Brigham City, UT 84302
June 29 to August 18, 2024 | John Wesley Powell River History Museum, 1765 Main Street, Green River, UT 84525
August 24 to October 12, 2024 | MT Hurst Foundation with Utah State University Blanding, Health, Library, Science Building, 576 W 200 S, Blanding, UT 84511
For more information about the exhibition, please visit UtahHumanities.org.
Crossroads: Change in Rural America is made possible in Utah by Utah Humanities. Crossroads is part of Museum on Main Street, a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and State Humanities Councils nationwide. Support for Museum on Main Street has been provided by the United States Congress.