Remaking the prairies
THE GEOGRAPHY of settlement in the American grassland reveals two fundamental relationships. The first is that the largest share of its area is devoted to crop production because the grassland offers the most fertile, least hilly, and generally most suitable farming country found anywhere in the United States. The proportion of land in crops increases markedly as one moves from forested areas to grass, and the contrast is even stronger if the comparison is made in terms of the acreage simply in grain crops. Second, the economic potential of these prime farmlands was well known during the railroad-building era of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result, there developed within the grassland a strong correlation between the number of miles of railroad and the number of acres in crops. The better the land, the greater the value of its produce and the more money railroads stood to earn hauling it to market. Each new line of track was dotted with new towns, most of which were built at the time of railway construction. Thus, the better the land, the greater the crop acreage and the finer the "mesh" of the town-and-railroad network. Each organized county had to have a seat of government; the location and spacing of the county seats, most of which are the largest towns in their respective counties, create a striking general pattern of towns (Fig. 9.1).