January 17, 2018

The Bulldozer in the Watershed: Conservation, Water, and Technological Optimism in the Post–World War II United States

Nygren gallery-550

Joshua Nygren is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Missouri. He is preparing a book manuscript on the history of soil and water conservation and its relationship to state-building in the twentieth-century United States.

In April 1960, Caterpillar Tractor Company ran a two-page full-color advertisement in popular magazines such as Newsweek, Time, and Saturday Evening Post (figure 1).1 The spread featured an illustration of an idealized, orderly watershed encompassing city, town, and country. Although land occupies the majority of the image, Caterpillar focuses its audience’s attention on water. A ribbon of blue slices through the greens and golds of the countryside and the soft grays and browns of the city, bisecting the prosperous and serene landscape. This water originates in the hills to the upper

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left, where a menacing black cloud threatens to send torrents of water cascading downstream. The storm amounts to little, however. The river flows quietly past the small town to the crystal-clear reservoir at the center of the image. Thereafter, it obeys its bounds while passing through a bustling city in the lower right foreground. The contrast of blue against a sea of earth tones suggests that the thriving state of terrestrial life depends on a well-regulated, flood-free hydrosphere. This was achieved by the Small Watershed Program of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and, as the accompanying text makes clear, “powerful Caterpillar earthmoving machines.” …

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