The Subsistence Homesteading Program
The New Deal was a series of economic programs enacted in the United States between 1933 and 1936. They involved presidential executive orders or laws passed by Congress during the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The programs were in response to the Great Depression, and focused on what historians call the "3 Rs": Relief, Recovery, and Reform. That is, Relief for the unemployed and poor; Recovery of the economy to normal levels; and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression.
One such program was administered by the Subsistence Homesteading Division (DSH) of the U.S. Department of the Interior. It "created model communities, moving urban poor to small plots of land where they would live in safe, clean houses and learn to produce enough food to become self-sustaining." The Subsistence Homesteading Program was based on an agrarian, "back-to-the-land" philosophy which meant a partial return to the simpler, farming life of the past. Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt both endorsed the idea that for poor people, rural life could be healthier than city life. Cooperation, community socialization, and community work were also emphasized.
Three groups were targeted by this program: "Stranded workers" – intended to help logging communities at risk due to declining timber supplies, or miners facing economic-related shutdowns, etc.; "Farm projects" - intended to help farm families that had been struggling to work poor land; and "Industrial homesteads" - redistributed families from congested urban areas into the exurban countryside. A contemporary description, in 1934, commented that this plan was based on the decentralization of industry and of people:
In essence, the subsistence homestead plan means that the low-income industrial worker shall have a small plot on which to grow
his food, and that the agricultural worker who raises nothing more than a bare living shall have a small factory near by, at which
he can earn some cash.
Mrs. Roosevelt was very enthusiastic about the concept of Homestead Communities projects, in particular Arthurdale, WV, but her support for the concept was felt across the board. Originally named the Red House settlement, the town of Eleanor changed its name to honor the First Lady who made such an impact on the community. Eleanor was the third settlement community built in West Virginia.
The Westmoreland Homesteads was the first settlement built in Pennsylvania hoping to aid unemployed bituminous coal miners and their families. By 1937, the community of Norvelt (derived from a combination of Eleanor and Roosevelt) featured 254 homes, a cooperative farm, store, and garment factory. (Information courtesy of Arthurdale Heritage, Inc. - http://www.arthurdaleheritage.org/.)
Norvelt was only one of many New Deal Subsistence Homestead communities built during Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency. In all, over 50 towns and farmsteads were constructed in 25 states. Lists of these communities, and additional information on some of them, can be found here and here.