New Deal Colonies


Last month Nick Gillespie blogged the saga of Roosevelt, a New Jersey borough that began as a New Deal experimental community. Now C.J. Maloney has filed a dispatch from a similar settlement, the town of Arthurdale, West Virginia. From his article:


It cannot be stressed enough that the failure of Arthurdale as a New Deal subsistence homestead had nothing at all to do with the people who were chosen to live there—they were allowed no authority to decide how things were to be run, what businesses they where to open, or even what curriculum the school would teach. In Stephen Haid's outstanding dissertation on Arthurdale he noted "the perimeters for community decision-making existed only within the narrowest of limits."

Diane Ghirardo wrote of the homestead projects, "in their day-to-day operation American cooperatives revealed a pronounced drive to implement drastic social changes through the cooperatives by means of paternalistic and ultimately authoritarian control."

In a 1987 interview, Mrs. Anna Houghton (another original homesteader) talked about the control over their lives by outsiders, stating "to say 'go ahead and run it your own way' and yet to have somebody else say 'well, this is the way it has to be done if you're gonna get any more money from me' is the problem of any administration," and there we have the perfect description of the political control applied to Arthurdale from 1934 to 1947. Even Bushrod Grimes (the town's first federal project manager) complained about the "use of army tactics with the homesteaders."

On the other hand, the success of Arthurdale as a community has everything to do with the people who stayed on after the politicians packed up and left in 1947. It only began running under its own steam when the homesteaders themselves, the Luziers, McLaughlins, Bucklews and all the others, where able to act of their own free will, guided by their own wants and opinions instead of outsiders' wants and opinions. Only then did the town became the success it is today.

Further reading: I wrote about the history of yet another New Deal town—Greenbelt, Maryland— back in 2002.

NEXT: "Legalization is not in the president's vocabulary....Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit," Love, Obama's Drug Czar

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  1. Loved the Greenbelt story. I lived there in the 3rd grade when my dad was on a sabbatical, but never was aware of the history. Always interesting to hear about co-op efforts, they are a good bridge on which to find common ground with lefties. And, having lived in co-op housing, a good way to strip lefties of some of their delusions 😉

  2. I’m writing my dissertation about this, sort of. The homesteads and communities that the New Deal created in the South did relatively better than one might expect, but this is because the situation was so terrible in the South. Any capital helped.

    Besides the social aspect, looking at how people lived in these, the interesting thing in my mind is how these kind of homesteads show the shift away from agrarian values. Remember that the original idea is that these can be mixed rural-factory areas, where people will work part-time as laborers while growing all their own food. That’s why Bankhead supported it, after all — he wanted to revitalize the small farmer. What he failed to recognize is that the small farmer economically was beyond help, and had been for several decades.

    Unfortunately the government ended up going the other direction too hard, paying enormous corporations enormous amounts of money to produce enormous amounts of food. It’s a little sad. We keep pushing this small farmer rhetoric (‘the American farmer! backbone of the US!’) while going out of the way to make medium-sized farming of grains etc impossible. You can make it as a medium-sized fruit farmer in some parts of the country, and fancy dairy farmers can do okay, but that’s about it.

  3. “Bushrod Grimes” is a perfect name for a Thomas Pynchon character.

  4. I’m sorry for being a little of topic, but isn’t Ric Sanchez from Cuba originally? Does anyone else find it strange that someone like him would flee communism? I mean “gravitate toward” I understand, but “flee”?

  5. If I am not mistaken, Arthurdale is discussed at some length in “Three New Deals” by Wolfgang Schivelbusch.

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