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.