Arthurdale, West Virginia
ARTHURDALE, WEST VIRGINIA
The groundbreaking for the small new town of Arthurdale, West Virginia, in late 1933 inaugurated one of the New Deal's most ambitious and eventually most notorious projects in economic and social engineering. The project began with efforts led by Eleanor Roosevelt to expand American Friends Service Committee relief work in Scott's Run, a long-depressed coal mining area near Morgantown, West Virginia. Mrs. Roosevelt helped turn Arthurdale into the showcase effort of the recently established Division of Subsistence Homesteads. Arthurdale was a prototype for a rural-urban synthesis in which destitute farmers and miners from the area were resettled into new homes with enough land to maintain a household subsistence, while planners also sought to provide homesteading families with newly decentralized industrial jobs.
Beyond such economic schemes, Mrs. Roosevelt herself saw the new town as a "human experiment station." She led a coterie of social and cultural reformers aiming to build "community" among residents, particularly by enlisting them in an array of cooperative ventures that eventually included a health clinic, a general store, a cemetery, an inter-denominational church, a forge, a weaving room, and a furniture factory, along with various agricultural projects. But at the heart of the community's experimental first years lay the school, designed by educator Elsie Clapp around philosopher John Dewey's pragmatic pedagogy. The school mirrored the project by seeking to integrate a progressive social and economic agenda with revivals of residents' "folkways," presumed lost over decades of industrial expansion. This emphasis on cultural rehabilitation was abetted when planners acceded to local pressures to select families of largely Scotch-Irish descent, despite intense interest on the part of local non-native and African-American applicants.
During the 1930s, Arthurdale's political reputation, and to some extent its residents, suffered from confused and over-optimistic planning during the ongoing Depression. Clapp's experimental school closed in 1936 due to lack of private funding. Worse, homesteaders endured years without steady wage work after Congress denied plans to give federal manufacturing contracts to homesteaders, citing unfair competition with private industry. Through the 1930s, Resettlement Administration and later Farm Security Administration officials struggled to maintain employment at Arthurdale, until the coming of the war effort brought lasting jobs. By then, the government had begun selling off the 165 homes and other properties built there, at a significant loss against its total outlay.
In following decades, Arthurdale's families prospered in relative anonymity. Following its fiftieth anniversary in 1984, however, residents created Arthurdale Heritage, Inc., a small nonprofit organization that maintains the town's remaining community structures and offers a look back on its storied past.
Arthurdale Heritage, Inc. Homepage at: www.arthurdaleheritage.org
Cook, Blanche Weisen. Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 2: 1933–1938. 1992.
Haid, Stephen Edward. "Arthurdale: An Experiment in Community Planning, 1933–1947." Ph.D. diss., West Virginia University, 1975.
Ward, Bryan, ed. A New Deal for America (proceedings from the National Conference on 1930s, Arthurdale, and New Deal Homesteads, July 1994). 1995.
Stuart Keith Patterson