Subsistence Homesteads Division

views updated


One of the smallest New Deal programs was the Subsistence Homesteads Division. The Division was created by Section 208, Title II of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act. The Subsistence Homesteads Division was given $25 million and granted the task of addressing both urban concentration and unemployment by creating new rural communities where underemployed and unemployed industrial workers could combine part-time farming with work in nearby industrial establishments. President Franklin Roosevelt placed the division in the Department of the Interior, which was run by Harold L. Ickes. Ickes appointed agricultural economist M. L. Wilson as director of the program, a post that he held until 1934. In 1935 the Subsistence Homesteads Division was absorbed into the Resettlement Administration, which itself was replaced by the Farm Security Administration in 1937.

As director of the Subsistence Homesteads Division, Wilson stamped his own views on the program. He was idealistic and optimistic that the division would not only help to solve the economic problems of the nation but that it would spur the creation of a new type of community. Historian Paul Conkin describes Wilson as a relativist and pragmatist who hoped that the communities would be both democratic and locally controlled. Wilson believed that this would inspire communal, anti-materialistic, familial, agrarian, and democratic values to counter the dominant trends in modern society.

Initially Wilson and his associates decided that the Subsistence Homesteads Division would fund four types of communities, including colonies for stranded rural workers (most importantly unemployed coal miners), industrial communities for unemployed urban workers, experimental farm colonies, and subsistence gardens for city workers. Ideally, twenty-five to one hundred families were to live in each community and cultivate anywhere from one to five acres of fruits and vegetables. Of the thirty-four communities actually funded by the division, twenty-four were industrial communities, four were stranded communities (rural areas where the laborers lost their jobs when the main employers left town), three were farm communities for submarginal farmers, and one was a cooperative industrial community. The number of units in each community varied from 20 to 287, and the average cost per unit was $9,114.

In spite of the optimistic aspirations of Wilson and others, the Subsistence Homesteads Division became a victim of poor planning, administrative bungling, and political divisions. The stranded communities proved the least successful. The division found that it could not attract new industry to these areas and Congress refused to give the division federal funds to build its own factories. In 1934, the stranded communities were deemed illegal by the solicitor of the Department of the Interior because Section 208 did not authorize the resettlement of farmers. The industrial communities were certainly the most successful of the entire program. More specifically, the Duluth (MN), El Monte (CA), San Fernando (CA), Granger (IA), and Longview (WA) homesteads were the most successful because of their close proximity to industrial employment and their siting on fertile soils for subsistence farming. However, if judged in terms of absolute numbers, the Subsistence Homesteads Division must be viewed as an interesting social experiment but ultimately an unsuccessful attempt to bridge the rural/agricultural and urban/industrial boundaries in modern America.



Conkin, Paul K. Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program. 1959.

Garvey, Timothy J. "The Duluth Homesteads: A Successful Experiment in Community Housing." Minnesota History 46 (1978): 2–16.

Lord, Russell, and Paul H. Johnstone. A Place on Earth: A Critical Appraisal of Subsistence Homesteads. 1942.

Schwieder, Dorothy. "The Granger Homestead Project." Palimpsest 58 (1977): 149–161.

Wilson, M. L. "The Place of Subsistence Homesteads in our National Economy." Journal of Farm Economics 16 (1934): 73–87.

Kathy Mapes