SUBSISTENCE HOMESTEADS. Programs to re-locate indigent families to places where they can subsist on the land are ancient. Many political leaders have responded to pressures of overpopulation by planting colonies, either within their country or in remote lands. These efforts were sometimes successful when good land was available, perhaps as the result of victory in war; depopulation by a plague; or discovery of new lands occupied by primitive nomadic peoples, as in the Americas and Australia. Conquerors often rewarded their troops with free land. Sometimes settlements were less successful, or a complete failure, usually because the land or climate was poor, or the location subject to attack by predatory neighbors.
In 1862 the United States, although engaged in a civil war, adopted the Homestead Act, which granted 160 acres in frontier areas to any family that would stake a claim and work the land for a period of time. However, by around 1890 all the public land that anyone might be able to farm using only labor and simple hand tools had been claimed, and people began to seek ways to settle less favorable land, such as that in the Great Plains, that would require some capital investment to be economically viable. Explorer John Wesley Powell was one of these. He proposed the creation of communal settlements built around irrigation projects funded by the government.
Small farms had played an important role in the earlier stages of the nation's industrialization, since workers frequently supplemented their wages by cultivating small plots of land to supply the food required by their families. This kept a great many people from starving during the 1930s depression. The practice declined with increasing agricultural mechanization, although it was encouraged by some employers—such as George M. Pullman and Henry Ford—who located industrial plants in communities where subsistence farming was or could be undertaken.
In section 208 of the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), Congress stipulated that
To provide for aiding the redistribution of the overbalance of population in industrial centers $25,000,000 is hereby made available to the President, to be used by him through such agencies and under such regulation as he may make, for making loans for and otherwise aiding in the purchase of subsistence homesteads. The money collected as repayment of said loans shall constitute a revolving fund to be administered as directed by the President for the purposes of this section.
The Federal Subsistence Homestead Corporation proceeded to build communities of new homes located on tracts of from one to five tillable acres, offering them at low payments to the eligible unemployed. Production facilities appropriate to the skills of the populations were also provided in most cases.
Subsistence homesteading, as distinct from subsistence farming, settles a family on a plot of land where it can grow most of its food and make many of its goods, but near part-time or full-time jobs for cash income. This has often meant near existing settlements, when land is available from foreclosures and tax sales.
The first project to receive a federal loan was the Dayton Homestead Unit. In the fall of 1931, groups of unemployed and partially employed families in ten sections of the city were organized into production units. Each unit was to manufacture for the group's needs and to barter a portion of their products for raw materials that they could not produce themselves. They differed from most self-help barter organizations in their emphasis on production for use.
The first Homestead Unit was organized in the spring of 1932. A farm of 160 acres, purchased for eight thousand dollars, was divided into thirty-five three-acre plots, with fifty-five acres reserved for community pasture and woodlot, commons, and public roads. Thirty-five families took possession.
Although helpful in supplementing meager incomes, the project could not take its membership completely off relief. Distribution and overhead costs, the inability to grow or manufacture their own material in the city, and the necessity of paying rent for headquarters and individual residences made it impossible for the members to secure enough for their labors to make them self-supporting. If the units had been charged fully with all that was donated to them—rent, land for gardens, tools, implements, materials, and supplies—the project could never have broken even.
One of the most successful communities was Arthurdale, West Virginia, where employment in native crafts was emphasized. An effort to provide employment for garment workers from New York City in a cooperatively managed plant across the Hudson River at Jersey Homesteads was less successful. Only about one hundred such projects were undertaken, and the program was of little significance as relief or recovery policy. Interest declined with improved economic conditions, and the program was terminated in 1942.
Lord, Russell, and Paul H. Johnstone, eds. A Place on Earth: A Critical Appraisal of Subsistence Homesteads. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Agricultural Economics, 1942.