“Two days after Thanksgiving, hospitable Anna Eleanor Roosevelt…motored in a White House car from Washington to visit the Tygart Valley homestead project near Elkins, W. Va. In the evening Mrs. Roosevelt, wearing a plain tailored coat… turned up at a square dance given by local settlers and farmers.” (Time Magazine, Dec 6, 1937)
Though Time didn’t say so, the settlers in Tygart Valley were undoubtedly thrilled to see the First Lady arrive at their recently constructed community center. After all, without her, they would not have been there either.
Largely forgotten now, America’s last wave of settlers pioneered in government-subsidized colonies engendered by the charitable work and political leanings of Eleanor Roosevelt. Her impact on the projects was profound, so much so that one settlement town still bears her first name—Eleanor, West Virginia; another, in Pennsylvania, was called Norvelt, the last two syllables of her first and last names combined.
Eleanor, who had made many incognito forays into areas of America hardest hit by the Great Depression, pushed for the settlements. They were woven into the patchwork of the New Deal, integrated into the National Industrial/Economic Recovery Act set up to help dislocated workers survive. Tygart Valley homesteads were specifically overseen by the Federal Subsistence Homestead Division, an offshoot of the WPA (Works Progress Administration, or as it was known to its detractors, “We Piddle Around”). The Tygart Valley deal was brokered through the political clout of the local congressman, Jennings Randolph, with Eleanor standing staunchly behind him.
West Virginia was not the only place where settlements were planted. Johnny Cash’s family migrated to a WPA encampment in Dyess, Arkansas, and in North Carolina, a settlement was created out of a disused plantation in Pender County. In all, nearly 100 such projects sprang up in the United States in the early 1930s. But, arguably, conditions in West Virginia were most dire, earning the small state five federally-sponsored cooperatives, including Tygart.
The homestead villages were targeted to assist populations enduring extreme poverty and to purchase and develop lands promising economic potential. You had to be an expert to separate poverty from extreme poverty in the early 1930s, and it took a long view of progress to envision economic potential in a country staggering from the blows of the Great Depression. But folks in Appalachia were suffering more than most. The old forests had been logged out and the price of coal was down. Deprived of even their tiny incomes, people in the hollers were simply starving out. The pitiful situation in Appalachia would have been plain to view from a train coach or a “White House car” when the Roosevelts traveled from Washington, DC to Warm Springs, Georgia where Franklin took treatments for his polio.
Eleanor, to her everlasting credit, had a genuine interest in the plight of disadvantaged people and pushed for welfare programs, so much so that she was often labeled a “Red.” But the settlement program also had its roots in the “back to the land” movement then being touted by early environmentalists like Helen and Scott Nearing who believed that small-scale subsistence farming was an antidote to the alienation of modern life. Quakers (through the American Friends Service Committee) were also deeply involved in settlement initiatives. Many settlement organizers feared that the desperation of laid off industrial workers would in fact lead to mass riots and “Red agitation.” Settling the workers peacefully could be seen as an effort to bury, not praise, Soviet-style communism.
The families who came to live in Tygart Valley were dislocated mine and sawmill workers, victims of the chronic destruction of their environment as well as the acute worldwide economic depression. Demands for natural resources had long let capitalism hold sway in Appalachia; wealthy industrialists prospered ruthlessly on the backs of the poor. If that sounds like hackneyed rhetoric, so be it; in West Virginia, at that time, it was reality.
The settlers of Tygart Valley were not getting an unconditional hand-out. They had to work for what they received, pay for it as they went along, and build their communities. It would be their pioneer spirit that would make the settlement function, that would create the cohesion of small town America out of a made-up place. Though they did not have to hew their homes out of the dense forests or stack them out of blocks of sod, they were on a new American frontier, an experiment in democratic collectivism.
To earn the right to be chosen for Tygart, men working on other WPA projects such as CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) had to give away labor so many days a week, those wages counting as a “down payment” on their home. Meanwhile, other CCC workers were constructing the houses and outbuildings destined to become 3 small townships – Valley Bend, East Dailey, and Dailey – in the wide Tygart Valley bordered by the Rich and Cheat Mountains. The CCC-ers, living in tents, would also dig sewage systems, clear roads, and plant shade and fruit trees. It was a planned paradise for the poor.
American artists of the era venerated the folk vigor of home crafts and simple, functional architecture. The houses at Tygart were designed with the dignity of porches and the practical blessings of electricity and indoor plumbing, grand luxuries to their Appalachian occupants. The floor plans were standardized but houses were oriented to the sites in such as way as to reduce the sense of repetition. In Tygart Valley, most were chalet or “Dutch” frame houses, some with barn-style rooflines. Some were two-story, a literal step up from the typical Appalachian one-story board shack. The details of the dwellings would make a modern-day home builder twitch with envy: oak flooring, knotty pine paneling and exposed chestnut beams. Every homestead included a small outbuilding, meant as a combination garage, chicken coop and tool shed. Tools were supplied, and many houses had an appliance most people in Appalachia had not heretofore seen or even imagined—a refrigerator.
Once a family was selected, the day came when they, with what meager possessions they could gather, would be taken to a newly built, respectable home surrounded by about two acres of land on which to grow food, maintain a family orchard, and store the fruits of their labors. The expectation was that each family would pay a monthly rent-to-own amount supplemented by the “sweat equity” required to maintain the property in good order, would tend the garden, keep cows or chickens, and feed themselves by their efforts. This was not a project for slackers. Neatness and good husbandry were mandated. In some cases, the residents painted their own houses, and were given a hill of dirt with which to cultivate a lawn. Self-sufficiency was not a theoretical concept; it was the cornerstone of the settlement movement.
A focal point for the three Tygart townships was the school, an “art moderne” brick structure considered to be one of the finest in the state when it was completed in 1939.
To most of the residents of the Tygart Valley homesteads, the place was indeed heaven on earth after the privations they had previously been through. Of the more than 1,600 applicants, only 202 would gain a place in the three small villages. Though some of them had never farmed, they would soon learn the basics of tending a garden and “putting up” produce, so that nearly all settlers reported being well-fed. And there were other work options for the men. A sawmill business became a central hub for the community, and the federal government supplied a nursery school, a general store and medical care.
The hope for cohesion was in large part realized, at least initially. Mrs Roosevelt’s four visits to the valley were fondly remembered, and she undoubtedly felt that she was seeing her inner vision coming to fruition at Tygart. Here is a vignette collected by West Virginia’s cultural publication, Goldenseal, an excellent source of various articles about the settlements:
Because of Eleanor Roosevelt I now live in a well built home beside other well built homes. Because of Eleanor Roosevelt I’m blessed with a large lot to dig and plant and to fill with as many flowers, shrubs and trees as I have the time and energy to do. Because of Eleanor Roosevelt I live in a community where friendliness is common, and neighbors stop by to pass the time of day. I have the advantage of rural living with close proximity to the luxury of what a larger town a few miles down the road can provide.
We first “discovered” the Tygart Valley project while we meandered through West Virginia on one of our many explorations by car. As navigator I was reading the American Guide Series volume, West Virginia—A Guide to the Mountain State, to enhance our enjoyment of the local landscape. The American Guide Series, itself a WPA project for writers and artists, was compiled in the late 1930s, giving a fascinating reminder of what life was like in our country some 70 years ago. West Virginia—A Guide to the Mountain State took us on a tour along US 219, describing Tygart Valley Homesteads in 1941 (the guide refers to it as Tygarts):
The homesteaders occupy their houses under a temporary rental agreement, paying from $11.80 to 13.50 monthly against the final purchase price… As the site was settled, homesteaders organized the Tygarts Valley Association which has charge of all industrial enterprises. Chief among these is the dimension-stock lumber mill designed to employ 90 men… other co-operative enterprises include a rock and lime quarry… a large potato warehouse, a general store, filling station and garage, restaurant, beauty shop and barber shop.
The guide also offers us a clue as to what the women were doing (besides cooking cleaning, gardening, sewing, canning, and childcare, of course) and how the children might be faring:
The homesteaders have formed numerous clubs and social organizations; two of these provide recreation and study for adult women; there are two 4-H clubs for boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 18, health and burial associations, a recreational and music organization, which sent a group to the National Folk Festival, and a Fair association, which sponsored the first annual Tygarts Valley Fair in September, 1938.
Since the WPA writers had common cause with the WPA homesteaders, it’s not surprising that the authors painted an idyllic picture as they traveled through, mapping and describing the area mile by mile, in 1941. But significantly, at the end of that same year, the bombing at Pearl Harbor would bring changes to Tygart.
Most information about Eleanor’s dream project written in recent years emphasizes rural nostalgia and the fading memories of the original settlers, but there were undercurrents that eroded the idealistic foundation of all the settlements. As the owner of the settlements, the federal government held power and made rules. Though compensated by their ability to grow all the food they wanted to and take advantage of the communal facilities, settlers found wages to be low. Some men chose to migrate out of state to places where better wages could be earned, leaving their families behind and flying in the face of the intent of the commune. And then came the call of Uncle Sam, causing even more males to depart and leaving Tygart, like the rest of America, to be run by women.
By 1942, the country was in the depths of war. The government began to see the settlement program as a financial albatross, especially since wartime jobs were available to improve the lives of working class people. Operating large subsidized businesses (like the Tygart sawmill) was running the federal agencies bankrupt. The settlements were gradually sold off, most of them dissolved by 1944. In some cases institutions or private entrepreneurs purchased the properties and the former pioneers drifted away. Tygart was an exception; it was the only West Virginia settlement that reverted entirely to its residents, who purchased their houses for an average price of $3,000, about what it had cost to build them.
It was that independent spirit that distinguished the Tygart project from many others of the era. Paul Salstrom, author of Appalachia’s Path to Dependency (University of Kentucky Press) argues that rather than creating autonomous farming families, the settlements generally fostered greater dependence on government hand-outs because of the heavy federal hand in the projects. Salstrom suggests that this “top down” domination prevented true autonomy, rule by the people and for the people. But the denizens of Dailey, East Dailey and Valley Bend saw that the project had evolved in an organic way; it had become part of who they were; and staying would benefit them in the long run. Not only did they take full advantage of the home buy-out, but their children often returned to buy houses in the old settlement, surely a tribute to a childhood well spent and a sense of community well entrenched.
The brick school, no longer looking so “moderne,” is still used as a childcare center, and many of the original community buildings are still standing, though not in use, along US 219. You can drive through the pleasant low hills of the Tygart development and look at the little houses, many now greatly enlarged and so altered as to be almost unrecognizable from the original plan, others still rather modest and little changed. The feeling is one of calm and self-sufficiency, a far cry from the blight of empty storefronts and abandoned dwellings so common now in Appalachia.
The Tygart Valley settlement houses stand like a modest, respectable testimony to ideals that sprang out of our country’s worst—so far—economic crisis. Do they have lessons for the present?