Living in Community….Arthurdale, West Virginia

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

One of the collections within University Archives and Special Collections is Communal Studies. The Communal Studies Collection began in conjunction with the Center for Communal Studies, which promotes the study of contemporary and historic communal groups, intentional communities and utopias. The key word is intentional. These communities were/are deliberate attempts to live communally, with shared goals and economies. This blog is one of a continuing series….you can search for the phrase Living in Community to find others.

This blog will talk about Arthurdale, WV, an effort of the New Deal. Unlike other communities I’ve discussed that center around religion, Arthurdale was a U.S. government project, a planned community.

CS 662-39ad-001, the Don Janzen collection
President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Image found here.

In the early part of the 20th century, Americans enjoyed immense prosperity in an age known as the Roaring Twenties. But nothing that good lasts forever, and in October 1929, the bottom fell out of the stock market in a crash that had a catastrophic effect on American life for at least a decade. “By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its lowest point, some 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half the country’s banks had failed.”i Herbert Hoover was president when the Great Depression began, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt began the first of his four terms as president in 1933, and started advocating and implementing an “alphabet soup” of new programs designed to help the country recover. As a whole, his plans and these programs are called the New Deal. The initial application for one such program took place in West Virginia.

Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s. Image found here.

West Virginia ranks high in natural beauty, but is also the second poorest state in the nation, “with a $48,850 median household income and a poverty rate of 17.54%. West Virginia’s educational attainment levels are on the low side, with the lowest percentage of adults with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, and has the second-lowest life expectancy of 74.8.”ii These figures are for 2022, but this is a long time problem for the state, with things undoubtedly worse during the Depression. Through her association with the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker relief agency) and friendship with journalist Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt (and thus FDR) had been made aware of the terrible conditions near Morgantown, WV. Hickok reported, “Morgantown was the worst place I’d ever seen. In a gutter, along the main street through town, there was stagnant, filthy water, which inhabitants used for drinking, cooking, washing, and everything else imaginable. On either side of the street were ramshackle houses, black with coal dust, which most Americans would not have considered fit for pigs. And in those houses every night children went to sleep hungry, on piles of bug-infested rags, spread out on the floor.”iii Eleanor Roosevelt visited the area and spoke to the residents, and then used her influence to raise awareness and to advocate for the creation of a model community in a nearby town called Reedsville. She “imagined a rural experiment in living that would be economically self-contained and agriculturally self-sufficient. She believed it was possible, as an experimental aspect of the New Deal, to build a community that promised democracy, dignity, education, work, and culture. All that was needed was a modest governmental contribution and earnest work by the homesteaders–who would themselves create the community and be in control. Each home would be on two to five acres, and each family would have a cow, a pig, some chickens, and seed to plant a nutritious and attractive garden. There were plans to establish a manufacturing plant that would provide good work and guarantee economic security. Local crafts and music would be celebrated. People would eventually buy their own homes, reconstitute their lives.”iv

Money for this came from the Subsistence Homestead Division of the National Recovery Act, intially administered by the Department of the Interior. The idea was to help struggling factory and farm workers by reducing their total dependence on income from their work. Homesteads would be provided so families could help to sustain themselves…..this was related to the “back to the land” concept that rural living was better, and that people would thrive if they could get out of crowded urban areas and have a chance to own their own home. To be clear, this was farming for subsistence purposes only, so cash income was needed from another source, and to that end, businesses would be encouraged to locate in these areas. The project kicked off with the purchase of the land and estate of Richard Arthur–1,028 acres for $45,000; it was now called the Arthurdale project in his honor.

Richard Arthur mansion. Image found here.

Any project this ambitious was fraught with difficulties, challenges, and outright opposition. Eleanor Roosevelt (hereafter referred to as ER for the sake of brevity) insisted that the houses have indoor plumbing and all modern conveniences, even personally selecting the refrigerators. Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior and thus overseeing this project, was outraged. “While over 80 percent of rural America had no modern conveniences, why should the rural poor have indoor privies?”v ER believed that dignity was essential to everyone, regardless of financial status. “She was annoyed by petty accounting, mean-spirited trimming. This was an experiment in human development and community building.”vi In the end, ER won this battle–all houses had modern conveniences, a window in every room (including the basement laundry), glass-enclosed sun porches, root cellars, central steam heat with a radiator in every room (even the bathroom), built in bookcases, locally crafted furnishings, etc.

Artthurdale Community Center under construction. Image found here.

Another source of contention was who would live in Arthurdale. ER expected the population of the town to mirror the same mixture of the area’s population. A committee of Quaker and University of West Virginia social workers set up an elaborate screening process and insisted on “congenial” residents. “Each applicant was carefully scrutinized. There was an eight-page questionnaire, and intense interviews. “Moral character,” “intelligence, perseverence and foresight,” basic skills, demonstrated ambition, farm experience were prerequisites for consideration. Interviewers were to check physique, education, neatness, posture, agility, literacy, church affiliation, fraternal orders, garden club membership, debts, attitudes, defects. … Specific questions were asked about the care and feeding of poultry, cows, hogs, and horses.”vii ER was dismayed that the first group chosen consisted almost exclusively of northern European heritage West Virginians born in the area. She asked that the next group be more diverse, but the committee and area residents resisted and pushed back. The feel of the community, they said, would be destroyed by the inclusion of Negroes (in the verbage of the time) for two reasons: the community as a whole was opposed, and if included, there would need to be separate schools and churches as the laws of the state of West Virginia prohibited racial integration in schools. As you can see from the photograph below, ER conceded to the will of the majority, although she did advocate for creating another homestead community for blacks.

Arthurdale homesteaders. Image found here.

There were continuing struggles to get businesses to locate in the area. General Electric opened a factory to make electric vacuum cleaners in 1936. “The 1930s proved difficult for business retention in the factory at Arthurdale. From 1936 to 1942, four different businesses operated in the Arthurdale factory buildings including the Electric Vacuum Cleaner Company (1936-1937), the Phillip-Jones Shirt Company (1937-1938), the American Cooperatives, Inc. tractor factory (1939-1940), and the Brunswick Radio and Television Company (1941-1942). During World War II, Silman Manufacturing and Ballard Aircraft Company provided employment for homesteaders in their respective war-related factories. Both companies closed at the end of the war.”viii

At its most basic, the attack on Arthurdale was an attack on the New Deal itself. “For all ER’s enthusiasm, FDR’s support, and the homesteaders’ commitment, Arthurdale was relentlessly attacked. From the beginning, every indoor faucet, every shrub and tree was scrutinized and ridiculed in the press and vilified by an astounding array of hooters who opposed New Deal planning and called it socialism, communism. Conservatives deplored the very idea of national economic planning and condemned federally subsidized work brought into an area previously plagued by unionists. Every effort to bring in work was blocked. By 1934, the Red Scare, seemingly suspended during FDR’s first hundred days, was again under way to derail or diminish every suggestion actually to improve conditions. For some, the New Deal had now become a “communist plot,” led by ER and epitomized by Arthurdale.”ix

Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Arthurdale. Image found here.

Faced with such overwhelming opposition, the government severed its ties with Arthurdale in 1947, and all property reverted to private ownership. ER did not sever her ties, however, visiting the town often for the rest of her life and sharing in the lives of its citizens. “In 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt paid for Arthurdale High School graduate Dorothy Mayor Thompson to study weaving in Louisville, Kentucky, with master weaver Lou Tate for 18 months. Dorothy Mayor Thompson later established the Old Loom Barn in Davis, WV, which is still run by her daughter today.”x

Arthurdale was not a complete failure. There were 165 homes built and a number of community buildings, many of which still stand today. Compared to the deplorable conditions they lived in before, many residents considered it a successful utopia, and in many cases, they or their descendents still live on the land they homesteaded. They established an Arthurdale unit of the Mountaineer Craftsman Cooperative that made and sold furniture, pewter, and woven goods. Weaving was so popular it was taught in the community school and materials created on several local looms. The Forge held a metalworking business that earned its artisans national reputation. A cooperatve store also provided an outlet to sell these hand-crafted items.

Arthurdale Association Inc. Cooperative Store. Image found here.
View of Arthurdale project, Reedsville, West Virginia, showing CO-OP general store, furniture factory, and tea room all parts of cooperative living at Arthurdale. Edwin Locke, February 1937, Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection. Image found here.
Arthurdale homesteads, mid-1930s. Image found here.

On October 10, 1994, historian Dr. Donald Janzen visited Arthurdale and took the following photographs. These photographs are all available for vising in our digital gallery.

Typical Arthurdale homestead, 1994. CS 662-39sc-0027, the Don Janzen collection
Type 1 community house in Arthurdale. CS 662-39sc-0034c, the Don Janzen collection
Type 3 community house in Arthurdale. CS 662-39sc-0039c, the Don Janzen collection
Arthurdale historic marker, 1994. CS 662-39sc-003c, the Don Janzen collection
Resources Consulted

Arthurdale Heritage, Inc. website.       
Cook, Blanche Wiesen.  Eleanor Roosevelt.  New York: Viking, c1992-2016.             General Collection E807.1.R48 C66 1992
“Great Depression History.” website, October 5, 2021.
“The New Deal in West Virginia.”  West Virginia Historic New Deal Trail, a partnership between the WV State Historic Preservation Office and the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia.
“Poorest States 2022.”  World Population Review.

End Notes
iiiCook, p. 130-131
ivCook, p. 133
vCook, p. 135
viCook, p. 137
viiCook, p. 138-139
viiiArthurdale Heritage
ixCook, p. 143
xArthurdale Heritage
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