- Associated Press - Sunday, November 9, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - In 1934 people who wished to live in Arthurdale, the first of many homestead community projects of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, had to go through a thorough application process.

To even be able to apply, they had to be American-born, married, have children and agree to live in a community where everyone would benefit from its success. They also had to be white.

Jean Goodman, executive director of Arthurdale Heritage, said it was a lengthy application process. She said people were judged on their ability to succeed in a cooperatively run community.

“Everything here was to be owned cooperatively and everyone would get a portion of the money that would come out ahead,” she said, adding almost everything was meant to be shared.

Applicants also had to be knowledgeable about various trades like canning and farming, as such skills were vital to the community. During the application process they were required to take a 17-page agricultural test to determine if they knew where to plant and when to harvest.

But the in-depth application process was a small price to pay for what lay ahead - a middle-class way of living during The Great Depression.

Arthurdale was first created 80 years ago to help destitute coal miners after the devastating stock market crash of 1929, which sent a ripple of economic hardship throughout the United States.

The coalfields of West Virginia weren’t exempt from this economic depression. In fact, The Great Depression hit miners hard.

Working hours were cut drastically across the state making it difficult for families to afford rent and living expenses. At this time they moved into homeless encampments or tent cities as conditions continued to deteriorate.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt learned of the poverty from friend Lorena Hickok, who was a reporter at the Associated Press, and decided to visit the miners and their families for herself.

After witnessing the living conditions at Scotts Run, a former coal mining district northwest of Morgantown, she took a special interest in their survival and well-being.

In 1933, after Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, several bills were passed addressing problems of The Great Depression, which included the Homestead Acts. This bill gave an applicant ownership of land at little or no cost.

The government purchased the land in Preston County from Richard Arthur a year later, and Arthurdale was born.

But it had a rocky start.

The first 50 homes were built in haste and resulted in some major flaws. The homes did not fit their foundations and lacked insulation, making it hard for its inhabitants to endure the harsh Preston County winters.

The builders learned quickly from their mistakes and constructed stronger and sturdier houses under architect Stuart Wagner.

Today 160 out of the total 165 homes remain standing. Several of them have received additions and undergone remodeling for modern use by residents who still remain in the community.

“A lot of people from Arthurdale who grew up here moved away and then actually came back to retire here. It’s a really tight-knit community for the most part,” said Jasmine Cunningham, an AmeriCorps member who now works at Arthurdale Heritage.

The houses, a few of which can be seen on tours, still have original floors and countertops. These houses are furnished with items donated from community members who once lived in Arthurdale, including board games and linens to depict what it would have looked like years ago.

“Eleanor Roosevelt actually had a lot to do with the designing of the homes here,” Cunningham said.

“She talked to a few of the women at Scotts Run and decided she wanted them to have larger kitchens, especially for those who had larger families … She was very instrumental in how the homes turned out.”

The first lady was also said to be unhappy about the whites-only policy, though it isn’t exactly clear where the policy originated.

Arthurdale became Eleanor Roosevelt’s pet-project. She visited the community as many as 78 times in her lifetime and became involved in the lives of families by stopping by for dinner, handing out high school diplomas and attending dances and community events.

Iretta Jean Turnley, 68, was raised in Arthurdale Heritage. She said she can faintly recall an encounter with “Mrs. Roosevelt” when she came back to dedicate a church. Turnley said even though she was just a little girl back then, she remembers the First Lady wearing a fur shawl and hat.

Cunningham said Eleanor Roosevelt wanted a vast improvement in the quality of life for the people of Arthurdale.

“Eleanor Roosevelt really wanted everyone here to have top-of-the-line appliances,” she said adding each home had electricity, running water and people could even make payments on washing machines.

For just $9.26 a month, as recorded in a ledger in one of the homes, people could rent the house, grow crops in three or four acres of farmland and raise animals like chickens, hogs and dairy cows. Families even had access to a root cellar where they could preserve and store canned food.

In 1947 homesteaders were allowed to buy their homes, and community buildings were sold to private companies. Eventually people moved away from Arthurdale to further their careers or be closer to family.

During Arthurdale Heritage’s 50th anniversary in 1984, people who once lived in the community gathered together to celebrate. They were saddened to find their beloved buildings and homes in a state of disrepair and joined together to maintain the cultural heritage of Arthurdale by fixing the buildings.

The groups held fundraisers and paid for the repairs out of their own pockets, which Goodman said says a lot of what Arthurdale means to them.

Now, as Arthurdale continues to celebrate its 80th anniversary, officials reflect on the community’s past by preserving oral histories of the people who once lived there.

“We still have a lot of interest in Arthurdale,” said Goodman, adding they have a lot of people in the state visit to learn about their history.

The Arthurdale New Deal Homestead Museum will be open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Tickets are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and AAA members, $3 for youth (ages 6-12) and children five-years-old and under are free.

For more information about Arthurdale Heritage and tours, call 304-864-3959 or visit their website at https://www.arthurdaleheritage.org .


Information from: Charleston Daily Mail, https://www.charlestondailymail.com

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