Arthurdale was a symbol of progressive ideals during the great depression, and its legacy lives on.
The tiny hamlet of Arthurdale was an experiment, a sincere attempt to use progressive ideals to create the perfect community and right a world turned upside down by the Great Depression. Today, most historians consider this utopian dream a failure. But was it really? The story of Arthurdale and the legacy that lives on there today is far richer and more complex than the pages of a history book can tell.
It was the 1930s. The Great Depression had crippled the United States: Nearly a third of the working population was unemployed, banks were closing, businesses were shuttering, the coal industry was hemorrhaging. The federal government was desperate to try anything. “We didn’t know if the economy was ever going to come around again,” says Sam Stack, professor of philosophy and history at WVU.
In West Virginia, the mining camps that had sprung up in the wake of boom times had become like prisons for the families who’d staked their futures there. “When the Depression came, and the floor fell out of anybody needing coal, everybody was left there and trapped. They had been getting poorer and poorer until things got awful,” says Jeanne Goodman, archivist and former director of the Arthurdale Heritage Foundation.
That is, until the newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife took a trip in August 1933 to Scotts Run, a coal community just downriver from Morgantown that, not long before, had been thriving. The filth in the streets, the rundown shacks, the starving children—it sent the first lady reeling back to the White House. There, she convinced her husband to help lift some of those people out of poverty and launch the New Deal’s very first homestead project.
Part of FDR’s New Deal, the idea behind creating experimental homestead towns was relatively simple. If a family had a bit of land and a small farm to grow their own food, a close-knit community to support them, and a trade or craft to make themselves some money on the side, they’d be able to subsist, and thrive, even if the economy was no longer booming. “When they passed what was called the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, a small portion of that act gave President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes about $25 million to experiment in community planning,” Stack says.
The first lady, then, made sure the first of that money went to West Virginia, and Arthurdale, a 1,200-acre swath of gently sloping, fertile farmland 15 miles southeast of Morgantown, was born. Named after the farmer who’d sold it to the government in payment for back taxes, the former gentleman’s farm became the very first of what would later balloon into 99 such experimental communities across the country.
“They started actually building in late 1933,” Goodman says. After a bad winter and a few setbacks, the first 50 families began moving in in mid-1934. The criteria were typical. You had to be white, married, have at least one child, and be ready to work. Altogether, 165 families qualified, most from the Scotts Run area. Most were former coal miners.
Once qualified, every family received basically the same setup. “It depended on the lay of the land, but you got usually about three acres,” Goodman says. Each plot had space for a garden, room to raise livestock, even grow fruit orchards. Each little house had indoor plumbing and the same level of basic comforts most middle-class families enjoyed.
At the center of the village, a few small community-owned buildings, like a health clinic, a dairy, a filling station, a grocery store, a post office, and a school served as places for people to gather and create bonds, share stories, and teach each other new skills. Everything was intended to support community, place, and culture, rather than the survival-of-the-fittest mentality required in the down-and-out coal camps and impoverished urban centers.
The homesteaders themselves weren’t living free of charge. They paid rent by farming and selling their goods, helping build new homes and buildings, working in the schools, post office, or craft shop. Factories were also built to house future industries that would—hopefully—move in and supply more wage labor to the men in town. Skilled handicrafts like furniture would be created and sold, the proceeds of which would be shared. Although the intention was for the families to be able to subsist on what they could grow and share amongst themselves, money was still essential for those things that couldn’t be grown. Towns like Arthurdale could only remain self-sufficient and continue to grow if they attracted businesses and commerce.
That’s where things started to break down.
“The Arthurdale project as a whole didn’t really meet the goals,” Stack says. The families who lived in Arthurdale never became fully self-sufficient economically. “They were able to grow their own food, and pretty well provide for food subsistence.” But as far as wage labor was concerned, new industries never moved to Arthurdale long-term.
“Really, the basic flaw of Arthurdale being self-supporting early on was that it just didn’t have the markets,” Goodman says. Originally, Arthurdale was going to have a specialized local industry that would help sustain it. Unfortunately, that idea fell through. “They didn’t have a good fallback, so they ended up enticing businesses to come here,” she says.
Many industries gave Arthurdale a try, but none stayed. Without nearby markets and sufficient workforce, none could tough it out long enough to have an impact. And without wage labor, Arthurdale would soon begin bleeding workers. “After Pearl Harbor, many men went back into the mines or went into the Army,” Stack says. By 1947, the federal government had pulled out of the community altogether, leaving it to fend for itself.
Despite Arthurdale’s economic failure, some historians today are taking a closer look. Researchers like Stack are making the argument that the real success of these communities wasn’t in the direct economic impact, but in the impact on future generations. In Arthurdale in particular, the heart of the community was the school.
Based on the ideas of the American philosopher and educator John Dewey, the school at Arthurdale was a beacon of progressive thought. “He believed the school could serve as a way to build community. That’s really what was going on in Arthurdale,” Stack says. “It’s where people gathered, where they played ball, where they had their plays, musicals. All that on school grounds. That was the goal of the school, to become the centerpiece of the community.”
Eleanor Roosevelt was a fan of Dewey, so naturally, she brought in one of his protégées, Elsie Clapp, to be the principal and director of community affairs for Arthurdale’s school. She recruited several other progressive educators from Kentucky, too. Roosevelt was so convinced of the merits of such an education, she even paid for these educators to remain in Arthurdale for several years out of her own pocket. The gamble paid off. “They were experimenting at Arthurdale with the curriculum, trying to help these kids learn subject matter outside of traditional teacher/text orientations. They did a lot of project work, a lot of things focused on art and music, and Appalachian culture,” Stack says.
They learned colonial homesteading skills like candlemaking, how to churn butter, how to cook over a fire and spin wool. And, unlike many schools of the time, it didn’t matter if you were male or female—everyone learned everything. Students in the Arthurdale school even learned hands-on about building the town itself as they watched it rise around them. Nothing was purely theoretical, and much of it was led by students’ own interests and skills, from violin making to banking to grocery store operation.
Even long after the Arthurdale experiment died out and the community became just like any other, the effects of this experimental education reverberated throughout the community. Many of the Arthurdale children went on to become doctors, lawyers, and educators themselves. Many were lifted out of poverty, became middle class and passed on those opportunities to their children and grandchildren.
After hearing many of the Arthurdale children’s stories firsthand, Stack says he was further convinced that, while Arthurdale may have been a political failure for some, it was a complete success for the families who lived there. “They will always talk about how important their education was to them. They always understood it to be different and unique,” he says. “Not all the kids in those mining camps went to school in a consistent manner, but when they came to Arthurdale, they expected them to participate. Dewey believed that without community you really couldn’t have democracy. That really was what drove him. He was trying to create an education that prepared kids for participation in society as little democrats … people who can solve problems, reflect, create, imagine, analyze.”
For those who’ve been touched by this little community, Arthurdale’s true legacy lives on in the people. And it is those people who keep the stories alive. People like Glenna Williams are the true success stories of the Arthurdale experiment. A teacher who grew up during the Arthurdale experiment, Williams moved away to build her career, yet felt the call to come back in her later years. But when she returned in the 1980s, she saw a town in decay. Arthurdale’s central community buildings and historic sites were falling apart. As an unincorporated community, it had no central governmental presence to keep things together. If she didn’t act quickly, the town’s history might be lost forever.
Together with other former Arthurdale children, educators, politicians, and community members, Williams helped spark the Arthurdale Heritage Foundation in 1984, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring the historic community and passing its story on to visitors from near and far. “She was the main force behind those restoration efforts in the 1980s and getting Arthurdale on the historical registry,” Stack says. Since then, largely thanks to volunteer efforts from the children, grandchildren, and others still living in the area, Arthurdale has been restored and the spirit of the community is alive once more.
Today, Arthurdale is a thriving small community tucked into lush farmland. many descendants still live there in the homes their parents and grandparents built. Thousands of visitors also pass through this New Deal town for tours of the preserved historic buildings, demonstrations and reenactments, and community events like the annual New Deal Festival, where delicious homestead foods, local crafts, and live music come together each July.
Just as its founders intended, Arthurdale is a true community held together by its historic roots. And for descendants like Steve Antoline, who grew up in this close-knit community, the ideals of its founding have undoubtedly shaped him and continue to shape future generations. “Arthurdale and the surrounding area was an ideal place to grow up,” he says. “We never locked our doors growing up. You could always count on the neighbor for help if you needed it.”
Like Williams, Antoline had a bright future thanks to what he found in Arthurdale. After living in the community for 20 years and earning his college education, he struck out on his own, founding and eventually selling a Beckley-based company that grew into the world’s largest manufacturer of highwall mining equipment. He also operated several oil and gas wells and a property development company and still has found time to give back to his community through philanthropic efforts and support of the Arthurdale Heritage Foundation. “It instilled great values in the young people that grew up there. My family in the town of Arthurdale taught us all that you could pretty well do whatever you set your mind to. If you were willing to work hard enough,” he says.
“It certainly has a ripple effect. It’s contagious.”
Written by Mikenna Pierotti
Photographed by Nikki Bowman