Arthurdale’s New Deal
Tucked in the hills of North Central West Virginia, the first New Deal community is striving to embrace its heritage.
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The lush Appalachian countryside rolls out in front of you like a red carpet as you drive along the narrow, winding Kingwood Turnpike. As you pull into Arthurdale, some of the older stone buildings might capture your interest and you may or may not notice the old, abandoned Esso gas station, and if you’re really observant, some of the small houses scattered about might look rather similar to each other. But Arthurdale is not a town. It wasn’t in 1933 when it was established, and it isn’t today. Not in the incorporated sense anyway, not when it comes to receiving federal, state, or even county funding. A pet project of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during the Great Depression, Arthurdale was the nation’s first New Deal Homestead Community. The project was in response to the impoverished turmoil spreading across the country and an effort to stem concerns from liberals and conservatives of a communist uprising. Today, lifelong community members are working alongside newcomers to preserve what eventually became, at least for about a decade, a thriving and fully self-sufficient farm community.
One of 99 New Deal communities across the nation, one way Arthurdale continues to honor its heritage as the nation’s first New Deal community is by holding the New Deal Festival, a fundraising event held each year on the second Saturday in July. In its 14th year, Jeanne Goodman, executive director of Arthurdale Heritage Inc. (AHI), says this year’s theme is “Remembering 1942.” The highlight of the event is the mix of professional and non-professional re-enactors who come to town to portray Eleanor, President Roosevelt, and people from the 1940s. FDR gives an excerpt of one of his speeches, and the local VFW performs a formal flag-raising ceremony at the Arthurdale World War II memorial in the center of town. At the E15 house, one of the original homesteads now owned by AHI, festivalgoers can create old-fashioned crafts such as paper dolls and noisemakers, and Jeanne hopes some of the older community members who grew up in Arthurdale will sit on the front porch and share stories about the community in its heyday. The forge will be open for demonstrations, and the museum, Arthurdale Inn (which now houses Hospice), center hall, and one of the original homes are always open for tours. And like any good festival, there will be live music, a crafts market featuring local artisans and vendors, the renowned antique car and tractor show, and a chicken barbecue featuring Arthurdale’s secret barbecue recipe, hamburgers, hot dogs, cookies, and more, all provided by community members.
Controversial in its time, Jeanne steadfastly maintains that Arthurdale was never a welfare project. The men and women of the community paid a membership fee and rent on their houses and earned money by working for local co-operative businesses and selling the furniture, weaving, and other handcrafts they made. Sparked by a call from her journalist friend, Lorena Hickok, Eleanor visited Scott’s Run settlement near Morgantown, a notoriously and historically impoverished area, and returned to Washington, D.C., to report the atrocities she witnessed. Thus, in an effort to bring some of the families out of destitution, President Roosevelt passed the Subsistence Homestead Act, and Arthurdale was born.