An organization dedicated to preserving a New Deal community is one of the state’s longest lasting nonprofits.
It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to keep a village from crumbling into dust, too. Running a nonprofit is never easy, but when it’s a historical nonprofit with a little-known mission, it can be daunting. Arthurdale Heritage, Inc. (AHI), a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of a New Deal community in West Virginia has braved the odds to become one of the longest lasting nonprofits in the state. But success hasn’t been easy. “This isn’t Colonial Williamsburg with a well recognized name,” says Deb Miller, an Arthurdale volunteer and former board member. “This is a quiet community on a quiet road in Preston County. It’s always a struggle.”
Every corner of the U.S. felt the blow of the 1930 stock crash and the Great Depression, but few places were quite as hard hit as the coalfields of West Virginia. On a visit to Scotts Run, a former coal district in the North Central region of the state, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt saw mining families out of work and living in squalor. She returned to Washington and encouraged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to pass the Subsistence Homestead Act. It, and the New Deal communities that followed, started a program intending to help impoverished rural workers become communally self-sufficient. Arthurdale, an unincorporated community in Preston County, became the first of 99 New Deal communities and a pet project for Eleanor. In 1934 the government purchased land from local farmer Richard Arthur and began building a homestead community. At its peak, the community had nearly 200 homes and buildings on 1,200 acres. Eleanor insisted on wiring the buildings for electricity and indoor plumbing, a luxury at the time. Families chosen to live in the community were given housing and land to grow subsistence crops, but they also paid rent. “Many people viewed this as communism, but Eleanor Roosevelt viewed it as an extension of her earlier work helping people get back on their feet,” Miller says.
During World War II, funding for communities like Arthurdale dwindled until the government sold the land back to private ownership in the 1940s. Buildings eventually deteriorated. “In 1984 the Arthurdale Women’s Club decided to have a homecoming for the 50th anniversary. That year made everyone realize what a shame it was to let these buildings go,” Miller says. A group interested in saving Arthurdale formed a nonprofit to begin restoring the community. “Work since has been to bring the buildings back to life and provide tours and educational programs for everyone about why there was an Arthurdale to begin with,” Miller says. “The work involves a lot of people, a lot of time, many spaghetti dinners, and many property acquisitions.”
Today AHI is just under 30 years old. Of the 99 original communities, only a handful are seriously trying to preserve their history, and Arthurdale is one of the most active. Guided tours are offered to anyone who walks through the door. The New Deal Festival, part fundraiser and part historic event, takes place every July.
There are two heroes in the Arthurdale story. The first is Eleanor, whose dogged dedication to the community is legendary. The second is Glenna Williams, an activist who pushed, shoved, and hauled AHI to success. “She was a go-getter, a doer, a brilliant-minded lady, and the daughter of an original homesteader,” says Marilee Hall, volunteer and past AHI president. “She knew how to mobilize, how to get people moving, how to connect.” Williams was instrumental in forming Arthurdale’s board and used a little savoir-faire to make sure it had the right people—folks with a dedication to the history and healthy wallets to pay the bills when money was tight. The board was made up of descendants who had a personal stake in Arthurdale, as well as doctors, bankers, and librarians.
In 1986 Williams and AHI began campaigning for funds. Their first grant was privately funded at $2,000. Since then grants have totaled nearly $2 million. Volunteers held ice cream socials, car washes, auctions, and dinners to raise awareness and money to buy and restore buildings. “They took out mortgages. They spent their own money and time to clean everything up,” says Jeanne Goodman, executive director of AHI. In 1988 the nonprofit celebrated its first full ownership of an Arthurdale building with an event to burn the bank mortgage papers. Aptly called a mortgage burning, the celebration was common through the 20th century. AHI now encompasses about 20 acres of land and nine buildings.
To maintain interest, volunteers look for new ways to get people involved, from craft shows to tours and the annual New Deal Festival run by a junior board to keep young people engaged. Goodman says the organization is in talks with a developer to turn a school building into historic apartments. Now the focus is on growing an endowment to keep the lights on in winter. Volunteers come and go. Burnout is inevitable, and organizations need to be on the constant lookout for new faces and fresh energy, Hall says. Having an endowment ensures a nonprofit’s bills are paid and volunteers have a cause to devote themselves to. “We’ve grown so large, and we need so much money just to keep our lights on,” Hall says. “Our volunteer time will mean nothing unless Arthurdale keeps going. If there’s a salary for someone to keep things going and maintenance to keep things up, Arthurdale will be there forever.”
Written by Katie Griffith
Photographed by Nikki Bowman