By Tom and Patti Burkett
If you were a West Virginia coal miner, life was especially hard in the early 1930s. The Great Depression had pulled the bottom out of the coal market, and there were no jobs to be found anywhere in the region.
When Eleanor Roosevelt visited a friend in Morgantown, she saw the terrible conditions in which out of work mining families were living and determined to do something about it. She began to plan and to prod her husband Franklin. In 1934, the first New Deal town was begun on 600 acres of farmland near Reedsville. It was eventually named Arthurdale after the man from whom the property was purchased.
Each mining family was offered a few acres of land, a kit house, a refrigerator, and a cow. The family was required to build the house, learn how to farm, contribute to community efforts, and support themselves through the work of cooperatives. Over time, Arthurdale included a forge, a furniture factory, a weaving cooperative, a tractor assembly shop, and one of the regions first gas stations. One hundred sixty two houses were built from kits supplied by the Hodgson and Wagner companies. The homes had indoor plumbing and electricity, a rarity at the time.
Eleanor Roosevelt made this one of her pet projects. She visited the community often, and became well known to the residents, who squabbled over the opportunity to partner with her at the square dances always held when she was in town. Each year she attended the school graduation and handed out diplomas. She insisted that each resident be paid a living wage, and help establish and promote the cooperatives.
At its peak population, the industries were producing a substantial output of high quality products and might have succeeded but for the limitations of its location. There was no easy access to shipping for the furniture, tractors, rugs, and farm goods produced, so the experiment eventually failed. Some families moved away, others took jobs in nearby Morgantown as the roads and economy improved, and in 1947 the government sold off its assets and left town. There were. eventually, more than six hundred New Deal towns, some more successful than others. Among the best known are Roosevelt, New Jersey and Greenbelt, Maryland.
In 1985 a group of local citizens bought the crumbling central core of the historical village and began to restore it. Today you can visit the administration building, the forge, the gas station, one of the original Hodgson houses, and the community hall where Eleanor Roosevelt square danced. The work here is currently being enhanced by the efforts of Americorps historians who are conducting research and restoration work. Jane, our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, remarked that the organization would be happy to provide a campsite and electrical hookup to anyone willing to volunteer some time to the effort.
Of the one hundred sixty two buildings originally built here, all but two are still standing. Many of the residents are descendants of the coal miners who arrived in the years following 1934. As travelers, we often visit nicely restored historical sites with finished museums and manicured lawns. It was exciting, here, to see such a project in its early stages. Some work is finished, but much remains to be done. The bones of buildings are waiting to be put back in service. Stacks of photos and historical documents sit on tabletops, undoubtedly hiding hidden treasures.
There’s even one of the original Wagner kit houses for sale at an attractive price. Since our sticks and bricks house was built from a Sears kit, we were intrigued with the notion of about having our own piece of history in this place where our national government flexed its muscle on behalf of struggling citizens. We’ll definitely be going back. Head south from interstate 68 on US 119 and look for West Virginia 92 south. You could find us there, Patti and Tom Burkett, working on a fixer-upper off the beaten path.
For more info0 go to https://arthurdaleheritage.org/