West Virginia Homesteads a Legacy of the New Deal

Son of homesteader

Son of homesteader
Tygart Valley, West Virginia
Photo Credit: Marion Post Wolcott, 1938, Courtesy Library of Congress

The river winds from its Appalachian headwaters down the Tygart Valley in West Virginia, where a road known as the Seneca Trail takes snowboarders and hikers to and from Snowshoe’s year-round resort. Nearby, nestled in the crook of the valley’s elbow, are three New Deal homestead townsDailey, East Dailey, and Valley Bend.

Between 1933 and 1935 the federal Division of Subsistence Homesteads (DSH) gave those displaced by the Great Depression the chance to build new homes on small plots of land that would allow them to grow food and sustain themselves. Residents were chosen for their skills to build, farm, and operate businesses. The program left a legacy of affordable and sustainable housing and community-serving buildings, constructed by the residents themselves. Of the thirty-four New Deal communities created under the DSH, the Tygart Valley homesteaders are the only ones to fully repay the government loans that enabled them to resettle here.

Tygart Valley Homesteads, 1939

Tygart Valley Homesteads, 1939
Near Elkins, West Virginia
Photo Credit: John Vachon, Courtesy Library of Congress

While some of the original community buildings are empty and in need of repair, all but two of the 198 original homes remain occupied. They are easy to spot—A-frame and Dutch-style plaster-and-wood frame houses on one-to-two acre lots with garages, outbuildings, and an obvious mound of earth on one side indicating a root cellar for canned goods.

The Homestead School in Dailey operated until 2017 when a straight wind ripped the roof off the gymnasium and dumped it on top of the school’s cafeteria. Repairs took time; students were bused to nearby communities. Last year the community lost its battle to re-open its school, but the building is being re-purposed as a community center. A vacant kindergarten classroom still holds supplies and the community-built furniture that served generations of students, parents, and valley residents.

A woman who grew up in Dailey showed me around her homestead. She was proud of the beautiful wood floors, generous shelving, walk-in closets, and the ingenious hidden storage in a hinged stair near the bottom of the staircase. She shared memories of her school days, the community band, the little shops in the town center.

Homesteader’s child bringing home some potatoes from the community garden

Homesteader’s child bringing home some potatoes from the community garden
Tygart Valley, West Virginia
Photo Credit: Marion Post Wolcott, 1938, Courtesy Library of Congress

The town once housed a restaurant, a lumber mill, a dentist’s office, a beauty shop, a dance hall, post office, cooperative store, community weaving and woodworking areas and a toolshed. Various businesses, including the original post office, still operate, though the lumber yard, which recently changed hands, has closed.

President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor repeatedly visited the region to help nurture the Preston County, Randolph County, and Putnam County communities that were hard hit when the once-roaring coal and timber industries came to a halt in the Depression. West Virginia remains among the nation’s poorest states. Yet, part of its wealth is the musical, dance, and cultural traditions that document collective labor’s still-powerful voice, heard in the recent 55-county-strong teachers’ strike.

Keepsake, Resident's photograph of the community band in Dailey, West Virginia.

Keepsake
Resident’s photograph of the community band in Dailey, West Virginia.
Photo Credit: Carol Denney, 2018

During the Great Depression, government recognized that people need jobs, room for their families and belongings, recreational and educational opportunities, and to be treated with dignity. The longevity of the homestead communities makes the success of that commitment clear. These hard-scrabble towns worked hard for what they have and offer a living example of what people working together can create out of sensible, practical government policy.

Please visit, if you can, the Rennix Flowers shop along the Seneca Trail (5179 Seneca Trail, Valley Bend, WV, Rt. 219). It is a great place to chat with residents trying to gather support for the homesteads’ history.

The website of the Tygart Valley Homestead Association describes the effort.

Dimension Plant

Dimension Plant
Construction of new community dimension woodworking factory for furniture making, 1938
Photo Credit: Marion Post Wolcott, Courtesy Library of Congress

Homestead School classroom

Homestead School classroom
Homestead School Kindergarten room, Dailey, West Virginia
Photo Credit: Carol Denney, 2018

Buying groceries in community store, 1938

Buying groceries in community store, 1938
Tygart Valley homesteads, West Virginia
Photo Credit: United States. Farm Security Administration, Courtesy Library of Congress

Trading Post, 1939

Trading Post, 1939
Community-serving stores at the Tygart Valley Homesteads
Photo Credit: John Vachon, Courtesy Library of Congress

Tygart Valley A-Frame today

Tygart Valley A-Frame today
The mound next to the house indicates an original root cellar.
Photo Credit: Carol Denney, 2018

Urban Farming in the West: A New Deal Experiment in Subsistence Homesteads

Today, one of the biggest trends in American cities is the revival of urban agriculture, including a rash of suburban homeowners tearing out their grassy yards to plant edible gardens. There is a cottage industry in “urban homesteading” books and blogs, teaching readers to jar and preserve their own veggies, raise chickens, and be as independent as possible.

But few people remember that the New Deal once underwrote a national experiment in subsistence homestead gardening that between 1933 and 1935 built 34 new communities around the country dedicated to the idea that a family could own their own home, raise much of their own food, and escape the crowded poverty of urban life.

In his exhaustively researched book Urban Farms in the West, Robert Carriker recounts how the Division of Subsistence Homesteads (DSH) created a model for what the agency hoped could be a new American way of life. The overarching goal of the program was to encourage decentralization of population and industries. The DSH sought to build communities to which urban families would be relocated where they would benefit from part time farming and rural living while still finding local employment that would enable them to buy their houses from the government.

The program was meant to popularize the idea of the subsistence homestead but was derided from its inception. To the right-wing critics of the New Deal, it was further evidence of creeping socialism.

Carriker dedicates a chapter each to homesteads in Phoenix, Ariz; Longview, Wash; and El Monte and San Fernando, Calif. Some readers may wish he had covered more ground, but by focusing on the West, Carriker is able to bring together dominant  themes in American history: Jeffersonian romanticism, industrial progress, and the West as land of new beginnings.

One of the book’s two appendices explains how the homesteads came to be documented by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers. Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the El Monte homes can be viewed in the Photogrammar project.

In summary, Carriker acknowledges that there are many reasons historians have largely dismissed the arcadian efforts of the DSH, but he defends the program for all that it did achieve — above all, for the potential and hope for a better tomorrow embodied in the little houses with the big yards that remain as a forgotten experiment in American self-sufficiency.

Reviewed by Alex Tarr