Arthurdale, W. Va. More than three-quarters of a century ago this forgotten community, tucked in a wrinkle of rugged West Virginia, was surrounded by poverty and privation. The mines nearby were quiet, the miners unemployed, hopeless. Prosperity — even the merest, meanest prospect of subsistence — was a cruel, unattainable notion; it was not around any corner anywhere close to here.
And yet suddenly there were stirrings in these hills. Homes were built, farms laid out, a school established. Small crafts industries were sprouting. An assembly building began to take shape. A tea room opened. The first lady of the United States dropped by. Sometimes a band struck up the Virginia reel, and Eleanor Roosevelt — the portrait of sobriety, nobody’s idea of a good-time girl, indeed nobody’s idea of a woman who knew what a good time was — was caught up in that folk dance.
Today this community, the first of the nation’s 99 New Deal communities, is all but forgotten again. It is a monument to Depression-era social engineering, a landmark in the history of American economic experiments, a highly successful and deeply flawed effort at government planning, and yet the world goes on beyond Arthurdale, paying little mind to what happened here — what was tried here, when hope was a thing with feathers but without a nesting place.
The story began when Lorena Hickok, The Associated Press writer who very likely was Roosevelt’s lover, set out to portray America in Depression and visited Scotts Run, where she found housing “most Americans would not have considered fit for pigs.” She later returned with Roosevelt, who said the “filth was indescribable” and who left determined to provide an antidote to the despair she found amid the tipples, the slag piles, the black shanties planted on the sides of the gulches and the stirrings of radical labor groups like the National Miners Union, backed by the Communist Party.
Of all the Washington undertakings designed to battle communism — secret wars in Central America, two overt wars in Asia, a bungled invasion of Cuba, witch hunts in the State Department and Hollywood — the assault on poverty in Scotts Run is among the most benign. The Pumpkin Papers on Whittaker Chambers’ farm and the intercepted cables of the Cold War never possessed the moral power that Roosevelt found in the contents of a miner’s weekly pay envelope. It was $1.
Before long, Washington bought a swath of land belonging to a Pittsburgh businessman, Richard Arthur, and a social experiment was under way. The government built 165 homes in Arthurdale; all but five remain today, many quite handsome. Banish your Great Society images of government housing projects; these were single-family homes with room to swing a cat and, outside, to plant a garden, with a cistern and root cellar out back.
Let’s not pretend this was not controversial, for its racist air (no blacks allowed) and particularly for its socialist tint (in the first eight months, the government spent $435,645 on this project). “For two years,” the Saturday Evening Post wrote, “the presumed virtues of a projected planned economy have been contrasted with the muddling of an existing capitalism.”
Some described this village planted on an old farmstead as American Marxism. If it wasn’t the apotheosis of the welfare state, Arthurdale was at the very least a welfare town, a creation and ward of the government, with central planning down to the refrigerators Roosevelt picked herself. Other communities like it sprung up around the country, one in Alaska, 13 in Arkansas, 11 in Texas, eight in Nebraska.
In truth, Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have done anything — tack right, dip left, do a political Virginia reel, forward and back — to salve the Depression. He was no political purist. And if the New Deal homestead and resettlement communities like Arthurdale looked a little bit like communes on the Russian steppes painted with Norman Rockwell hues, the camps and barracks of the Civilian Conservation Corps had a faint whiff of German paramilitary groups with the sweet perfume of Boy Scout values (“to help other people at all times”).
In a way Arthurdale, known as Eleanor’s Little Village, is the physical symbol of the New Deal — a little experimentation, a little companionable collectivism, a heavy dose of reform rhetoric and, of course, a University of Chicago theorist. It was, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it, “a laboratory in every way.” At this distance it is clear that it was an economic failure but a social success. It salvaged some lives, allowing dozens of American families with no prospects to leap into the middle class in one generation, which is part of the American miracle. But it never became self-sufficient, which is part of the American creed.
But for all their communal aspects, Arthurdale and its New Deal cousins remind us of the power of an individual to make change — and, in moments of deep despondency, to offer hope. “I can remember Mrs. Roosevelt coming, but I did not realize how special her visits were,” said Richard Myers. “I just thought she visited every community.” If only she could have.