Tuesday, December 3, 2013


or A Bit of History and a Trip Down Memory Lane

If you know much about US history, you probably remember hearing about the Great Depression of the 1930's, and President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal trying to help the people affected by it. One of the many programs he instituted during this time were planned communities where the poor were brought together for farming, community jobs, and nearby factory work. These were meant to give the poorest of the poor a chance to get back on their feet in what some called a utopian society of cooperation.

The idea was based on programs already being done by the Quakers and was championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the president's wife. In fact, they became her passion with her favorite being the first New Deal community of Arthurdale. This community, in rural West Virginia, was started in 1934 and was eventually turned over to private ownership in 1941. When completed, Arthurdale consisted of 165 homes on 1200 rural acres. In addition, there were schools, several community buildings and a dairy farm. Each home had 4-5 acres associated with it for personal farming as well as cash crops. Several factories were brought to the area to provide additional work although none of them stayed for long. The first members of the community were mostly out-of-work coal miners, saw mill hands, and farmers who were chosen by a reviewed application process. As with most things, the reality was not as perfect as the plan, but it was still an interesting experiment that helped some people.

Recently, I got a chance to visit Arthurdale again. I had visited it a few times as a young child when I went to visit my great uncle and aunt, Fritz and Zelma, who lived there. Fritz and Zelma were special people to my mother in that they they took her and her mother in when they literally had no other place to go. I think that is why we made the long trip to visit them more than once.

Aunt Zelma and Uncle Fritz
Today, much of the town looks as it did almost 80 years ago when it was begun except there is not much evidence of personal farming. The local historical society has turned a few of the community buildings into museums that were unfortunately closed during our visit. However, we did do a driving tour.

I was excited that the first house on the tour was one just like I remembered visiting. That house had a second story overhang in the back that covered a porch adjacent to a very flat backyard. And that's what I remember most--playing in that flat backyard. (If you have ever visited West Virginia, you know that a large flat space is very unusual.) However, I don't remember much about the inside of the house, but my sister, Mary Ellen does.  She remembers that she thought it was very strange that the kitchen was upstairs and the living room was downstairs. My sister, Martha, remembers that there was a mink farm in the area. It is interesting how each one of us remembers a different thing about our visits. However, we all remember that Uncle Fritz was a small, stooped man with black hair while my Aunt Zelma was a very tall women who towered over him.

This is like the house that my aunt and uncle lived in. It may be the actual house.
Fritz and Zelma had been encouraged by my Great Uncle Doy and Great Aunt Blanche, who lived in the adjacent town of Reedsville, to come to Arthurdale with the promise of good work in the coal mines.  So, they moved to the area in the early 1940's, and as promised, the work in the mines allowed my uncle to provide a good life for his family. However, the job took it's toll. The first problem was a odd one. After working in the mines for a while, he developed an allergy to all vegetables grown underground. That was a blow to someone living in a culture where potatoes were present at almost every meal.  The next problem was a much more serious one. He developed black lung disease which he eventually died from. But work was work and he was happy to have it.
My afternoon tour of Arthurdale had my thoughts in a jumble. I thought about the history which I was not aware of as a child. I thought about the difficult times people, including my family, had during the depression, and how well off most of us are today compared to them even though problems still exist. I thought about the hard work people were willing to do to be able to eat (and it doesn't get any harder than coal mining), and I thought about the generations of the past and how time keeps moving on. The visit to Arthurdale was a spontaneous one, but one I'm happy I made. Sometimes it's important to remember the past both in a global and personal way, and that's what I did on this recent afternoon.