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Home | Library | The Peculiar History of Arthurdale

The Peculiar History of Arthurdale

August 8, 2007

Tags Free MarketsOther Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and Methodology

Here we sit in a branchy row, thinking of beautiful things we know,
Dreaming of deeds that we mean to do, all complete in a minute or two —
Something noble and wise and good, done by merely wishing we could!
By the rubbish in our wake, and the noble noise we make,
Be sure, be sure, we're going to do some splendid things!

– "Road Song of the Bandar-Log," from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book

During the 1930s, the wish of the world's politicians to "plan" other men's lives was strong and, by unhappy coincidence, so was their power to do so. The urge to "educate and uplift" their fellow (if lesser) man into a state more agreeable to their theories beat brightly in every progressive heart from Moscow and Berlin to London and Washington D.C.

The Communist Manifesto had vastly more influence on the intellectual mind than it does today, and its exhortation for "combination(s) of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country" was taken seriously as a workable idea and, more important, as a morally correct idea. Writings such as the Manifesto undoubtedly contributed to the birth of the Back to the Land movement, an intellectual fad that swept through the brains of many 1930s Western politicians.

As a result, the city of Magadan in Russia's Siberia was built from nothing, by and for Stalin's slave army. It still exists today.[1] In Germany, the town of Ramersdorf was built from scratch on the magnanimous whim of Adolph Hitler; it too still exists today. And America's very own example of the fad was the West Virginia town of Arthurdale, constructed during 1933 on the magnanimous whim of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Like Magadan and Ramersdorf, it too still exists today.

People Over Profit: The Birth of Arthurdale

"There was nothing that a humanist couldn't supervise — or so it was widely believed at the time." – from Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

The idea of it had been floating around for decades, at least from 1848, the year the Manifesto slithered out of Karl's pen. It passed like a plague from one European intellectual to another before sailing a Genoese galley to America, and before the story ended it had infected heads as varied as the journalist Stuart Chase, the industrialist Henry Ford, and — most importantly — the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

As projected, Arthurdale was to be immune from the ups and downs of the business cycle, with its citizens farming their five-acre plots part time and working part time in a local factory; a perfect combination of town and country floating through life as just the happiest little autarkic bubble you ever did see.

And it was not just to be a bunker to defy the Great Depression; Eleanor and friends harbored more grandiose dreams. As Mrs. Nancy Hoffman's Eleanor Roosevelt and the Arthurdale Experiment states, "Mrs. Roosevelt never considered Arthurdale a charity but a social experiment." Arthurdale was to herald a Glorious New Life, led by a New American.

It was all very 1930s.

"The President (FDR) and the First Lady feared sparks of revolution would explode … specifically a communist revolution against the United States government." – from Eleanor Roosevelt and the Arthurdale Experiment

Like an unwanted pregnancy, Arthurdale was not conceived in an atmosphere of calm, deliberate reflection. Much like circa-1914 Russia, cursed with an ass for a leader when she required a lion[2], circa-1933 America was cursed with public servants who did not have nerves of steel. Harry Hopkins, hand picked by FDR to run FERA,[3] hand picked one Lorena Hickok to be a FERA "investigator" in West Virginia, to check out the local scene, and to report back with any suggestions.[4]

Thrown into hysterics and horrified by the plight of West Virginia's indigent coal miners, on returning to Washington D.C. she breathlessly reported to Eleanor Roosevelt that "the only way out of the mess" she could fathom was that FDR become an "absolute dictator" (Thomas 1998, p. 117).

West Virginia's "welfare director" Francis Turner also reported, albeit a little less hysterically, that if the federal relief program failed the next election would see "Roosevelt against the Reds" (Thomas 1998, p. 117).

During the first hundred days of FDR's administration, the Subsistence Homestead Division was born and "Back to the Land" was no longer merely an idea, but a tangible, if unconstitutional, reality. In Eleanor Roosevelt, it found a very willing and able patron. In FDR, who stated the "project represented something new" and hailed it as a "bold government venture," it found $25 million of other peoples' money to play with.[5]

Eleanor took the West Virginia tour herself, and — being blessed with a likable combination of compassion, ignorance, and arrogance — latched onto the Back to the Land movement as the solution.

Though living in the later part of a heavy migration back to the land already underway (from 1930 to 1935 many West Virginia miners were already flowing back to the land, reducing average farm acreage from 106 to 90), Eleanor and some friends conceived the idea of Arthurdale. Displaying the type of intelligence that brings to mind the phrase "bright and bookish, but not that smart," despite the "chronic poverty of its countryside" (Thomas 1998, p. 163), they believed that a solution to West Virginia's economic crisis might be found by moving even more miners back into chronic poverty.

With no time to waste (project supporters warned there was a revolution brewin') and promises that it was sure to be easy on the taxpayer ("we would get most of the money back in due time," FDR dreamed in a letter to Republican Senator George Norris), 1,000 acres of West Virginia land were purchased from Richard Arthur, a man who "could no longer pay the taxes" on his farm (Hoffman 2001, p. 20) — and there, dear people, is as pure and stark an example of redistribution as you'd ever wish to see.[6]

As for the business acumen that Eleanor and her friends displayed in delivering Arthurdale, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post put it best when he wrote, "There is no reason to doubt the good faith of the backers of Arthurdale. There is reason to doubt their competence."[7]

And how!

Clarence Pickett, a staunch advocate of Arthurdale, sadly recorded his concern on "seeing many prompt, if not hasty actions" taken on behalf of Eleanor's pet project.[8] And it all started to unravel from the very first step — the "purchase" of the land from Mr. Arthur.

The land turned out to be unsuitable for the large scale habitation envisioned by the planners, as Professor Thomas's An Appalachian New Deal relates, since a "stratum of porous rock lay beneath the land [and] caused great expense in making the water supply safe"[9].

Not to be outdone, Louis Howe, one of the project managers, promptly purchased fifty pre-fabricated summer cottages that were "totally inadequate for West Virginia winters" (Thomas 1998, p. 170), not to mention that they didn't fit the pre-fabricated foundations waiting for them. Architects had to be brought in from New York "at great expense" to make the summer cottages suitable for West Virginia (and make them fit their foundations), pushing back the initial move-in date six months.[10]

Mrs. Nancy Hoffman's Eleanor Roosevelt and the Arthurdale Experiment called it "the first and most notable fiasco" during the community's construction, but the purchase of the stratum of porous rock has my vote.

Delivered late and vastly over budget,[11] Arthurdale displayed all the characteristics of a boondoggle, a political creature that "puts people over profits" and is widely familiar to all Americans, circa 2007. The pre-fabricated houses, even when it was known that they were unsuitable for West Virginia winter and wouldn't fit their foundations, were still built but then torn to pieces and remodeled. An article in the August 1934 Saturday Evening Post speaks of how chimneys were built eight feet away from their houses' sides, after which the houses were reconstructed to meet the chimneys.

From padded payrolls, to houses stuffed with goodies ("most Arthurdale families found their new homes lavish," Hoffman 2001, p. 44), to the importing of rhododendrons (a flower native to the Arthurdale area) from sixty miles away (just to leave them to rot), to wells being drilled at great expense and then abandoned, the project was every bit the financial disaster that one should expect when giving management over obscene sums of cash to people who believe "profit" is a curse word.

Even Mrs. Roosevelt herself noted "much money was spent, perhaps some of it unwisely," and if you substitute "perhaps some" with the far more accurate "all," she would have been spot on. The building of Arthurdale was a criminal waste of wealth during a time when the American economy could least afford it.

Finally, by late 1934, the first "colonists" were settled in, and Arthurdale would eventually grow to 165 homesteads. When all was said and done, what Eleanor Roosevelt and her circle of experts had assured would cost $2,000 — maybe $3,000 per unit, tops — came in at "$16,625 each" (Conkin 1959, p. 332).

Needless to say, nobody was fired.

Pleasantville

"Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent." — Eleanor Roosevelt

"We didn't resent it as much as we probably should have." — Arthurdale resident, 1999 interview

The "colonists" — or "homesteaders" as the press and politicians often referred to them — were the lucky few selected from among the indigent coal miners by the screening process.[12] If they thought they were getting "relief" they would have been correct, but they were getting a bit more in the bargain, too. They were to be resettled, fed, clothed, and housed by order of the politicians, and in addition they were to live on a stage set. Knowingly or not, they were a propaganda piece.

During the initial enthusiasm for the Back to the Land movement, when passions burned brightest and the money spigot was gushing, the people of Arthurdale were often "put on display" for publicity purposes, as they were dreamily forecast to be only the beginning, the first of many Arthurdales to follow. Mrs. Roosevelt and her friends, chattering excitedly about building homesteads from sea to shining sea, urged the newly settled people "to succeed, not only for yourselves, but for what it will mean to people everywhere" (Hoffman 2001, p. 40). It was one small step for the people of Arthurdale, one giant leap for mankind.

Everyone was giddy.

Politicians, bureaucrats, hangers-on, and the press descended upon Arthurdale to record, measure, condemn, pontificate, and praise. "News reporters and government officials were always around, watching and questioning the homesteaders" (Hoffman 2001, p. 40). Most of the adults resented it, one complaining that there was always "some stranger peeking in at the window or walking in to ask some fool questions" (Hoffman 2001, p. 41). But they'd struck a bargain, and the right to privacy was part of the price.

Another was the necessity of obedience, much like a military member, or else back into the coalmines they'd go, as "the fear of being kicked out of Arthurdale if they failed to live up to the government's expectations was real for many homesteaders" (Hoffman 2001, p. 52). And to keep them on edge, what exactly those expectations consisted of was a mystery; Roosevelt later reminisced, "sometimes they didn't quite know what was expected of them" (Hoffman 2001, p. 86).

Eleanor Roosevelt and her friends displayed toward the people of Arthurdale a type of attitude Dr. Alan Dawley recently summed up as "the itch to uplift and the itch to control." And the uplifting control was to start early in life; the newspapers from that time reported, "children are taken to a nursery school at the age of two"[13] where they were put into the hands of Arthurdale's education czar, Elsie Clapp, a friend of Eleanor's and a woman bejeweled with degrees from Vassar, Barnard, and Columbia University.

From the nutritional ("If I can teach these mothers that cold pancakes and coffee aren't good for babies," she wrote to Eleanor, "my two year olds will be much healthier," Hoffman 2001, p. 56)[14] to the educational ("It's much like surgery. We remove mental and physical impediments and graft on the things that help. Negative thoughts and attitudes do not flourish here," Elsie boasted to the papers)[15] Arthurdale's children (adults, too, were encouraged to attend classes) were to be given the best that "progressive" education could offer — at least until the school was folded into the surrounding Preston County system two years later, sending Ms. Clapp and her "alternative" teaching methods into the dustbin of history.

Sadly, despite all the money, tough love, removal of their "mental and physical impediments," and grafting on of "the things that help," the people of Arthurdale weren't displaying the attributes of the New American Man, or at least not the type the planners planned for. Instead, they behaved like dirt-poor coal miners and part-time farmers who had become accustomed to living off of other peoples' money.

They displayed what we now call "dependency." Nancy Hoffman writes that "there were times they depended too much on her [Mrs. Roosevelt's] help and not enough on their own resources," leading Eleanor to lament that "they seemed to feel that the solution to all their problems was to turn to government" (Hoffman 2001, p. 85). In one defining moment, the town's school bus broke down and the good people of Arthurdale, rather than fixing it themselves, had it towed over two hundred miles to the White House garage for repairs.[16]

As for employment, Eleanor and her friends had left the town's unemployed residents the choice of abandoning Arthurdale or staying put and collecting welfare.

"With business struggling to survive in urban areas, it was unlikely one would go through the expense of moving to a more isolated area." – from Eleanor Roosevelt and the Arthurdale Experiment

The planners of Arthurdale, when conjuring an entire town out of scratch, forgot one of the most basic lessons of real-estate investing: location is everything. Arthurdale's location was less than ideal; in fact, it was in the middle of nowhere. This was a severe flaw in the plan.

Since Arthurdale was built in the middle of nowhere, yet designed with the notion that industry would nevertheless locate there to provide jobs, "the homesteaders would remain stranded government wards, even though they lived in bright new homes" (Conkin 1959, p. 109). Arthurdale was the nicest ghetto in our nation's proud history.

The fact that "the remoteness of Arthurdale from suitable transportation and markets made [it] especially unattractive as a manufacturing site" should have been plainly apparent to anyone with an IQ high enough to gain admission to our Ivy League schools, yet it made no dent in the heads of those involved. Like the shortage of lifeboats on the Titanic, the choice of Arthurdale's location was a blunder of monumental proportions.

By turns, a vacuum-part manufacturer, a furniture maker, a box factory, a shirt manufacturer, and a radio-cabinet maker opened and quickly went under. By 1940, a mere six years after the town's birth, 165 out of 166 employed residents were working on a government job (Penix 2007, p. 79). Eleanor Roosevelt, thrilled that things were going so well, stated "I hope that many private enterprises will do it throughout the country in the future" (Hoffman 2001, p. 72).

In case you're wondering why the Great Depression lasted so long, wonder no more. With people such as Eleanor planning our way back to prosperity, could it have done anything else?[17]

The Darkening Of the Light

"It should be perfectly safe, just a bit of harmless brain alteration." – from Wallace and Gromit, the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Arthurdale is a story with no hero. The American voting masses — that vanguard of the socialist revolution — wanted a strong man, exactly as that genius Marx had predicted.[18] And, again exactly as Marx predicted, history produced that man.

His likeable wife Eleanor helped spread the gospel that underpinned the New Deal: that living off the toil of others is perfectly acceptable and moral. Most Americans, not even a century removed from fighting a Civil War supposedly to end such an inhuman practice, agreed.

Did Arthurdale help the families chosen to enjoy that money? Absolutely. Did the families enjoy an ocean of material abundance, even if many of them eventually learned that, in terms of "normal American life," they weren't in Kansas anymore? Absolutely.

Yet the good fortune of the residents does not negate the fact that they were living off the sweat of others' labor. Arthurdale was not "charity"; nobody was asked to contribute those millions any more than Thomas Jefferson simply asked his slaves to bring in the harvest.

Eleanor Roosevelt and her friends didn't use the money to "help the poor." Arthurdale was not in their minds charity; they used it to perform an experiment on the people they placed into Arthurdale. Eleanor called it a "program of long term rehabilitation." It had been decided that the people placed into Arthurdale needed to be more like Eleanor Roosevelt and her parlor friends.

Everything I've come across on Arthurdale maintains (in a manner of haughty approval) that it was a social experiment. The entire project was designed by a small clique of the powerful to see if they could improve their fellow man. In this case, admittedly just one of many such examples history provides, Eleanor was the potter and a group of dirt-poor Americans were the clay.[19]

Where Our Creator had fallen short of perfection, where they had spotted a flaw in His work, Eleanor and her friends went riding into the breach, over the carcasses of all the other great plans intended to improve on our Creator's design.

Dr. Paul Conkin's Tomorrow A New World states that Arthurdale and the others sure to follow would be "demonstrations of a new way of life" (Conkin 1959, p. 115) and the New York Times praised it (of course) as "a national laboratory of which may come a new American way of life"[20].

If Arthurdale was a laboratory, what did that make the Americans placed into it?

From the view of cold, hard, economic science, Mrs. Roosevelt, closely linked to Arthurdale for the rest of her days, defended her project by saying "the new hope and life given to the residents … were not to be measured in dollars and cents,"[21] showing she was as poor an economist as she was a homebuilder.

You must consider that which is unseen as well as what's right before your eyes — else you're only using half your brain. Mrs. Roosevelt, eyes set high on the progressive horizon, never looked down to notice those others she helped reduce to poverty, the jobs she helped destroy, the hope and life she snuffed out by the removal from their lives of the millions squandered on her "pet project" Arthurdale, all at the flick of her mighty ego.

I am sad to report and I repeat, Arthurdale is a story with no hero.

"'Cause this is nothing like we'd ever meant. Tell Sir Thomas More we've got another failed attempt." — The Shins

By 1948, the Arthurdale project had come to a quiet end. All the holdings were sold off to the homesteaders, some for as low as $750 (Conkin 1959, p. 115). Once on the lips of every newspaper editor from sea to shining sea, the town has slid into obscurity; no longer do strangers come peeking in at the window or walk in to ask foolish questions.

$20 

Today the town has a wonderful museum that keeps the memory of her beginnings alive, and every year the residents, many descendants of the original settlers, play host to the New Deal festival.[22]

Though Arthurdale was, from both a moral and financial point of view, a cataclysmic failure, I am happy to see the town live despite my misgivings about its vicious birth. I wish for the town to stand for years to come but not, like the friendly people who staff its museum believe, as a monument to noble charity. Her creation did not spring from any charitable impulse. I wish her to stand as a monument to the squandering of others' wealth, the residents' loss of freedom, and most important, the loss to all Americans of the principle that no man shall be forced to support another's crackbrained scheme.

In the end, Eleanor Roosevelt's dream of covering America with Arthurdales came true — from sea to shining sea, federally funded housing projects are not hard to find. For better or for worse, in them we have Arthurdale's legacy.

Sources

Conkin, Dr. Paul. 1959. Tomorrow A New World: The New Deal Community Program. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press

Hoffman, Nancy. 2001. Eleanor Roosevelt and the Arthurdale Experiment. North Haven, CT: Linnet Books.

Thomas, Dr. Jerry Bruce. 1998. An Appalachian New Deal. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

Penix, Amanda Griffith. 2007. Arthurdale. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.

Clapp, Elsie Ripley. 1971. Community Schools in Action. New York, NY: Arno Press

Notes

[1] While admittedly Magadan owes its existence more to the Send You To Siberia and Work You To Death movements that were popular among Russia's politicians at the time, it was a Back to the Land movement, just with an added dash of Communism for some kick.

[2] Russia's last czar, Nicolas Romanoff, was by all accounts a complete momma's boy.

[3] Federal Emergency Relief Administration, ancestor to today's FEMA.

[4] "Hi! I'm Agent Hickok from the federal government, tasked with studying whether or not we should give you a large sum of cash! May I have a moment of your time?"

[5] Dr. Paul Conkin reports in Tomorrow A New World: The New Deal Community Program that the law "contained almost no guide" on how that $25 million was to be spent. Every time I read something like that I kick myself for not going into politics; I'd be farting through $600 pajamas by now, I kid you not.

[6] They did name the town after him, so all's well that ends well.

[7] Saturday Evening Post, August 4, 1934.

[8] While Eleanor did state in the November 4, 1933 New York Times that it was all FDR's idea, everything I have read on the project has her as the driving force behind it. It was her baby.

[9] Yes, the rock caused the added expense. Is there a more consequence-free work environment than a bureaucratic one?

[10] This, remember, despite the revolution brewin'. It must have been stressful working for FERA — always waiting for the keg to blow, hustling against the clock. We just don't pay these people enough.

[11] Surprise!

[12] In yet another example of humanity's flawed nature, any American with African lineage was automatically disqualified. The policy was instituted over the objections of Eleanor Roosevelt.

[13] New York Times, October 28, 1935.

[14] Italics mine.

[15] New York Times, May 5, 1935. Many people probably thought Ms. Clapp was just saintly; the more I read about her the more I think she was kind of creepy.

[16] To have been able to see the look on Eleanor's face when she first learned of it; I'd have paid good money for that.

[17] FDR did not get us out of the Great Depression.

[18] As an economist, Groucho was far better than Karl. But as for the genius of politics, Marx was like Yoda, only smarter. Let's give credit where credit is due.

[19] Yes, you've read that term before. Shout out to Bastiat.

[20] The New York Times, March 8, 1937, p. 132 in case you think I'm making it up. Our grandparents all thought like the people from that movie Brazil. The 1930s: aren't you glad you missed it?

[21] The New York Times, March 8, 1942.

[22] Lew Rockwell was the keynote speaker in 2005. OK, I made that up.

 


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