Arthurdale, West Virginia, 1933: Historic First FDR New Deal Homestead Community.

· Uncategorized

1 of 2 Parts. Arthurdale, West Virginia, 1933: Historic First FDR New Deal Homestead Community

By Franklin and Betty J. Parker,

Some 60 years ago, Arthurdale, in northern West Virginia, was a storm center of New Deal controversy. The first, most controversial, New Deal subsistence homestead project was sited there in 1933.

Arthurdale housed displaced and jobless coal mining families. What began as a grand scheme to ease Great Depression suffering by providing homes, gardens, a community school, and jobs for those in want, became a much criticized, costly project which Congress forced the federal government to sell.

Yet Arthurdale has also been praised as a noble New Deal experiment to uplift dispossessed West Virginia coal miners, among the most wretched of Depression-era Americans.

Lorena A. Hickok “Discovers” Scott's Run, WV

The Arthurdale story began with Associated Press reporter Lorena A. Hickok (1893-1968), who covered Eleanor Roosevelt during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (FDR) first run for the presidency. They became friends and confidantes.

Mrs. Roosevelt urged Hickok to work as relief needs investigator for Harry L. Hopkins (1890-1946), Federal Emergency Relief Administration head and later Works Progress Administration head. Hickok reported to him on economic conditions and relief needs in 32 states during 1933-36. She sent the same information in letters to Mrs. Roosevelt. FDR saw both her reports to Hopkins and letters to Mrs. Roosevelt.

Hickok first sought advice from the Philadelphia-based Quaker relief agency, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Executive Secretary Clarence E. Pickett (1884-1964) told her, “If you want to see just how bad things are, go down to the southwestern part of the state and into West Virginia.” Of conditions among jobless mining families in northern West Virginia, she wrote :

“Scott's Run, a coal-mining community, not far from Morgantown, was the worst place I'd ever seen. In a gutter, along the main street through the town, there was stagnant, filthy water, which the inhabitants used for drinking, cooking, washing, and everything else imaginable. On either side of the street were ramshackle houses, black with coal dust, which most Americans would not have considered fit for pigs. And in those houses every night children went to sleep hungry, on piles of bug-infested rags, spread out on the floor. There were rats in those houses.”1

Appalachian Coal Miners and the Great Depression

Scott's Run, the name of a creek that empties into the Monongahela River, is also the name of coal mining communities along its banks. It had been an active mining area near Morgantown, WV, site of West Virginia University (WVU).

The late nineteenth century coal boom, heightened by World War I energy needs, lured marginal small farmers to work for wages in Appalachian coal mines. Large and many smaller mines flourished in boom times, owned mainly by profit-hungry companies based outside the coal mining areas. Before unions demanded better conditions, miners were housed in low-cost company-owned shacks, paid in scrip redeemable only in a company store, and were controlled and constrained in company-owned and policed towns.

The 1920s saw coal mine overexpansion, competition, strikes, and labor-union conflicts. Scott's Run was sometimes called Bloody Run because of its labor union violence. West Virginia coal mining cutbacks and closings became acute by 1928. The 1929 Wall Street crash and Great Depression meant even harder times for miners. Mines closed, lights were turned off, and water pumps shut down. Some families were allowed to live in shacks lest empty ones be torn down for firewood.

By 1930, with little mining and much hunger at Scott's Run, a White House Conference on Child Welfare publicized the plight of undernourished Appalachian miners' children. Federal money left from post-World War I aid to Belgian and French children was given to the AFSC in 1931 to help feed needy miners' children in the West Virginia-Pennsylvania Monongahela River Valley. AFSC relief work in the area was centered at Scott's Run because of its poverty and because of earlier relief efforts of Morgantown social agencies and of the WVU Extension Service.

Mrs. Roosevelt knew of Scott's Run, having bought some furniture made there as part of the relief effort. She was subsidizing a furniture-making cottage industry for poorer people at Val-kill near the Roosevelt home at Hyde Park. She also knew of the AFSC relief work at Scott's Run.

Hickok's description of miners' plight led Mrs. Roosevelt to visit Scott's Run in August 1933. FDR's election, the Depression, passage of subsistence homestead legislation (June 16, 1933), and Mrs. Roosevelt's personal concern over Scott's Run miners' plight led to the founding of the first New Deal subsistence homestead project at Arthurdale, near Reedsville, in Preston County, W. Va.

With homesteaders selected mostly from displaced Scott's Run coal miners and Mrs. Roosevelt's publicized frequent visits there, Arthurdale became a conspicuous example of FDR's more controversial experiments to counter the Great Depression.

Subsistence Homestead Projects, 1933-1948

The subsistence homestead idea came from the 1920s back-to-the-land movement, which FDR favored. He had tried to resettle jobless families in rural communities during his New York governorship. As president, FDR first urged congressional friends to enact a bill to allot $25 million to put 25,000 needy families on farms at an average cost of $1,000 per family. When such a bill was formulated, the White House suggested that it be attached as Section 208 of Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA).

Thus was passed with little debate in 1933 a controversial subsistence housing experiment which Congress later forced the government to sell. The Subsistence Homestead Division was placed under Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes (1874-1952), who named as its administrator Milburn L. Wilson (1885-1969), an Agricultural Adjustment Act administrator and a back-to-the-land enthusiast. AFSC relief director Clarence E. Pickett became Wilson's assistant.

Mrs. Roosevelt Goes to Scott's Run, August 18-19, 1933

Genuinely concerned after hearing Lorena Hickok's description of dreadful Scott's Run conditions, Mrs. Roosevelt, at FDR's request and at the AFSC's invitation, visited Scott's Run on August 18-19, 1933.2 With her were Lorena Hickok and Clarence Pickett. Unrecognized, she talked to miners, their wives, and children.

To the end of her life she recalled how Scott's Run's plight had affected her. Conditions were so bad and the people so dispirited, she told FDR, that she feared a fascist-type revolution there.

FDR urged his adviser, Louis M. Howe (1871-1936), to start quickly the first subsistence homestead community near Scott's Run. Howe was a newspaperman who had masterminded FDR's political career. Ill and knowing he was near death, Howe pushed Wilson, Pickett, and others to start the northern West Virginia subsistence homestead project. A WVU agricultural experts' committee recommended federal purchase of the Richard M. Arthur farm, part of a l,200-acre estate l5 miles southwest of Morgantown, about to revert to the state for unpaid taxes, and being used as a WVU experimental farm.

With the Arthur farm purchased, Interior Secretary Ickes on October 12, 1933, approved the Arthurdale Resettlement Community Plan for 200 five-acre plots, a community school, and a cooperative store.

New Deal and local officials wanted to show that they could move quickly to cut red tape to ease human misery. They also wanted to avoid undue attention and bad publicity. Rightly or wrongly, because residents of the area insisted on it, only native-born Americans were selected as homesteaders. African Americans and the foreign-born were excluded. It was thought that to raise local ire would bring undue publicity and ruin the project.

By January 1934 several New Deal agencies were paying a thousand workers on relief $3 per day to build the first houses and roads and to landscape. Problems caused by undue haste and unwise selection of homesteaders were compounded by cost overruns on homes and failure to find industrial jobs for the homesteaders.

Trouble in Paradise

Arthurdale faced frequent disagreements, mismanagement, and lack of communication between New Deal and local officials. Louis Howe is said to have told Harold Ickes: you buy the land; I'll buy the houses. Despite Mrs. Roosevelt's caution, but pressed by a desire to house the homesteaders before Christmas 1933, Howe ordered by phone 50 prefabricated Cape Code cottages from Boston.

Designed for summer use and unsuitable for northern West Virginia winters, they were also smaller than the foundations prepared for them. Mrs. Roosevelt asked New York architect Eric Gugler to recut, rebuild, and winterize the cottages to fit the foundations and the weather. Costs, of course, skyrocketed.

Arthurdale suffered from too many uncoordinated committees trying to get too many things done too quickly. There was also interference, though well intentioned, from Howe and Mrs. Roosevelt. There were contradictory orders, delays, waste, and cost overruns. Interior Secretary Ickes, a frugal administrator, wrote in his diary, “We have been spending money down there like drunken sailors.”3

Despite delays and some incomplete and unoccupied homes, Arthurdale opened officially June 7, 1934.

Finding Industry for Arthurdale

A small industry could not be found to supplement homesteaders' inadequate gardening and handicrafts incomes. In October 1934, the Public Works Administration allocated $525,000 to the U.S. Post Office Department for a factory at Arthurdale to manufacture post office furniture and mail boxes. Congressmen and others from furniture-producing states attacked the appropriation as a step toward socialism that would destroy capitalism. Indiana Representative Louis Ludlow, pressured from the Keyless Lock Company in his district (it made post office boxes and equipment), blocked the U.S. Post Office appropriation on January 26, 1935.

On presidential adviser Bernard Baruch's suggestion, a General Electric Company subsidiary built a vacuum cleaner assembly plant in Arthurdale in the fall of 1935. Its opening was aborted when the U.S. Comptroller General ruled that federal funds could not be used for a private business. Some homesteaders early in 1936, with money borrowed from the government, purchased the plant, but it closed after a year because of financial loss.

Other industries that failed included a men's shirt factory in 1937, a poultry farm, a grist mill, and a New York firm making cabinets for radios. World War II defense needs did open coal mines again and many homesteaders returned to work in the mines. By the time an industrial firm was producing war materials at Arthurdale, the government was divesting itself of all of its homestead projects.

Other Arthurdale Critics

Attacks on Arthurdale mounted. Critics derisively called it “Mrs. Roosevelt's project.” One such attack from journalist Wesley Stout in the widely read Saturday Evening Post (August 4, 1934) focused on waste at Arthurdale.4 Critic William A. Wirt, Gary, Indiana, school superintendent, alleged a New Deal conspiracy to subvert the economy of Morgantown, WV. He charged that resettled miners would no longer be paying rent and taxes in Morgantown. Mrs. Roosevelt pointed out that few if any of the jobless miners had paid rent or taxes for years.

Arthurdale Community School

From the first Mrs. Roosevelt saw the school as a center of Arthurdale activities. The community school she envisioned was one which John Dewey and other progressive education leaders advocated: a child centered, community centered school, emphasizing children's interest and their learning, not by drill in a set curriculum, but by active involvement in community affairs.

This progressive concept went back to Jean Jacques Rousseau's Emile (1762) and was practiced from the mid-nineteenth century by Swiss educator Heinrich Pestalozzi and others in Europe and the U.S.

During the Depression, there was also a “social reconstructionist” element in the community school concept. Teachers College, Columbia University educator George S. Counts (1889-1974) wrote Dare the School Build a New Social Order? in 1932. His colleague, Harold O. Rugg (1886-1960), had developed and teachers were using social studies textbooks that stressed American society's faults as well as successes. Reconstructionists believed that students and teachers should discuss current problems, take sides on issues, and that the school should be an active agent to reform (i.e., improve) society.

In this context Mrs. Roosevelt in January 1934 formed a National Advisory Committee for Arthurdale made up of leading prestigious progressive educators: Dean William Russell of Teachers College, Columbia University; Columbia University philosopher John Dewey; Clarence Pickett; E. E. Agger of the Resettlement Administration; Fred J. Kelly of the U.S. Office of Education; Lucy Sprague Mitchell of New York's Bank Street School; and W. Carson Ryan, Progressive Education Association president.

Because Preston County, WV, was poor, it was decided to build the Arthurdale school at federal expense and to divide staff and operating costs with county and state education agencies. Thinking that operating costs for the kind of community school she envisioned would be too costly for the state and county, Mrs. Roosevelt determined to donate to the school her earnings from radio talks and newspaper articles and to solicit private funds.

It was Clarence Pickett who brought Elsie Ripley Clapp 1879-1965) to Mrs. Roosevelt's attention as particularly suitable to be director of the Arthurdale school.

Arthurdale School Director Elsie Ripley Clapp (1934-36)

Elsie Ripley Clapp, born in Brooklyn, NY, on November 16, 1879, had attended Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1899-1903; received the B.A. degree in English from Barnard College, New York, in 1908; and the M.A. degree in Philosophy from Columbia University in 1909. She had assisted John Dewey in his Philosophy of Education classes at Teachers College, Columbia University, 1909-13, and again during 1923-29. She had taught in the following private schools: Ashley Hall, Charleston, SC, 1913-14; Brooklyn Heights Seminary, NY, 1914-21; Milton Academy, Milton, MA, 1921-22; City and Country School, New York, NY, 1922-24; and Rosemary Junior School, Greenwich, CT, 1924-25.

As Principal of Rogers Clark Ballard Memorial School, Jefferson County, near Louisville, KY, 1929-34, she developed a community school atmosphere, described later in her two books and several articles. By the early 1930s she was a leader in the Progressive Education Association (1917-55) and headed its Community School Division, which advised government agencies on education.

Mrs. Roosevelt interviewed Elsie Ripley Clapp in February 1934. They agreed on the community school approach. Clapp was appointed that summer as Arthurdale School director. She visited Scott's Run and the Arthur farm, met the parents and children selected to move there, viewed possible school sites, and got the architect to adapt his school building plans to facilitate student group work and community school activities. Clapp brought six experienced progressive teachers with her from the Ballard School and helped select the three local teachers who were paid by the Preston County Public Schools.

Buildings were not yet completed when the Arthurdale school opened in September 1934 with 246 students. Classes were temporarily held in the Arthurdale farm's main building. When finished, the school complex included a school center, a nursery school, elementary school, high school, and a community recreation center.

Community School Activities

Arthurdale, then a rural beehive of construction, was a natural place to involve school children in community activities. First graders were taken to see buckwheat threshed and potatoes disked. When some cows were acquired, children studied butter and cheese making. A surviving log cabin from colonial times was restored and taken over by fourth graders for a study of pioneer life. Children painted, sang folk songs, and wrote and produced plays. There were square dances, sports, and an annual summer music festival. Classes were organized around small interest groups rather than by formal grades. The nursery school, a source of community pride, served as the community child care center.

Most parents were impressed with the school, although some felt that the 3 Rs were being neglected. Some complained because the high school was not accredited in 1936. Elsie Clapp made light of the complaint, saying that none of the 3 high school graduates that spring planned to go to college.

Private aid was needed to supplement federal, state, and county funds. Mrs. Roosevelt gave the AFSC her radio talk and newspaper earnings to pay Clapp's salary ($6,000 a year, criticized as too high for the times), buy library books and equipment, and pay other costs. Bernard Baruch, who shared her enthusiasm for the school, contributed, mostly to the nursery school which was not eligible for state funds: $33,518 in 1934-35, $23,775 in 1935-36, $l0,272 in 1936-37, and $5,000 a year for the next few years.

Elsie Clapp's Departure

When other private funds could not be found, Clarence Pickett told the school advisory committee in early 1936 that the time had come to transfer school control and finance to West Virginia supervision and Preston County administration. Mrs. Roosevelt reluctantly relayed the decision to disappointed homesteaders, who wanted Clapp and her staff to remain, possibly paid by Preston County.

But Clapp discouraged plans to keep her on. She and the six teachers from the Ballard School left after school ended in 1936. She became editor of Progressive Education, journal of the Progressive Education Association, October 1937 through May 1939. She wrote several articles and two books, Community Schools in Action, 1939, and The Use of Resources in Education, 1952, extolling her community school experiments at the Ballard School in Kentucky and the Arthurdale School in West Virginia. She lived in retirement in Exeter, NH, where she died July 28, 1965, some three decades after her work at the Arthurdale school.

Was the Arthurdale School Successful?

As a progressive community school under Elsie Clapp as director, Arthurdale enjoyed esteem and praise. The school fostered a spirit of community cooperation. Better student social adjustment and a higher standard of community health were achieved. Rexford Tugwell, federal administrator of the Homestead Projects, in praising the original Arthurdale school, said, “Morale at Arthurdale and conditions there were 90 percent better than in other homesteads, entirely due to the school.”5

Critics said that in its zeal for community service, the school neglected the realities of the complex industrial world around it. Some criticized its lack of long-range planning. In a 1941 survey of its first 49 graduates, all but one said they had enjoyed the high school, valuing its smallness and friendly informality, but several faulted its limited course offerings. The school's promoters–Mrs. Roosevelt, Baruch, Tugwell, and Pickett–were convinced that the school was the most successful part of the Arthurdale experiment.

After June 1936, Preston County, WV, took over the school and appointed a principal. Its original progressive education and community influences dwindled. Traditional teaching and administration followed. The high school was organized along subject department lines. With the approach of World War II, it became just another rural school.

Eden Liquidated: Arthurdale on Its Own

By 1938 national sentiment for socioeconomic reform had waned. New Deal critics in Congress in 1939 cut funds for the subsistence homestead projects. Congress in 1942 directed the federal government to sell all interests in the homestead communities. Homes, land, and properties were sold to homesteaders and others. With wartime employment high and new building scarce, the homes sold readily by 1948. Arthurdale cost the government an estimated $2 million from 1933 to final liquidation in 1948.


Arthurdale remains a pleasant community in northern West Virginia. Its fiftieth anniversary celebration was held on July 14, 1984, with meals and speeches. Of the original homesteaders, 27 persons were still living there, 42 couples had lived there until one or both spouses died, and 76 children or grandchildren were heads of families living in Arthurdale, some in the homes of their forebears.6 Arthurdale, a controversial New Deal experiment, is but a footnote to history, a dream that was.


1. Hickok, Lorena A. Reluctant First Lady. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962, pp. 136-137.

2. Haid, Stephen Edward (Ph.D. dissertation). “Arthurdale: An Experiment in Community Planning, 1933-1947.” West Virginia University, 1975, p. 66.

3. Ickes, Harold L. The Secret Diaries of Harold L. Ickes; Vol. I: The First Thousand Days, 1933-1936. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1953, pp. 152, 207, 218.

4. Stout, Wesley. “The New Homesteaders,” Saturday Evening Post, CCVII (August 4, 1934), pp. 5-7, 61-65.

5. Haid, op cit., p. 295.

6. Eble, Jettie and Charles. The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Homesteading of Arthurdale, W. Va. Arthurdale, WV: Privately Printed, 1984, pp. 9, 14.

Elsie Ripley Clapp's two books on community schools during the Depression years were Community Schools in Action, New York: Viking Press, 1939; and The Use of Resources in Education, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952. Her journal articles include “Plays in a Kentucky County School,” Progressive Education, VIII, No. 1 (January 1931), pp. 34-39; “A Rural Community School in Kentucky,” Progressive Education, X, No. 3 (March 1933), pp. 123-128; “The Teacher in Social Education,” Progressive Education, X, No. 5 (May 1933), pp. 283-287; and [Editorial] “Schools Socially Functioning,” Progressive Education, XV, No. 2 (February 1938), pp. 89-90.

The Arthurdale School is described in: College of Education, West Virginia University, Report of the Survey of Arthurdale School, Morgantown, WV: College of Education, West Virginia University, May 6, 1940; Thomas H. Coode and Dennis E. Fabbri, “The New Deal's Arthurdale Project in West Virginia,” West Virginia History, XXXVI, No. 4 (July l975), pp. 291-308; Holly Cowan, “Arthurdale,” Columbia University Faculty of Political Science thesis, 1968?; Kathleen Irwin, “Schools at the Center of Society's Values and Vision,” paper read at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, Chicago, April 2, 1985, ERIC ED 254 961 [abstracted in Resources in Education, XX, No. 8 (August 1985), p. 57]; Richard S. Little and Margaret Little, Arthurdale–Its History, Its Lessons for Today, Morgantown, WV: 1940; Franklin Parker, “The Progressive Educator: Elsie Ripley Clapp,” The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Homesteading of Arthurdale, W. Va., coedited by Jettie and Charles Eble, Arthurdale, WV: Privately Printed, 1984, pp. 11-12; Carleton E. Preston and Vester M. Mulholland, “Experiments in Community Education,” in Secondary Education in the South, edited by W. Carson Ryan et al., Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946, pp. 199-205; Bob Robinson, “Great Social Experiment in Arthurdale Inconclusive,” Dominion-Post (Morgantown, WV), June 7, 1981, p. 2-A; and Steward Wagner, “School Buildings, Arthurdale, West Virginia,” Progressive Education, XV, No. 4 (April 1938), pp. 304-316.

Books by Eleanor Roosevelt describing Arthurdale include This I Remember, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949, pp. 126-133; and My Day, Edited by Rochelle Chadakoff, New York: Pharos Books, 1989, pp. 36-37, 86, 170-171, 245, 380.

Works mentioning Eleanor Roosevelt's involvement in Arthurdale include Maurine H. Beasley, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Media: A Public Quest for Self-Fulfillment, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 62-64, 74, 104, 127; Bruce G. Beezer, “Arthurdale: An Experiment in Community Education,” West Virginia History, Vol. XXVI, No. 1 (October 1974), pp. 17-36; Tamara K. Hareven, “Arthurdale: A Venture in Utopia,” Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Conscience, New York: Da Capo Press, 1975, pp. 91-111, 290-292; Lorena A. Hickok, Reluctant First Lady, New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962, pp. 136-137; Joseph P. Lash, “Mrs. Roosevelt's 'Baby'–Arthurdale,” Eleanor and Franklin, New York: W.W. Norton, 1971, pp. 393-417, 737-738; Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Friend's Memoir, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964, pp. 110-111; Lois Scharf, Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of American Liberalism, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 100-103; Graham White and John Maze, Harold Ickes of the New Deal: His Private Life and Public Career, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985, pp. 128-132; J. William T. Youngs, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Personal and Public Life, Boston: Little, Brown, 1985, pp. 164-169, 177.

Elsie Clapp's earliest work on the community school, done at the Junior School of Rosemary Hall, Greenwich, CT, 1924-25, is briefly mentioned in Harold Rugg and Ann Shumaker, The Child-Centered School: An Appraisal of the New Education, Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Co., 1927, p. 51. Her later community schools in Kentucky and West Virginia are mentioned in Harold Rugg, Foundations for American Education, Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Co., 1947, pp. 572-573; and Harold Rugg and B. Marian Brooks, The Teacher in School and Society: An Introduction to Education, Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Co., 1950, pp. 259-260.

Doctoral dissertations on Elsie Ripley Clapp's community school in Arthurdale, WV, include: Robert A. Naslund (Ph.D. dissertation), “The Origin and Development of the Community School Concept,” Stanford University, 1951; more fully in Stephen Edward Haid (Ph.D. dissertation), “Arthurdale: An Experiment in Community Planning, 1933-1947,” West Virginia University, 1975; and Martin L. Berman (Ph.D. dissertation), “Arthurdale, Nambe, and the Developing Community School Model: A Comparative Study,” University of New Mexico, May 1979.

There is a biographical sketch in the “Elsie Ripley Clapp Papers 1910-1943” Mss. Collection 21, The Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901.

Elsie Ripley Clapp obituaries appeared in The Exeter News-Letter (Exeter, NH), August 12, 1965, and in The New York Times, July 31, 1965, p. 21.

END OF MANUSCRIPT. Send comments and corrections to

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s