ARTHURDALE, W.Va. -- "Will it work?"
That seemed to be a common question in 1933, as the federal government began constructing a new community in Preston County that was designed to be self-sufficient and pull impoverished families into a more middle-class way of life during the Great Depression.
Part of former President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal plan in the 1930s involved the construction of 99 new communities across the United States. Some were entirely new locales, like Arthurdale, and others were extensions of existing municipalities.
But Arthurdale was the first - and perhaps the most well-known, especially considering First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's influence in its creation and continuance. She visited Arthurdale as many as 78 times, and many longtime residents can recall personally meeting her.
And 80 years later, Arthurdale lives on in largely the same cooperative spirit.
Excluding children who were brought to Arthurdale by their parents, there's still one original homesteader residing there - Hazel Bonnette, who celebrated her 100th birthday on Jan. 11.
"I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," she said at an open house celebrating her birthday on Saturday at the Arthurdale Heritage Center.
Bonnette moved to Arthurdale with her husband, Claude, in 1936 from the Morgantown area. Her daughter, Jean Bonnette McLaughlin, was 3 years old at the time, and Bonnette had three more children after moving to Arthurdale.
Families like the Bonnettes were chosen to live in the new community after undergoing a scrupulous application process. After meeting other requirements, families were selected based on their knowledge of trades or skills and their willingness to live in a cooperative community - one in which almost everything was meant to be shared.
"Dad was really excited about the cooperative spirit," said McLaughlin. "He loved it."
Claude ended up on the Arthurdale Board of Directors, which carried responsibilities like escorting Eleanor Roosevelt during her visits and traveling to Washington to meet with federal officials. He died in 2001 at age 92.
McLaughlin stayed in Arthurdale until after graduating from Morgantown High School and getting married in her early 20s. She returned five years ago to care for her mother, ensuring that Hazel could remain in the house she loved.
The creation of a community
The idea behind Arthurdale can be traced to a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, journalist Lorena Hickok, who visited the impoverished Scott's Run area north and west of Morgantown in the early 1930s. At the time, large mining operations covered the landscape, with many families in coal company-owned towns.
When the Great Depression hit, the mines cut back working hours, and families unable to afford living expenses were effectively forced to move into tent cities. The heinous living conditions earned the area the nickname "Bloody Run," said Jeanne Goodman, executive director of Arthurdale Heritage Inc.
Horrified at the living conditions, Hickok encouraged Roosevelt to visit the area. Not long after, Roosevelt traveled to West Virginia, embedded anonymously in a group of Quaker relief workers. That visit prompted Roosevelt to push her husband to make a new community in West Virginia a priority.
Although the federal government initially targeted impoverished mining families from Scotts Run to populate Arthurdale, applications were eventually accepted from families not from Scotts Run, like the Bonnettes.
The government selected the Preston County site based on the availability of land, namely the estate of John Arthur. Those wishing to live in the new community had to undergo an application process facilitated by West Virginia University.
Applicants had to be married, have children, be American-born and agree with the concept of a cooperatively run community.
They also had to be white.
"It's kind of unclear who decided these things," Goodman said. "Eleanor wasn't too happy about this."
In all, 165 homes were built in Arthurdale, each with its own roughly four-acre lot. The extra space was meant for growing fresh produce for the family and for the community. Each home was also equipped with an outdoor cellar to keep perishable foods cool.
The actual lots were spread out on both sides of present-day W.Va. 92, along new roads named simply by letters - A Road, B Road, X Road, and so on. Because Arthurdale remains without rural postal delivery, homes are referred to by road and house number - "E-11," or "B-2," for example.
"The whole idea was that people are desperate, the country was desperate," Goodman said. "They wanted to do something to help them."
Working out the kinks
Arthurdale was still far from perfect. In fact, the first 50 homes, dubbed the "Hodgson" style, were built in such haste that the foundations did not match the dimensions of the houses. To make matters worse, the Hodgson homes - built without insulation and with no heat - all had to be renovated for residents to endure the harsh Preston County winters.
There was another problem. While the community was designed to be self-sufficient in terms of food, there were no major employers. The government again stepped in, luring various industries over the years, ranging from Hoover Vacuum to a tractor factory to a textile mill, Goodman said.
Arthurdale residents also received government subsidies for the craft items and furniture they built. The subsidies helped make those products affordable to transport and sell in larger markets.
At Eleanor Roosevelt's request, the Arthurdale School operated similar to a Montessori or Waldorf education style, meaning that students generally were able to learn about trades and subjects in which they were interested.
But this progressive education system also became problematic, as students did not graduate with a state high school diploma, making it difficult for them to attend colleges other than WVU, which knew of the school. After just a few years, Arthurdale School was assimilated into the county school system.