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New Deal community cherishes its stories

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.

 

'This was still heaven'

Despite the bumps in the road, for families that were accepted, Arthurdale was a vast improvement over their previous quality of life. For many new residents, an Arthurdale home was their first experience with indoor plumbing.

"This was still heaven for anybody that was chosen," Goodman said. "It dragged all these people into the middle class."

At one time, Arthurdale sported a small community-run clinic and in its early years had a co-op store. Basic health care was provided at the clinic for $1 per month. There was an inn, too, complete with private quarters for Eleanor Roosevelt. The inn is now a hospice care center.

Roger Day, who was born in Arthurdale in 1944 and has spent all but 10 years of his life in the community, said he had fond memories of growing up there. The youngest of seven children, Day's father was a coal miner from Scotts Run.

"It was very nice growing up here," he said. "There were a lot of kids."

Day's family lived on M Road and raised chickens, pigs and a dairy cow on their property. They also grew potatoes, buckwheat, corn and other produce.

"It was nice having the ground to do that," he said.

And like most children who grew up in Arthurdale, Day had the chance to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. After the stone Presbyterian Church near the middle of town was completed in the 1960s, the town held a dedication ceremony. It was Day's job to help set up chairs.

"Eleanor walked over and put her hand on my shoulder and said, 'This is a beautiful day,' he recalled. "I said, 'Yes it is.' Then she said, 'I'm pretty proud of you for what you're doing.'"

Day said he's never forgotten that moment.    

 

Arthurdalemoves forward

Although Arthurdale started out as a government-operated community, that arrangement wouldn't last long. Once the United States entered World War II, the federal government began selling off the communities it had built.

But despite the change in ownership, remnants of the cooperative living style have survived to this day.

Take Arthurdale's water and sewer system, for example. Until an ongoing project to connect the system with neighboring Reedsville is complete, Arthurdale's water and sewer systems are run as a utility cooperative, versus being administered by a municipal government or private company.

Then there are Arthurdale's public buildings. By the 1980s, most of the original community buildings had fallen into disrepair. A community effort spearheaded entirely by volunteers worked to clean and restore the buildings. The former Administration Building became a museum, and the community center was restored to its original function.

"People in this area are talented," Day said. "Ninety percent of them can do just about anything."

Day said self-sufficiency is still a large part of Arthurdale. He still maintains his own garden every year, as do many others. A few still have livestock. But having a strong community doesn't mean residents want to see Arthurdale become a municipality.

"There's been a couple meetings where they wanted to incorporate Arthurdale," Day said. "I was surprised at the amount of people that didn't want that. People like the freedom here."

Day doesn't see the community fading anytime soon, either. Although issues remain, like a U.S. Postal Service proposal to close the Arthurdale Post Office, the investment residents have in Arthurdale remains unchanged.

Arthurdale Heritage Inc., for which Day serves on the board of directors, was created out of the 1980s restoration effort. The nonprofit still has several goals, including restoring buildings surrounding the Heritage Center and the three former school buildings behind the modern Valley Elementary School.

Goodman said Arthurdale Heritage conducts fundraisers throughout the year, the biggest of which is the annual New Deal Festival on the second Saturday in July. Members of the public can also become members of Arthurdale Heritage Inc.

As Arthurdale continues to preserve its history, the number of people visiting the community has also been strong. Goodman said last year 425 people took guided tours of the town, while another 200-300 people visited the Heritage Center and museum on their own.

The museum boasts exhibits detailing Arthurdale's history, including products made by local residents and a collection of Franklin Roosevelt memorabilia on loan to the museum.

And Goodman added that a main priority is to record the experiences of people associated with Arthurdale.

"We're always looking for more stories," she said.

For more information about Arthurdale and preservation efforts in the community, visit www.arthurdaleheritage.org.  

 

 


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