Library of Congress

Dead End in Norvelt is based on a New Deal-era subsistence farming community in rural Pennsylvania.

A long time ago, in a political galaxy far, far away, the government of the United States decided that in order to help citizens struggling through the economic downturn of a lifetime, it would finance houses on plots of arable land where those people could live and get their feet back under them.

Part of the New Deal, this was called the “subsistence homesteads” program, and it ultimately created some 100 communities around the country, founded on an idealistic vision of “back to the land” self-sufficiency, where people would devote only part of their labor to getting cash and would fulfill the rest of their needs through barter or farming.

The federal initiative, funded by a $25 million appropriation, began in 1933 as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act and lasted until the 1940s. At its heart, it represented the idea that cities were a place where poverty was endemic, and that solutions to chronic unemployment and deprivation might be found in the countryside, where people could grow their own food and help their neighbors do the work that needed to be done. Homesteaders helped build their own houses, worked at collective factories, and purchased their homes on an affordable lease-to-own model.

A 1934 article about the program quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s thoughts on how redistribution of urban population to rural areas might ease the pain of the Great Depression:

Where do most of the unemployed live? If you go through the smaller communities of New York and Connecticut you will find no starvation, no evictions, few people who have not got an overcoat or a pair of shoes. And if you go into the farming areas you will not find people starving on the farms. On the contrary. There is suffering, there is deprivation; but in the smaller communities and on the farms, there is not the same kind of being up against it, of not knowing where you are going to sleep tonight or where you are going to get the next meal that you find in cities. I venture the assertion that at least three quarters, and probably more of the dependent unemployed throughout the United States today, are in the cities.

Are we not beginning now to visualize a different kind of city? Are we not beginning to envisage the possibility of a lower cost of living by having a greater percentage of our population living a little closer to the source of supply?

This grand experiment in regional planning, in the end, petered out. It’s a piece of American history that I either missed or have forgotten despite my high school classes in the subject (sorry, Mr. Lyons). I only know about it now because of a kick-ass new book for young teens called Dead End in Norvelt, by the acclaimed children's author Jack Gantos.

Winner of the 2012 Newbery Medal, the book tells the story of a boy named – that's right – Jackie Gantos, who is growing up in what is left of one of these utopian subsistence homesteads, Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Norvelt, originally called Westmoreland Homesteads, is a real place that took its name from the final syllables of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s name after she made a visit there in 1937. Jack Gantos really did live there as a child, and the book contains a lot of historical facts along with a not-so-factual murder mystery.

Interior of a house circa the late 1930s in Norvelt, Pennsylvania (Library of Congress)

Some 1,850 applications were filed for 250 spots in the new settlement back when it was opened up in 1935, and many of the applicants were unemployed miners who had been trapped in the company coal towns of Western Pennsylvania. The homes they built in Norvelt were solid and well-designed, in large part thanks to the First Lady. Mrs. Roosevelt had differed with her husband on what types of accommodations the homesteaders should have. He wanted bare-bones shacks without electricity or running water; she and the program’s director, Milburn Wilson, advocated for modern amenities that would help the workers move up in the world. She and Wilson won that fight.

Mrs. Roosevelt emphasized that she did not view the homesteads as charity, and that she saw the program as a chance to explore new ideas about how productive society might be structured. The community eventually came to include a cooperative store and factory, as well as a community health center. But despite initial enthusiasm, it didn’t survive the Depression -- at least not in its original form. From the ExplorePAHistory site:

[In 1944,] the federal government disbanded the program and dispersed its assets. Most residents had by this time already managed to purchase their homes and property. By 1950, the cooperative store and farm had shut down, but the garment factory, now under private ownership, continued for many years.

Norvelt never achieved the lofty goals that Eleanor Roosevelt and others had invested in it. As a relief measure, however, it was a success. In 2002, Norvelt's handful of surviving original pioneers, expressed their appreciation. "God bless them," said ninety-seven-year old Catherine Grimme, "the Roosevelts gave us houses, jobs and a way to feed our kids during the Great Depression."

Dead End in Norvelt is set in 1962, when last of the original homesteaders are dying off and the tidy houses they constructed are starting to empty out. Jackie’s mother, who grew up in the town, still stubbornly believes in the old Norvelt ideals of neighbor helping neighbor. The family is short on cash, since Jackie’s dad can’t find steady work, so she tries to barter for Jackie’s medical care. But the doctor isn’t accepting barter these days.

“Why’d you offer him fruit and pickles?” I asked…. “Doctors cost money.”

“You shouldn’t be embarrassed,” Mom said, knowing that I was. “Money can mean a lot of different things. When I was a kid, we traded for everything. Nobody had any cash. If you wanted your house built, you helped someone build theirs, and then they would turn around and help you build yours. It was the same with everything…. Money is just a way of measuring work, but you don’t need money if everyone agrees that trading one kind of work for another will do just as well.”

“I see,” I said, but I didn’t. None of the history books I ever read had people happily trading one thing for another.

Jackie’s dad is way to the right of his wife. He calls Norvelt "a Commie town...built by Commies with Commie money...rigged by Commies so that no real man can get ahead in life." Cash, he tells Jackie, is the “universal get-out-of-Norvelt-forever card,” and plans to head to Florida, where there’s money to be made and a modern life waiting to be lived. Jackie is torn between his parents, feeling both a love for Norvelt and an itch to see what’s out in the bigger world. He also develops a deep attachment to one of the town’s last remaining originals, Miss Volker – a nurse who promised Mrs. Roosevelt in person that she would take care of the town’s inhabitants as long as they hung on.

A typical Norvelt "subsistence homestead" house circa 1934. (Library of Congress)

Miss Volker is a fire-breathing true believer in the utopian principles that undergirded the old Norvelt, although she is realistic about the pathetic state those principles have come to. She teaches Jackie about Emma Goldman and Anne Frank and John Adams (all in the least didactic, most entertaining way possible). He loves her, while at the same time realizing that she represents something that is vanishing, something that really only existed for a brief moment in history.

In 1934, the agrarian idealist and social critic Ralph Borsodi wrote this about the subsistence farming movement in Survey Graphic (“A Magazine of Social Interpretation”).

The really difficult problem is that of inspiring and training families -- for this is a family undertaking -- to change their notions of the good life, and their ways of securing the necessities and satisfactions of life. In some way they will have to be taught to think in terms of years instead of weekly pay-envelopes; to look upon the earning of cash as something to which they ought to devote only part of their time, and to secure their satisfactions out of creative and self-expressive activities instead of out of conspicuous consumption and vicarious play.

Jack Gantos's young hero Jackie knows what the real deal is. He's a modern kid who wants to go to the movies and drive a car, to get out of the dead end of Norvelt. That doesn't stop him from being sad to see it disappearing before his eyes. The book manages to deal with all the old American debates about socialism and capitalism without ever lecturing or sounding bitter.

Nearly 80 years after the homestead experiment dissolved, as we quibble about social entitlements and the 47 percent, it’s clear that the idealism behind settlements such as Norvelt never stood a chance -- at least not on a large national scale. Without books like Dead End in Norvelt, it would be easy to forget that such idealism even existed at all.

Top image: Town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1934 (Library of Congress)

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