When Glenn Luzier was a baby, his hometown of Arthurdale, W.Va., was just a dream of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who envisioned a community where the people of Appalachia could get a fresh start in the midst of the Great Depression.
“There were no homes when we moved here,” says Luzier, 72, a retired electrician and lifelong resident of the town. “Dad was a coal miner who came to cook for the men who built the homes.” Seven decades later, Arthurdale is a quiet community of 700 with its own school, church and post office, and longtime residents take great pride in telling the story of how their town was established as the nation’s first New Deal community.
As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, aimed at helping the poor and unemployed, the federal government in 1934 and 1935 resettled 165 families, primarily from nearby coal-mining towns, on 1,000 acres of farmland purchased from Richard Arthur, the town’s namesake. For a monthly sum, based on the size of their homestead, families moved into new homes furnished with coal-fired furnaces, indoor plumbing and electricity, which was unusual in rural America at the time.
“We had electric lights,” recalls Annabelle Mayor, 86, one of the town’s original residents and a 1938 graduate of Arthurdale High School. “I didn’t have to study by kerosene light any more.”
Each family owned a few acres of land so they could grow their own fruits and vegetables, raise a few pigs and chickens, and become self-sufficient homesteaders. Residents worked in the community as doctors, teachers, carpenters and laborers, while others earned a living building handcrafted furniture, forging metal tools or weaving rugs for local craft cooperatives.
The planned community served as a model for 100 other New Deal communities across the nation, including settlements near Crossville, Tenn.; Elkins, W.Va.; and Greensburg, Pa., where thousands of impoverished families got a helping hand from Uncle Sam during the difficult economic period of the 1930s.
Mrs. Roosevelt took particular interest in Arthurdale, regularly visiting the town to hand out Christmas presents and high school diplomas during the years her husband served as president. During her last visit in 1960, she dedicated the Community Presbyterian Church, where the faithful still worship each Sunday.
“Eleanor loved this community so much,” says Marilee Hall, 58, president of Arthurdale Heritage Inc., the nonprofit organization that has led the town’s preservation efforts. “She never forgot Arthurdale.”
And the residents haven’t forgotten Mrs. Roosevelt, either. During the last 22 years, homesteaders and their descendants have devoted their time and money to preserve the New Deal town and tell its unique story as a tribute to their favorite first lady.
Since 1985, supporters of Arthurdale Heritage Inc. have used community fund-raisers and private donations to purchase eight acres of land around the original town site and to restore a half-dozen historic structures, including the town’s community center, blacksmith forge, old-time gasoline station and administration building, which now houses the New Deal Homestead Museum. The museum displays artifacts and photographs from Arthurdale’s past as well as traveling exhibits about the period from the Great Depression through World War II.
Each July, residents celebrate their town’s founding during the New Deal Festival. The event features blacksmithing and weaving demonstrations, mountain crafts, live entertainment, an antique car and tractor show, and an appearance by Patty Cooper, a Parkersburg, W.Va., woman who portrays Eleanor Roosevelt.
While Arthurdale never became completely self-sustaining as the former first lady had hoped, townspeople nonetheless feel fortunate to live in the peaceful mountain community, which gave 165 West Virginia families hope when they needed it most.
“Arthurdale was a success,” Hall says. “People bettered their lives here for themselves and their descendants. They survived.”