Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The economic collapse of 1929 ushered in a decade fraught with deep, often tremu­lous, questioning of the na­tion’s development and future. Many were the cries to re­turn to the land. As a result, two all-new rural communities founded in Pennsylvania in the mid-1930s – Norvelt, in Westmoreland County, and Penn-Craft, in adjacent Fayette County – remain today as testimony to America’s faith in the riches of the land.

By 1929, America had moved far from Thomas Jefferson’s rural ideal which upheld the yeoman farmer – independent and self-sufficient – as the essential root of a free and democratic society. The dec­ades of the waning nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth brought with them the material glamour of an industrial, urbanized soci­ety. But the social network which industry required made people dependent on one another for specialized tasks, many routine and repetitive. At the same time, it spawned a propertyless proletarian class which had elsewhere been such a fertile field for revolu­tion. In the process of economic growth, were freedom and democracy being compromised?

Even before the Great Depression of 1929, modern society’s burgeoning urban­ization was causing much unrest. One school of thought, represented by industrialist Henry Ford, was animated by a keen desire for future plenty through decentralized indus­try, resulting in a better integra­tion of urban and rural life. Another school, eventually flowering in the agrarianism of the “Twelve Southern­ers” of Vanderbilt University, rejected industrialism entirely and, instead, glorified the Old South. Other thinkers fol­lowed the English Catholic social theorists Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, who were also anti-industrial but who sought inspiration in medieval life. Some were chiefly thinkers and critics; several, such as the Little Landers, Ralph Borsodi and others, actually attempted various back­-to-the-land plans.

The Great Depression fomented diverse intellectual unrest. As part of his ideal­istic strategies for economic relief, Pres. Franklin D. Roose­velt decided to establish new communities in which un­employed workers could be resettled. It was hoped that each family would have a plot of ground on which to raise most of its own food. For cash, cottage industries could be developed or small industries could be attracted to the new and pleasant surroundings. Roosevelt’s decision was intended as a practical plan to solve economic problems, but the solution – trusting in the land itself as a cure for want­ – clearly arose out of an old­-style Jeffersonian agrarianism.

Amidst high hopes, Con­gress created the Division of Subsistence Homesteads of the Department of the Inte­rior in 1933, and Roosevelt chose Milburn L. Wilson as its director. Wilson was assisted by Clarence E. Pickett, execu­tive director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker social ser­vice organization founded in 1917 which was already deeply involved in relief work in the bituminous coal country. It was logical, then, that Penn­sylvania’s two resettlement projects, one a New Deal con­cern and the other devel­oped privately by the AFSC, were located in the southwest­ern part of the state where the Friends had previously been working.

The need was real. In south­ern Westmoreland County, the Mammoth, United, Calumet and other area coal mines were closed, and there was no other work in or near the company towns. With neither money nor hope of employ­ment, people were unable to move elsewhere. Although coal company housing shel­tered many people, money was needed to make the nec­essary improvements in order for inhabitants to withstand the harsh southwestern Penn­sylvania winters. Fortunately several good parcels of land were available near the mines. In 1933, the government began purchasing tracts and accept­ing applications for its new “Westmoreland Homesteads” project. Of the thousands who applied, two hundred and fifty families were finally chosen, involving about 1,200 people. David W. Day, a Quaker from Indiana associated with the AFSC, was selected proj­ect manager.

Settlers picked their hous­ing sites early in the resettle­ment process, but no temporary quarters were provided and families could not relocate until their houses were completed. Most lived not far away, and they worked on the various specialized construction crews. One crew dug foundations, another framed the new houses, while others com­pleted the siding, roofing and flooring. Outside foremen were hired, but the settlers did the work themselves. A day’s wages amounted to four dol­lars, but only one dollar was paid in cash; the remainder was credited toward payment on the property which the homesteaders leased from the federal government. A craft shop, set up with second­hand machinery, enabled the enterprising settlers to manufacture doors, windows, shutters and cabinets in an attractive cottage style.

Work was demanding, but there was a fascination in witnessing an entirely new com­munity suddenly rise out of the pastoral landscape. An early homesteader recently recalled how a supply crew would receive orders to deliver lum­ber to an empty lot; before too long, a construction crew arrived, and shortly, a new house stood where before there was only grass. By May 1935 the first families moved in. Although the project was new, it had none of the anonymity of today’s suburbs. Another homesteader remembered that in the early years, Westmoreland Homesteads seemed like one big family. And the fam­ily was typically Pennsylvanian, with people from many dif­ferent ethnic groups and back­grounds. Hard work was required. Houses had larger lots – about two acres each – than in most other communi­ties. Since cash was scarce, the tracts provided enough land for subsistence garden plots.

Meanwhile in Washing­ton, there was not complete agreement as to what the reset­tlement projects were supposed to accomplish. President Roosevelt leaned toward the ideas of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who viewed the new communities strictly as a relief measure and fa­vored spartan accommodations. But other advisers thought differently. Eleanor Roosevelt, for one, envisioned the proj­ects as models for the future, and believed they should be equipped with modern con­veniences such as refrigerators and washing machines. Her ideas prevailed and surplus appliances were made avail­able at a reasonable cost. The homesteaders renamed their community in honor of the First Lady; the name Norvelt, adopted as the post office name in 1937, is a blend of the last syllables of her first and last names.

Norvelt, although a small community, attracted much interest. Eleanor Roosevelt vis­ited in May 1937. The AFSC, still keenly interested in con­ditions in the soft coal fields, convened a series of summer work camps there for college and high school students. Campers hand-built Norvelt’s water reservoir on a nearby hill and dug and laid its mile-and-a-half-long water main. They also sponsored evening discussion groups on the nation’s economic crisis and possible solutions.

On May 15, 1935, President Roosevelt transferred the assets of the Division of Sub­sistence Homesteads to the newly-created Rural Resettle­ment Administration (RA), the purpose of which was to help eliminate rural poverty by resettling people away from localities which had lost their economic bases. The move brought changes in pol­icy, because the head of the RA was the former Columbia University economics pro­fessor, Rexford G. Tugwell. Controversial for his support of a government-regulated economy, Tugwell was inter­ested in urban planning; he was no Jeffersonian. He did not favor the rural subsis­tence-homesteads idea and con­sidered it a throwback to an obsolete form of agrarian romanticism. He noted that even with new homes, the settlers would still need work­ the land itself was just not enough. He also believed hopes that industries would relocate in the new com­munities were completely un­founded. Time proved him right and after construction was finished, cash employ­ment was desperately needed at Norvelt. So, in 1937, the RA approved a loan to build a garment factory there and, although the first several years were not profitable, it ex­panded and prospered. A cooperative farm, created to provide farm commodities to the homesteaders at low cost, was another source of work. Norvelt also had a co­operative store which sold general merchandise at reason­able prices.

Despite the cash short­ages, the settlers endured and Norvelt was well established by the late 1930s. Clarence Pickett and the American Friends Service Committee began planning other projects, but were vexed by the un­certainty of funding and the length of time necessary for plans to be approved. In the meantime, politics forced the discharge of David W. Day as project manager of Norvelt in 1936, dismaying the Friends. When retrenchment of the homesteads program under Rexford Tugwell curtailed gov­ernment funding for such projects, the AFSC decided to carry on alone.

The Friends selected Fay­ette County as the location of the next project. Clarence Pickett, with his forthright but sincere manner, raised $200,000 from private sources, includ­ing $75,000 from the United States Steel Corporation, which owned many area coal mines through a subsidiary. Two Quakers, Homer Morris and Errol Peckham, found the Edgar W. Craft farm west of Republic a suitable site and the Friends purchased the land.

The AFSC placed announce­ments in state and local newspapers early in 1937 ex­plaining the new experimental homestead community for fifty miners and their families. Although ambitious, the proj­ect involved only about one­-fourth as many people as did Norvelt. In mid-April, the first applicants arrived on site and cleared the land for cash wages. Work was arduous, and a few prospective but dismayed settlers immediately decided that the rigorous homestead life was not suitable for them.

By June 1937 repairs had been made to the existing farm buildings, horse teams and equipment had been pur­chased, and the first crops had been sowed on the community farm. Soon work began on house construction using a barter system of work hours. David W. Day, formerly of Westmoreland Homesteads, served as project manager. The homesteaders agreed upon the AFSC’s name for the community, combining the names of William Penn and of the family from which the land was purchased: Penn­-Craft.

As at Norvelt, outside foremen were hired and the homesteaders undertook the work themselves. There was no temptation to take shortcuts, especially since the man whose house was being built would probably help build his neighbors’ at another time. Much like Norvelt, only a portion of the project’s land was used for the homesteads, which averaged about one and one-half acres; the remainder was used for a cooperative farm. The farm’s team of work horses was made available to the settlers to plow their gardens. A craft shop was also established and turned out millwork for the project by reworking non-standard pieces of lumber purchased at low cost.

Penn-Craft differed from Norvelt in other ways. Most obvious was the use of stone, quarried by the settlers on the project property, to build the houses; Norvelt had only wood-frame construction. Stone houses, however, re­quired a long time to build, and, even with wooden forms to simplify construction, building was laborious and slow. The homesteaders also found it a hardship to commute from their own homes to the work sites, especially since some did not own automobiles.

The Friends regularly con­ducted community meetings for the settlers to express their views. During a meeting in mid-1937, several homestead­ers suggested to Manager Day that they build temporary frame camps to live in while building the main houses; afterward, the frame structures would be used as chicken houses. The Friends were as much excited by the fact that the idea came from the miners themselves as by its simple practicality, and they eagerly approved the proposal. So, although Norvelt homesteaders had to await completion of their homes, the Penn-Craft settlers moved in and community life blossomed in the midst of chaos and construction. Despite Friends’ enthusiasm, however, AFSC annual reports made no men­tion of the fact that the tempo­rary quarters were in fact designed as chicken houses!

The Friends long remained intensely interested in Penn­Craft. Errol Peckham, involved with the project from its inception, lived there as a sort of resident minister, serving as a counselor in matters both spiritual and pragmatic. For their part, Penn-Craft residents showed their cohesive com­munity spirit by donating one thousand man-hours of labor in 1938 to build a stone factory building, the Redstone Knitting Mill, to provide employment. Although the mill was not at first profitable, due in part to wartime shortages of raw materials, after several years it was leased to Louis Gallet who successfulJy managed it for a time. Production ceased, however, in 1954, and the building is no longer in use.

Penn-Craft, like Norvelt, operated a cooperative store and farm. In its heyday, the co-op store boasted some 500 frozen-food lockers to store members’ meat and produce. The co-op grew to serve people beyond the bounds of Penn-Craft itself, which pleased the Friends, who had been worried they had built an island of sorts, isolated from the surrounding countryside.

The increase in industrial production and the general prosperity fostered by World War II delayed the completion of Penn-Craft, based as it was on labor-intensive con­struction, until the late 1940s. Meanwhile, the community had expanded to include a sec­ond project on nearby land, which had larger homestead tracts of about ten acres each. The new project emphasized the land more as a source of income than merely as a source of food in economically depressed times. Homes were constructed of cinder blocks which, with the Quak­ers’ emphasis on self-reliance, were manufactured by the homesteaders on site.

With the welcomed return of prosperity, the problems of unemployment which Norvelt and Penn-Craft had been established to ease began to resolve themselves, and the unique mission of the two communities seemed less important. However, the continuing development of each has differed significantly in recent years due largely to their different locations.

In the 1940s, Norvelt’s cooperative store and farm operations were sold or leased to individuals. In 1946, the homesteaders were able to purchase full title to their prop­erties. Since large plots for gardens were no longer neces­sary, some lots have since been subdivided. Streets have been given names to replace the old section numbers, although older residents still use the numbers.

Following World War II, Norvelt developed much like other suburban communi­ties. The original population of about 1,200 has increased to around 2,000. The garment factory burned in 1966 but was rebuilt. Industrial develop­ment at nearby New Stanton and in adjacent communities has brought other employ­ment possibilities. Today, a half century after its founding, Norvelt is well established as part of the Greensburg metropolitan area.

Penn-Craft, however, is more isolated. Located far from major population centers, it never evolved into a residen­tial suburb as did Norvelt. There are a few new houses, but families today are smaller than in previous years. Its population of 320 in 1940 has dwindled to 212 residents. The distinctive Quaker-inspired cooperative forms, however, disappeared gradually – first the co-op farm, then the fac­tory and finally the store, which remained a cooperative venture until 1963 when pur­chased by a resident. Penn­-Craft today still looks much as it did a few years after its completion. Most of the old lots have not been subdivided, and a sense of open space remains. The original Craft farmhouse, used in the early days as a community center, still stands and, although the store is no longer a co-op, the building remains.

Norvelt and Penn-Craft, one a government project, the other a private enterprise, were the only depression-era rural resettlement communities founded in Pennsylvania. There was, however, almost a third: in mid-1936, the RA announced plans for a model agricultural-industrial com­munity to be located near Beth­lehem in Northampton County. Land was actually purchased in the vicinity of Butztown and Hanoverville, but shortly afterward the RA curtailed its activities and the project was never attempted.

Although the temptation may exist to view Norvelt and Penn-Craft as testimonies to an anachronistic agrarian­ism, the AFSC pointed out as early as 1941 that the “home­steaders are not disdainful of the benefits of our indus­trial age. Theirs is not a primi­tive ‘back-to-the-land’ move­ment but an attempt to make the land supplement their income and cushion the shock of industrial depression.” Meanwhile, the urbanization which produced such deep intellectual unrest in the 1920s has continued to this day. Will another period of serious questioning develop? If so, Pennsylvanians may turn to Norvelt and Penn-Craft for practical knowledge of what it means to return to the land in the twentieth century. The two communities echo the inspiration and the zealous pioneering spirit characterizing them as benchmarks in Penn­sylvania’s rich social, political and economic history.

 

For Further Reading

American Friends Service Com­mittee. Penncraft in Progress. Philadelphia: Friends Service, Inc., 1941.

Conkin, Paul K. Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Communities Program. Bing­hamton, N. Y.: Cornell Uni­versity Press, 1959.

Miller, Orlando W. The Frontier in Alaska and the Matanuska Colony. New Haven: Yale Univer­sity Press, 1975. (Describes one of the New Deal’s most interesting resettlement projects, a colony in Alaska settled by farmers from the Great Lakes region.)

Pickett, Clarence E. For More Than Bread. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1953.

 

Joseph D. Conwill is a free-lance writer and historian specializing in back-to-the-land movements and Canadian history. The au­thor’s initial fascination with the extensive Canadian “return to the land” of the 1930s has expanded to include interest in similar movements in Pennsylvania.