Hope in Hard Times
Norvelt and the Struggle for Community During the Great Depression
Timothy Kelly, Margaret Power, and Michael Cary
Hope in Hard Times
Norvelt and the Struggle for Community During the Great Depression
Timothy Kelly, Margaret Power, and Michael Cary
“The story of Norvelt reinforces the ways race and class are intricately bound together in American policy. . . . It’s a piece of history worth recovering.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Hope in Hard Times explores the many transitions faced by those who undertook this experiment. With the aid of the New Deal, these residents, who hailed from the hardworking and underserved class that Jacob Riis had called the “other half” a generation earlier, created a middle-class community that would become an exemplar of the success of such programs. Despite this, many current residents of Norvelt—the children and grandchildren of the first inhabitants—oppose government intervention and support political candidates who advocate scrutinizing and even eliminating public programs.
Authors Timothy Kelly, Margaret Power, and Michael Cary examine this still-unfolding narrative of transformation in one Pennsylvania town, and the struggles and successes of its original residents, against the backdrop of one of the most ambitious federal endeavors in U.S. history.
“The story of Norvelt reinforces the ways race and class are intricately bound together in American policy. . . . It’s a piece of history worth recovering.”
“A fine and insightful study.”
“An elegantly written and historiographically engaged study of the ‘subsistence homestead’ community of Norvelt, in Pennsylvania’s hard-hit bituminous coal country.”
“A rich history of a little-known community, a valuable study to those interested in the New Deal, community planning, and Pennsylvania history.”
“The dichotomy separating praise for and criticism against the local village, and its ultimate worth, comes to life in Hope in Hard Times.”
“Hope in Hard Times powerfully demonstrates the importance of writing history from the ground up. Vivid details of everyday life in Norvelt are woven into a compelling narrative that illustrates how New Deal policies shaped and were reshaped by the homesteaders. Variables of race, ethnicity, class, and gender—too often posited as if already formed—emerge from this particular time and place and lead to a better understanding of where to go from here as we consider the role of government in alleviating poverty.”
“Despite its recognition of sobering realities, Hope in Hard Times is, as its title suggests, an optimistic book. Though it provides sufficient statistics and research reviews to satisfy the scholar, general readers will enjoy the intimacy the authors create through their vivid descriptions of the interiors of homes and the testimony provided by current residents, many of whom are descendants of the original settlers.”
Timothy Kelly is Professor of History at St. Vincent College. His most recent book is The Transformation of American Catholicism.
Margaret Power is Professor of History at Illinois Institute of Technology. She is the coeditor of New Perspectives on the Transnational Right and author of Right-Wing Women in Chile, the latter also published by Penn State University Press.
Michael Cary is Professor of History and Political Science at Seton Hill University and the author of This American Courthouse.
List of Illustrations
1 The World of Coal Mining, Coking, and Patch Communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1880–1920
2 The Crisis: The Great Depression in the Nation and Westmoreland County
3 The Response: The New Deal and the Subsistence Homestead Program
4 The Great Experiment: The Cooperative Ethos and Community Building
5 Challenges to the Cooperative Ethos
6 Becoming Norvelt: The Triumph of the Middle Way
7 Living in Norvelt: Domestic Architecture
8 Norvelt Today: The Evolution of a New Deal Community
Conclusion: Did Norvelt Succeed?
Appendix: List of Interviewees
By the spring of 1933, Anthony Wolk had been out of work for four straight years. For at least ten years before that, he had burrowed into the earth in various coal mines throughout Westmoreland County, in southwestern Pennsylvania, to dig out the carbon that fueled the United States’ industrial revolution. Everyone and every business needed coal, from the largest steel mills that lined the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers near Pittsburgh to the smallest row houses that housed many of the families who sent their fathers and sons into those mills. So too did the railroads, which carried the steel used to build the taller and taller skyscrapers that created the distinctive skylines that characterized every U.S. city. Once completed, those buildings relied on coal to produce the steam to stay warm in the winter. Coal mining in Westmoreland County ought to have been the most secure occupation in the United States. The Connellsville coal seams that ran through the county were the richest known energy deposits in the world and created fabulous wealth for a handful of the nation’s shrewdest and most ruthless businessmen.
But Anthony Wolk did not get rich mining coal. He never even got comfortable enough to provide the kinds of things to which middle-class American families had grown accustomed: indoor plumbing, hot water on demand, electricity to run a host of new appliances aimed at easing domestic work. In the flush times, he could provide food for his family, clothes for the growing children, and a roof over their heads. But these were not flush times, not even close. The bottom fell out of the coal industry, and the Wolks fell through the abyss. Much of the rest of the nation had endured for the past four years what coal miners had lived for more than a decade—intermittent work, decreased wages, lost savings, hungry children. More than half a million American coal miners lost their jobs, and economists expected that three hundred thousand of them would never work again. Wolk had no good reason to believe that he would be one of the “lucky” two hundred thousand who might get back into the mines, even part time. And yet he had no good alternative. Where would an ex-miner find work in the United States during the Depression? How would he feed his family? Where might they live? So when David Day, a Quaker who worked with the federal Division of Subsistence Homesteads, came to Greensburg, Pennsylvania, with plans to build a new community in Westmoreland County with beautiful houses, acres of land, a factory for jobs—all for the unemployed—Wolk jumped at the chance to sign on.
So too did Sara Kelley and her husband, John. Sara was a joiner who valued family and community and participated enthusiastically in social events. John had labored in the H. C. Frick Company coal mines for twenty years, and then for five more with the Jamison Coal and Coke Company. But the mines closed and he found himself out of work. Sara’s dream of owning her own home seemed gone forever when a neighbor told her that the government was building new homes near Mt. Pleasant. John went to the Greensburg courthouse to sign up for the program, and the family ended up in a six-room house on 2.9 acres in the new community, known as Westmoreland Homesteads. John started working for the Works Progress Administration, and Sara immersed herself in the life of the community.
Westmoreland Homesteads offered Sara many opportunities to delve into community life. She became the first female member of the Activities Council, then its treasurer. Soon after, she started working in the Westmoreland Homesteads pants factory, where she rose from the sewing machines to an inspector’s position. She joined the women in the cannery in 1934, when the houses were first under construction, and filled jars with the fruits and vegetables grown in the community’s gardens. Each family earned canned fruits and vegetables commensurate with the time they labored in the garden and cannery. Sara worked a lot, so she remembers getting ninety-two cans of corn delivered to her home, along with beets, beans, tomatoes, and even chickens. Her neighbors recall that she “could be counted upon to volunteer for committees, to press for action, to unite neighbors, to encourage cooperation whether it was for promoting art classes, drama groups, baby clinics, the Mothers’ Club or just community get togethers.” In fact, Sara emerged in the pages of the community newsletter as she organized a Well Baby Clinic, chaired the PTA Program Committee, was a pioneering member of the Health Committee, and helped form the Westmoreland Enterprises organization to try to entice a factory to the community. She also hosted Eleanor Roosevelt on the first lady’s only visit to the community that would later bear her name.
Anthony Wolk and Sara Kelley were not alone. Nearly two thousand couples applied for one of the two hundred and fifty homes that made up Westmoreland Homes, soon to be renamed Norvelt, after EleaNOR RooseVELT. . Most people who have not lived in or near Norvelt have probably never heard of it. But it was one of the United States’ most innovative and humane responses to the suffering that suffused the nation. A New Deal community that has not only survived but thrived since its founding in 1934, it offers tangible proof that federal intervention, when combined with a receptive, eager, and hardworking population, can succeed. Seen in this light, this study of Norvelt provides more than just a new historical perspective on the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration. It also suggests a possible model for subsequent economic crises.
Norvelt’s story is compelling on a number of levels, and merits attention for anyone interested in the human struggle against forces too large to surmount individually. It is the story of ordinary people joining in a common effort to survive, and even thrive, in the face of the worst economic depression in our nation’s history. What the federal government made possible for the people of Norvelt to accomplish eight decades ago has attained mythic status among those few who know its history—mostly the homesteader generation and their descendants. It deserves a wider audience.
It deserves a wider audience in part because it is instructive for us today. We live in a time when Americans have lost faith in government’s capacity to work positively in people’s lives—to improve their health, raise their standard of living, allow them to pursue happiness more abundantly. Norvelt reminds us that an ambitious and innovative federal government once aspired to lofty goals and largely succeeded.
The people of Norvelt and the federal government succeeded not only in creating a community in which members became more physically comfortable than before—warmer in winter, well fed, freer from unsanitary conditions—but also more civically engaged, more robustly ambitious. Not only did homesteaders not lose their ambition for productive work when their homes became more comfortable, their children more thoroughly educated, their physical well-being secured, but they went on to extraordinary accomplishments. They share readily with visitors the number of college graduates, doctors, and lawyers that their community has produced. Their experience puts the lie to the notion, long prevalent among some in U.S. culture, that this kind of security erodes character, demeans human productivity, and weakens society.
Norvelt’s experiences in the 1930s offer a clear insight into the contours of U.S. working-class and middle-class lives as one community began the powerful transition from the former to the latter. Its members all hailed from what Jacob Riis a generation earlier called the “other half.” The men toiled hard in the mines and factories of western Pennsylvania to provide just enough for their families to endure. The women labored long hours bearing and raising children, attending to boarders, trying to create a home that insulated their families from deprivation’s gnawing reminders of life’s harsh realities—hunger, cold, illness, anxiety, and ever-present messages that their lives mattered little to the economic and political powers that shaped U.S. society. The children went without—without enough food, health care, clothing, school, opportunity. Their lives in coal-patch communities across southwestern Pennsylvania offer a good insight into working-class life in the early twentieth-century United States.
Once they arrived in Norvelt, homesteaders seized the opportunity to create the kind of middle-class lives that had seemed so elusive in the years before. Their new expectations, activities, and practices help us to understand what it meant to be middle class in the United States. One thing that middle-class life entailed was membership in local communities that worked to build and sustain economic and social well-being. Much of Norvelt’s story inevitably involves homesteaders’ efforts, mostly successful, to join together to lift each other up physically, culturally, socially, and economically.
Community creation necessarily requires people to establish bonds between each other to create networks of social, physical, and cultural support. These bonds allow members to make special claims upon each other that those outside the networks cannot tap. Homesteaders worked hard at this. They created clubs and societies and joined together to can vegetables and fruits, to run a cooperative store, to establish a volunteer fire department. They worked self-consciously at cooperation across ethnic and religious divides that split other towns and cities.
But building community almost inevitably entails creating boundaries as well, erecting walls between members and nonmembers. Sometimes communities do this to acknowledge the limits of their reach, such as how far a volunteer fire department will travel to fight a fire, or from how far away children may come to school. Limited resources dictate that local communities make reasonable assessments about whom to include in their ethic of care and whom to exclude. But other times communities set boundaries to guard against threats, real and imagined. In Norvelt, one of the perceived dangers was racial integration. Like many white Americans, homesteaders saw their own security and well-being as dependent on the exclusion of African Americans from their midst. White homesteaders acted from the outset to prevent blacks from moving into Norvelt, and only one black family ever lived in the community. Norvelt residents never conquered this prejudice, and in this discrimination they have embodied one white, middle-class characteristic that still haunts their story and our nation today.
Norvelt also helps us to understand middle-class life through its domestic architecture—the shape, size, and uses of its homes. This much was clear from the outset, when Roosevelt administration officials debated whether to include indoor plumbing and central heat in homes for working-class families. Though these had become standard elements in middle-class homes, some in the administration, by one account including even Franklin Roosevelt himself, saw them as too generous for mining families. Providing homes with these amenities pushed homesteaders firmly across the class divide into the middle class.
Architect Paul Bartholomew drew up Cape Cod–style houses for the community. The style had become very popular across the country in the 1920s in emerging middle-class suburban communities. He included separate bedrooms for parents and children, boys and girls, and afforded levels of privacy not attainable in coal-patch communities. In doing so, he elevated the tension between individualism and community that poverty necessarily erased for many working-class families. Privacy, once a luxury, became a reasonable expectation.
This tension played out on a different level in the gardens as well. The design called for individual family gardens rather than a common, cooperative produce farm. Though homesteaders joined together to learn to preserve their gardens’ output, sometimes even participating in group canning, and families often shared their gardens’ produce with neighbors, each family minded its own garden. The cooperative agriculture that did exist—a dairy farm, hog operation, and poultry house—depended on hired labor rather than resident volunteer efforts. The gardens joined individual families in common food-production efforts, but divided each family from its neighbors.
Norvelt provides a clear window through which to view the emerging twentieth-century U.S. middle class. Elevated through the conscious efforts of Americans using their federal government to advance the public welfare, housed in modest and attractive homes equipped with modern amenities, bound to each other through commitments of mutual care balanced against the ideals of individualism, trapped in racial prejudices that compromised their commitment to fairness and equality, the homesteaders in Norvelt represented the essential characteristics of twentieth-century U.S. middle-class life.
But Norvelt’s early history is a quintessentially Depression story, and as such fits into the United States’ broader narrative of both suffering and redemption at that peculiar moment in the nation’s history. Americans have told that narrative differently across time, and a brief review of that changing story helps to situate our contribution.
The Great Depression and the New Deal in Historical Perspective
Americans have debated the New Deal since its inception, and historians too have been divided. Once enough time had passed to gain perspective, historians presented the New Deal as a positive and dramatic response to the Great Depression. Two decades after the New Deal’s peak, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. traced the crisis and response in great detail in his three-volume work on the age of Roosevelt. He concluded his work by contrasting Roosevelt’s pragmatic experimentation to end the Depression and preserve democracy and Europe’s slide into ideologically driven totalitarianism. Schlesinger saw the New Deal as a successful reformation of society dedicated to responsive, pragmatic government. William Leuchtenburg’s 1963 Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal extended Schlesinger’s basic interpretation in a more manageable single volume that brought the story up to the outbreak of World War II. He argued that the New Deal did not pull the United States all of the way out of the Great Depression, but did provide needed economic stimulation in the early 1930s to offer significant recovery. Perhaps more importantly, it for the first time committed the federal government to the welfare of its citizens and “marked a greater upheaval in American institutions than in any similar period in our history, save perhaps for the impact on the South of the Civil War.” He referred to the period as the “Roosevelt Revolution.”
New Left historians challenged that notion in a number of interpretive articles published in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Barton J. Bernstein’s “The New Deal: The Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform.” These authors argued for the New Deal’s essentially conservative achievements. At a moment when the Depression profoundly challenged capitalism’s viability and therefore placed progress toward economic democracy and racial equality within reach, the New Deal made it possible for old patterns to persevere. It did not so much constitute a revolution as avert one. A number of state and local histories confirmed that little that justly could be labeled revolutionary occurred. Economic elites still dominated, New Deal programs excluded or segregated African Americans, capitalism survived.
David Kennedy’s 1999 prize-winning volume on the period in the Oxford History of the United States returned to the Leuchtenburg story, in both broad strokes and many of its particulars. He saw the Great Depression as a crisis that shook “the American way of life to its foundations.” The New Deal did not fully resolve this crisis, in Kennedy’s narrative. However beneficial it may have been for individual families or unemployed workers who gained a source of income, and however long lasting the commitment of the federal government to citizens’ welfare, it took the mammoth scale of federal spending on World War II to bring the nation fully out of the Great Depression. Historians have generally adopted this perspective.
The conservative revolution that swept the U.S. political and economic realms beginning in the 1980s eventually found its way into historical interpretations of the Great Depression and the New Deal. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the strong belief in market infallibility spurred new interpretations that turned the received orthodoxy on its head. According to these interpretations, the New Deal did not ameliorate or help to turn back the Great Depression, but rather extended and deepened it. These presentations did not typically come from academic historians, who still upheld the Leuchtenburg-Kennedy consensus, but from conservative think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Cato Institute, and the Liberty Fund, and even from economists in academia, for whom market adulation had become orthodoxy.
The economic collapse of 2008 came just as this new interpretation was gaining traction, and undermined the power of these works to challenge the Leuchtenburg-Kennedy narrative in favor of one that highlighted the dangers of government regulation and intervention. Few could miss the irony of the free market’s greatest champions clamoring for the federal government to bail out the banks and brokerage houses—those very financial institutions that had prospered under “burdensome” New Deal–era regulations and then foundered when set free. Academic economists rediscovered John Maynard Keynes and saw again the virtues of an aggressive macroeconomic policy aimed at offsetting the collapse the unfettered free market had brought about.
Reaction against this new interpretation often stressed the economic virtues of New Deal building projects. Felix Rohatyn celebrated the work of the Rural Electrification Administration to extend electricity to American farmers, and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation’s work to finance relief and building projects throughout the nation. Michael Hiltzik explored the construction of the Hoover Dam approvingly and determined that the largest federal building project to date helped to transform the United States “from a society that glorified individualism into one that cherished shared enterprise and communal social support.” His later “modern” history of the New Deal extended that interpretation to Roosevelt’s broad program of projects. John Stuart admired the dramatic improvement in South Florida’s landscape that New Deal building projects accomplished. Nick Taylor extolled the Works Progress Administration not only for the jobs that it provided to those out of work, but also for building roads, bridges, and schools. Robert D. Leighninger Jr. surveyed the vast building projects constructed under the auspices of a dozen New Deal programs and concluded that any assessment of the New Deal must include recognition of these projects and the activities that they made possible for travelers, communities, and families. Jason Scott Smith asked if the New Deal construction projects were “successful in laying the structural foundations for postwar economic development and prosperity?” He answered with a resounding yes. Alexander J. Field asked essentially the same question about federal spending on infrastructure projects throughout the 1930s and determined that the post–World War II prosperity rested significantly on this expansion of transportation capacity. Michael Lind saw government-sponsored infrastructure projects as central to U.S. prosperity and growth not only in the New Deal era, but throughout U.S. history.
Most New Deal building projects involved public works structures that aimed to serve a broad public good. The Hoover Dam generated hydroelectric power that served residents in Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico. The Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to millions of farmers and their families. The trails that the Civilian Conservation Corps created and maintained in American forests served all who visited. The roads, bridges, tunnels, and highways that the federal government built benefited all commercial and recreational travelers. Thousands of people flocked to events in the San Francisco’s Cow Palace, hundreds of thousands of fans packed Miami’s Orange Bowl over the years, and millions of people took off from and landed at LaGuardia Airport in the decades since the New Deal built it.
One project of considerably smaller scale once garnered significant national scrutiny and played a central role in defining the New Deal’s reach and direction. This federal program sought to build residential communities for working-class and farming families that strained under the weight of unemployment, hunger, and a range of other deprivations. It combined modest housing with small-scale subsistence farming in an effort to provide physical relief, basic human dignity, and an alternative to the competitive culture that seemed content to allow, or perhaps even force these families to suffer so greatly. This project, called the subsistence homestead program, eventually established thirty-four communities in eighteen different states, captured the sustained attention of the nation’s first lady, and therefore remained on the mind of the president himself for the length of the New Deal.
Historians have been divided over the program’s success. Paul Conkin’s comprehensive review of New Deal community-building programs, including the subsistence homesteads and greenbelt communities, appeared in 1959 and remains the definitive work on the subject. He noted that the program’s broad social and cultural aim of reorienting values away from competition and toward cooperation largely failed. Too many in Congress opposed this aim and so subverted key elements of the program at critical moments, and residents themselves never embraced this new way of approaching their lives—as opposed to the security and stability that the communities offered, which residents did embrace enthusiastically. Nonetheless, in the end, Conkin noted, “for each dollar expended, the communities represented more tangible, enduring achievements than most other relief expenditures.” In 1946, C. Harvey Grattan saw the communities as good models for semirural housing developments, but found that “[t]he government’s experiments with ‘subsistence farms’ show quite clearly that except in rare and exceptional instances that prove little (like the Granger Homesteads in Iowa, sponsored and fostered by Monsignor Ligutti of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference) the effect on the incomes and security of the participants was decidedly trivial.” T. Swann Harding studied the communities a decade after they started and noted that residents resented any sense that they benefited from government largesse, and they abandoned the farming aspects of the communities when war-preparation work provided enough income to buy food at stores. But he also concluded that “very valuable scientific experiments have been performed and much has been learned that will enable us to go ahead more wisely in the postwar world if we but heed. Moreover, some of the homesteads were very successful.”
Historians and contemporary commentators interested in the subsistence homestead projects have focused disproportionately on Arthurdale, West Virginia, the first homestead undertaken and Eleanor Roosevelt’s clear favorite. They tend to use Arthurdale as representative of the entire program and reach conclusions about Arthurdale that they project broadly onto the rest of the communities and the program as a whole. Most of them conclude that Arthurdale was a failure because it drained resources far out of proportion to the families that it benefited directly. William Leuchtenburg, for example, wrote, “Arthurdale proved an expensive failure.” Further, he concluded, “Ostensibly experimental and utopian, the subsistence homesteads movement soon seemed rather a quest for an ark of refuge, an indication of the despair of the early thirties.” Such historians find the program to have been economically inefficient and ideologically ineffective. They tend to accentuate the problems, exaggerate the costs, and ignore the successes, especially the long-term successes, in Arthurdale, and they generally neglect the other projects.
Architectural historian Diane Ghirardo’s New Left critique found the program wanting for very different reasons. She drew parallels between the New Deal communities and similar projects undertaken in Fascist Italy around the same time. Both shared a high degree of government control and supervision of the settlers, manifested through a careful selection process and disciplined by the threat of eviction. Community housing efforts in both Italy and the United States avoided land expropriation or intervention in the private housing industry, built far fewer low-cost housing units than were needed, reinforced traditional social patterns with respect to gender and race relations, and overall sought to preserve the position of capitalism.
A growing literature presents a more nuanced and, in many cases, favorable assessment of the program. As historians turned their attention to specific homestead communities, they found much to admire. Robert Carriker examined subsistence homestead programs in the far west states of Arizona, California, and Washington and concluded that “the tendency to blanket the [Division of Subsistence Homesteads] and its projects with condemnation fails to appreciate the good that came from some of the individual homestead communities, particularly those of the Far West.” Timothy J. Garvey examined homesteads in Duluth, Minnesota, and determined that they constituted a “successful experiment in community housing.” Evelyn Hargis concluded largely the same thing about the Cumberland Homesteads community near Crossville, Tennessee. She wrote,
This community of subsistence farms as envisioned by the Roosevelt administration, is often called the most successful of all those established under the original plan. Jobs were generated, skilled workers emerged, productive farms and pastures were created, families built and had homes during those hard years. Ties of neighborly love and kinship were forged that have lasted to the present time. The homesteaders dealt with a hard life, a shortage of conveniences, and little money with an enthusiasm and willingness because they knew they were building a community where they would live, work, and raise their families.
Blanche Wiesen Cook reached similarly positive conclusions about Arthurdale itself, the homestead community most often identified as representative of the failed program. She observed, “For sixty years, pundits and politicians judged Arthurdale a failure. But the homesteaders’ descendants are still living on the land; their children and their children’s children still enjoy the bright pleasant homes that have withstood all those bitter mountain winters, with temperatures twenty, thirty, forty degrees below zero, in warmth and comfort. For the people, Arthurdale was marvelous, and they called it ‘utopia.’” Moreover, Cook wrote, “From the point of view of the people of the community, everything about it worked: The school and sense of community endured, the residents flourished, and they continued to believe their own experiences might be, should be, put to future use.”
Our study of Norvelt, Pennsylvania, has led us to similarly positive conclusions. There seems little room to debate whether the homesteaders’ lives improved in every measureable way. They lived far more comfortably than they did before coming to Norvelt. Moreover, they exercised more autonomy and agency in this centrally planned government-supported community than they had in the company-owned coal-patch towns that dotted the region. They exhibited a loyalty to the community that those in nearby Hunker, Mammoth, and Kecksburg never manifested. We reach these conclusions by tracing their stories and analyzing their lives across eight chapters.
Chapter 1 explores the background of many of the original Norvelt homesteaders. It focuses on the mines and coke ovens where many of the men worked and the patch (mining and coke) communities where they and their families lived before they moved to Westmoreland Homesteads. Most of the miners and their families were recent Catholic immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, people whom mine and coke owners—and much of U.S. society—categorized as racialized others. Forced to work for low pay in difficult conditions and to live in isolated and impoverished patches, they looked to each other, their churches, and the United Mine Workers for support and community. This chapter explores the conditions in which they lived and their efforts, largely unsuccessful in Westmoreland County, to leverage better lives in persistently difficult circumstances.
Chapter 2 addresses the developments that made working-class lives even more difficult in the twentieth century’s third and fourth decades. The Great Depression, which hit the United States so powerfully as the 1920s came to a close, reached Pennsylvania mining families even earlier. The end of World War I also brought an end to flush times for the coal industry, and mining families faced hard times throughout most of the same decade in which much of the rest of the nation was “roaring.” The chapter addresses the broad economic depression that plagued the United States overall, and then narrows its focus to the specific struggles that southwestern Pennsylvanians faced.
Chapter 3 explores the response to the economic crisis, as first Herbert Hoover and then Franklin Roosevelt sought to devise ways to weather and then reverse the Great Depression. It examines key characteristics of Roosevelt’s New Deal manifested in the subsistence homestead program that created Norvelt. This chapter introduces the ideological foundations for the program and key policy makers and administrators who made it a reality: Joseph Bankhead, M. L. Wilson, Clarence Pickett, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Chapter 4 tells the story of Norvelt itself. Norvelt began as Westmoreland Homesteads, one of four subsistence homestead communities administered for the federal government by the Quakers. This chapter traces its origins as a federal New Deal program in 1934 and explores the economic programs and social organizations the community developed to organize and sustain itself. It follows the residents’ struggles and successes, and the tensions that emerged among the residents between the cooperative ideal and pulls of individualism.
Chapter 5 addresses the challenges that Norvelt faced from without and within, as the local newspapers’ ideological opposition and persistent economic hardship generated opposition to community initiatives. Increasing federal concerns about efficiency constrained opportunities, while a local group of residents arose to demand more federal support. The opposition cost some community managers their positions, and the steady drumbeat of criticism made the community’s difficult undertaking more treacherous still. But the homestead families persisted throughout.
Chapter 6 continues the story of Norvelt. The chapter begins with a description of Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1937 visit to the community. It then explores the establishment of the pants factory and the labor disputes that ensued. Next, it discusses how the garden project evoked both the cooperative ethos and the tendency to individualism. The chapter ends with the sale of the houses to residents following World War II and Norvelt’s eventual transformation into a successful middle-class community.
Chapter 7 follows the story of Norvelt with a close examination of its homes, the community’s most prominent and frequently noted physical characteristic. The homes included not only the houses, but also grape arbors, garages, and chicken coops. This chapter examines the ways that homesteaders shaped their experiences within the constraints that the homes imposed. It explores the tension between community and individualism embodied in Norvelt’s architecture, a tension that homesteaders did not resolve fully by the time the federal government sold the homes to their residents in 1946.
Chapter 8 examines how Norvelt has evolved in the last seventy years and the political changes that have occurred in it since it began. It explores why Norvelt, a solidly Democratic New Deal community in the 1930s and 1940s, became a Republican stronghold by the second decade of the twenty-first century. To answer this question, it discusses how people in Norvelt understand and use their past to explain their own successes and to distance themselves from the poor of today. It also considers how ideas about race have affected this white community’s sense of itself, its political affiliations, and its notion of who is and who is not entitled to government support.
The book ends with a short conclusion.
A Brief Commentary on Sources
One of the authors’ strongest regrets is that we started this project after the last of the original adult homesteaders had died. As a result, we were not able to speak with them about their lives before they moved to Westmoreland Homesteads or during the many decades they lived in what became Norvelt. However, we have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with the children of the homesteaders and their grandchildren, many of whom still inhabit Norvelt. They have been among our best and most informative sources into their past and the history of Norvelt.
Norvelters exhibit understandable pride in their community today and grateful recognition of the hard work that their parents and grandparents expended to build it. When asked to talk about the past, the generation of Norvelters who were children in the 1930s and 1940s joyfully shared their memories of what sounds like an idyllic childhood growing up in the New Deal community. A sharp contrast emerges between life in the patch communities, with all the deprivations and indignities that it entailed, and conditions in Westmoreland Homesteads. This contrast comes out strongly in the stories their parents told them and, in some cases, their own remembrances of their earliest years. What stands out in all the stories is the important role that family and community played in shaping the contours of people’s lives and ameliorating the abysmal conditions in which the miners and their families subsisted.
Our interviews with Norvelters offered us important insights into what life was like in Norvelt from the 1930s through the present. Given the lack of memoirs, letters, or diaries from the period, our conversations with residents of Norvelt have deepened our understanding of how individual residents experienced and remembered what growing up in Norvelt was like.
Several themes emerged from our conversations with the people of Norvelt. The common element that runs through all the interviews is how much they love Norvelt and are grateful to be associated with it. The people we interviewed were thrilled to talk about their community and its past and present because it embodies what they consider to be a model community, the most successful New Deal community.
Many Norvelters, particularly those who came from the patch (mining) communities, contrasted their parents or grandparents’ lives in Norvelt with their previous conditions. They spoke about how tough their lives or those of their families had been prior to moving to Westmoreland Homesteads. They routinely expressed gratitude to the Roosevelt administration, and most particularly to Eleanor Roosevelt, for offering them not just a home, but also the opportunity to leave behind the misery in which they had been living and join a thriving community. One other value that many interviewees stressed was the work ethic. The community succeeded because everyone in it worked. Men, and some women, had jobs; children had chores; and everyone had and fulfilled their responsibilities to their families and to the community.
People’s memories of social relations reflected a similar idealization of the past. Most people recall growing up in Norvelt, their family life, their time at school, the various activities they engaged in, the groups they belonged to, and their friendships as harmonious. By and large, interviewees were either reluctant to share or no longer remembered the conflicts and discord that inevitably plague most, if not all, communities.
Many of the people we interviewed discussed events and situations that had occurred more than sixty or seventy years ago. They lived in Norvelt as young children, during the first two critical decades of its existence (the 1930s and ’40s). The interviews, like all interviews, necessarily reflect an individual’s memory of the past, not an objective snapshot of it. While we have every reason to believe people’s stories that growing up in Norvelt was wonderful, we also recognize that the interviewees shared “the pervasive American tendency to romanticize the child and childhood.” They remember the past, their own and that of others, through their present. In other words, they understood their past through “adult, learned categories.” By emphasizing the happiness of their youth, they also affirm who they are in the present, honor the memory of their parents, and valorize the community of which they are such proud members.
Although each person we spoke to had his or her own individual memories, we also noticed that many people shared what we term a collective memory and what historian David Thelan refers to as “social memory.” Thelan argues, “People develop a shared identity by identifying, exploring, and agreeing on memories.” Many of the people we interviewed have lived practically their entire lives in or close to Norvelt. One person is the fourth generation of his family to reside in what is a very small community. The fact that they have lived in close proximity to each other in a geographically compact and demographically homogenous area argues for the intermingling of people’s memories and the development of shared recollections of the community’s past. Norvelters’ highly positive view of Norvelt reflects each person’s individual experiences and thoughts as well as the community’s perspective on itself as a whole.
The overwhelmingly positive descriptions of life in Norvelt in the 1930s and ’40s obscure the fact that there were, inevitably, conflicts. When prodded, several of the interviewees remembered that one’s religion, either Protestant or Catholic, represented a key marker of difference among the inhabitants. Catholic and Protestant parents discouraged their girls and boys from dating each other. As Carol Davis recalled, “I was never allowed to date any Catholic boys, and my Catholic girlfriends were not allowed to date Protestant boys.” However, she added,
there was never any problem in Norvelt about any families getting along. The people that lived across the street from us were Catholic; they spoke Hungarian in their home. They’re like my second family. We were back and forth constantly. We just weren’t allowed to date. They just didn’t want us marrying into another religion, I think because the Catholics were so adamant that if you married you had to convert. [So] the Protestants just sort of said, the heck with that then, if we aren’t good enough then you aren’t good enough for us. It was more of a reaction.
Racial differences and the discrimination that ensued were more contentious than religion and, in general, denied. As we will see in chapter 5, the board at Westmoreland Homesteads voted to reject any black families who applied to obtain a home. Nevertheless, Helen White, the mother of the White family, which was black, persisted in her effort to obtain admission to Norvelt. She succeeded in winning the intervention of the Roosevelt administration on her behalf, and the White family moved in.
In addition to the interviews, one particularly valuable source was the community newspaper, the Homestead Informer, which the administration and the people of Norvelt published from 1935 to 1937. It offers a window into the activities, interests, and thinking of members of the Norvelt community. It also shows a community that increased in self-confidence as members of Norvelt, especially women, took over the reporting and writing of the publication.
The U.S. censuses allowed us to trace the racial composition of Norvelt from 1940 to 2010. Until 2010 most of the censuses did not list Norvelt as an independent entity. Instead, they combined it with Calumet, the small former mining community that borders Norvelt. As a result, we could not establish the precise population of Norvelt. However, since both communities were practically 100 percent white from the 1940s to 2010, we could determine the racial composition of Norvelt.
A specific problem emerged with the 1940 census. In 2012, the Census Bureau released copies of the original population schedules that provide detailed information about the populations of cities, towns, and local communities broken down into enumeration districts (EDs). The population schedules list the names, origins, occupations, genders, and ages, along with other information, of all the inhabitants of each ED. The wealth of information contained in the EDs helped us to develop a clearer profile of Norvelt in 1940. However, for reasons that remain unclear, the White family, the only black family in Norvelt, is listed as racially white.
According to Rebecca Kraus, a historian who works at the U.S. Census Bureau, “many people are finding that African Americans were missed in the 1940 Census.” She adds, “you’ve discovered one reason why—enumerator [the person recording the data] error!” The White family was the only black family to live in Norvelt. Once members of the family moved away or died, Norvelt became and remains a white community.
We invite you to read and learn about the unique and heretofore largely unknown community of Norvelt. We believe that the story of Norvelt broadens our understanding of a variety of issues, ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt’s positions and advocacy, the New Deal, and the Roosevelt administration’s involvement in the subsistence homesteads program to how one group of people in southwestern Pennsylvania came together to build and sustain a community and hope in a time of crisis and despair. The story of Norvelt has implications for today. It offers proof that government intervention can effectively address poverty, empower a desperate group of people, and (re)integrate marginalized and overlooked people into the body politic.
Also of Interest
Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.