Over the past few months I have been working on the very large project to resurvey the Arthurdale Historic District to update the National Register of Historic Places documentation for the Arthurdale community. This was a project begun by my AmeriCorps predecessor, Emily, and I was able to continue the work for the past few months. Between January and May 2023, I surveyed and documented over 100 buildings and their associated outbuildings within Arthurdale.
Arthurdale was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. The National Register listing includes the core community buildings that are currently owned by Arthurdale Heritage as well as the entire original community boundary of 1200 acres. Currently, Arthurdale Heritage owns twenty-three acres and the Administration Building, Forge, Esso Station, tractor and garage bays, Center Hall, and three of the original school buildings. Additionally, AHI owns two of the historic houses with outbuildings: a Wagner-style house with original root cellar and a Hodgson-style house with original barn. Outside AHI, we estimate that 160 of the original 165 houses remain. The original Arthurdale plots have almost all been subdivided and additional structures have been constructed within the district boundary between 1988 and now. These modern structures also needed to be surveyed to update the 1988 listing of buildings to reflect the current community.
Surveying for the National Register is a process to document every structure within the district to document the architectural character of the historic area. My first step was to use the Preston County tax maps to make a plan of what buildings were in each area to survey and gather pertinent information from the tax records. The next step was to go out into the field to locate and photograph every structure within the listing boundary, both historic and modern, and note architectural details. Each of the properties surveyed gets an individual Historic Property Inventory form which includes architectural details, a full building description, owner and history details, and several pictures of the building. As Arthurdale nears ninety years old it is amazing that so many of the original buildings still stand as actively used houses and community buildings, and that the entire community still retains much of the rural atmosphere even with the addition of modern buildings.
Arthurdale, originally called the Reedsville Experiment, was the first New Deal homestead project established under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s subsistence homestead fund. Arthurdale was designated a homestead community in 1933 when the U.S. government purchased land from Richard Arthur to construct the community. Between 1933 and 1937, 165 houses were constructed on approximately 1,200 acres. The U.S. government managed Arthurdale between 1933 and 1947, although the Arthurdale community persisted long after.
Eleanor Roosevelt was intimately involved in the establishment and long-term life of Arthurdale. Even prior to her husband’s election to the presidency, Mrs. Roosevelt was involved in relief programs focusing on children and families. With the introduction of legislation to promote subsistence homesteads and relocate people to rural areas, Mrs. Roosevelt and Clarence Pickett (appointed chief of the Stranded Mining and Industrial Populations Section of the Department of the Interior) became interested in the idea. In the summer of 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt surveyed the coal camps of Scotts Run, a mining area just outside of Morgantown, WV. A few months later, the government purchased the Arthur property and recruited families from Scotts Run and north central West Virginia to be the first homesteaders.
Arthurdale was intended to be a self-sustaining community. Each family was given a plot of land (2 to 5 acres) and typically a barn and root cellar (or basement in some houses) in order to produce food for themselves and the community. Homesteaders were selected who had knowledge of farming to ensure this was successful. The Mountaineer Craftsmen’s Cooperative Association produced furniture for the Arthurdale homes and for sale, and the government attempted to bring in industries to create economic opportunity at Arthurdale. The community also had its own school system to educate the community's youth. Arthurdale was an example of progressive education. Between 1934 and 1936, Elsie Ripley Clapp–a student of John Dewey–directed the school’s progressive program that stressed individual and hands-on learning. In addition to the schools, the community had a forge, gas station, cooperative store, craft shop, barber shop, and doctor’s clinic.
In many ways, Arthurdale was Eleanor’s “pet project.” In addition to surveying Scott’s Run with her friend Lorena Hickock in the summer of 1933 to assess the living conditions of Appalachian mining families, she was involved in the development of the community. For example, she advocated for each house to have electricity and modern appliances that were not common in rural West Virginia. Between 1935 and 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt attended each high school graduation for Arthurdale students. Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the 1938 graduation and is still today the only sitting president to deliver a high school commencement speech. After 1944, Eleanor visited one more time in 1960 for the dedication of the Presbyterian Church.
Dr. Kathleen Thompson
Kathleen (Katie) Thompson served with Arthurdale Heritage, Inc. and the West Virginia Association of Museums during the 2022-2023 Service Year.
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