Urban Agriculture: 1930s Style (9/11/2020)

During the past several decades there has been an emphasis on urban agriculture. It is now common to hear such words as community gardens, community-supported agriculture, rooftop farming, container gardening, vertical farming, square-foot gardens, and the list goes on. Even the Cooperative Extension Service has allocated resources to serving the needs of the urban farmers (Oberholtzer, Dimitri, Pressman, 2014).

Most of us are familiar with the Victory Gardens of World Wars I & II where people in cities gardened to help the war effort but may not be aware of the “subsistence homesteads” for urban dwellers during the Great Depression. The Great Depression hit the farming community particularly hard because of the drought, overgrazing, dust storms, flooding, and pest infestations. But it also hit urban dwellers.

  Figure 1. A soup line during the Great Depression.

In urban areas, there was high unemployment, homelessness, and soup lines. In the past two Friday Footnotes, we have examined resettlement camps for the dust bowl refugees and the planned farming communities for displaced farmers. However, most people are not aware of a third program operated by the Resettlement Administration – it was a resettlement homesteader program for urban dwellers (and other people such as miners who needed help). This program was known as Subsistence Homesteads and is the focus of this Footnote.

What is a Subsistence Homestead?

In the 1935 booklet “A Homestead and Hope” the basics of the program are outlined.

SUBSISTENCE HOMESTEAD’ consists of a modern but inexpensive house and outbuildings, located on a plot of land upon which a family may produce a considerable portion of the food required for home consumption.

THE DIVISION of Subsistence Homesteads is engaged in developing communities composed of from twenty-five to two or three hundred of such individual homesteads. The homesteads, when completed, are sold on liberal terms to families with annual incomes of less than $1,200. A 30-year purchase period is provided. The sales price of the average homestead is approximately $3,000. The Division’s purchase plan enables a family to buy such a $3,000 homestead by making payments of $12.65 a month.

SINCE production of garden and farm commodities is for family use and not for commercial sale, it follows that a homesteader must have a small but reasonably assured cash income, or at least reasonably certain prospects of an income, once he is settled on his homestead. The homesteader’s cash income normally is derived from wage employment of some type. In a large proportion of cases this employment is of a part-time or seasonal nature.

Figure 2. A Homestead and Hope booklet.

Communities comprised of subsistence homesteads were built on the fringes of cities. The idea was that the homesteaders would be employed in the city, but live close enough to the city to commute to jobs there. The urban homesteaders would be able to have a garden and raise chickens or livestock on their homesteads.

A 1934 booklet, Homestead Homes, the aim of the program is recognized “to show that families can move from poverty-stricken and over-crowded shanties and squalid tenements into decent modern homes where they may learn a new happiness and achieve a new hope.”

The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 contained a provision (Section 208) that allocated $25,000,000 for “making loans for and otherwise aiding in the purchase of subsistence homesteads” with the goal being “to provide for aiding the redistribution of the overbalance of population in industrial centers”. President Roosevelt implemented this legislative provision by issuing an Executive Order (6209) creating a Division of Subsistence Homesteads within the Department of the Interior.

Milburn Lincoln Wilson, then of the USDA’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration was selected personally by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to lead the new Division. Director Wilson decided that the Homesteads should be organized around four categories:

  1. Workingmen’s Garden Homes for employed city workers who wanted to move to semi-rural areas
  2. Homesteads for unemployed factory workers who lost their jobs due to workplace closures
  3. Homesteads for newly relocated part-time urban workers
  4. Homesteads for farm workers who moved from rural to semi-rural areas

The Subsistence Homestead program was later transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture.

Figure 3. A USDA Subsistence Homestead bulletin

Let’s make quick visits to three of the Subsistence Homesteads – Arthurdale in West Virginia, Aberdeen Gardens in Virginia and Dalworthington Gardens in Texas. The reason I chose these three is because of the personal involvement of Eleanor Roosevelt in each.

Arthurdale (Reedsville, WV)

The Reedsville Project, later named Arthurdale after Richard Arthur, from whom the land was purchased, was begun in 1934 as a subsistence homestead community. This was the first planned community under Roosevelt’s New Deal. There were 165 homes and several community buildings including a school complex, built on approximately 1200 acres in rural Preston County, WV. Today, most of the community buildings still stand and most are part of the New Deal Homestead Museum.

Many of the new residents were displaced miners from the Scott’s Run area near Morgantown, West Virginia. Scott’s Run is a five-mile long hollow. By World War I, the area was one of the most intensively developed coal districts in the United States; however, during the 1930s, many of the coal mines in Scott’s Run closed or operated sporadically due to the economic effects of the Great Depression.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt heard about Scott’s Run through a friend who came to West Virginia in 1933 to inspect the Appalachian coalfields. The friend wrote that Scott’s Run was the worst place she had ever seen, with housing most Americans would not have considered fit for pigs. Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Scott’s Run in August of 1933 to visit with the impoverished miners and their families. The trip made a lasting impression on the first lady and she resolved to assist the residents. Within two weeks of her visit, plans to create Arthurdale were underway in Washington.

Figure 4. Eleanor Roosevelt

The first homesteaders arrived in 1934 and each property was 2 – 5 acres in size to allow the families to raise food and livestock. Homesteaders were selected for their background in farming or their ability to learn the necessary skills. An average plot might include an acre of wheat, several types of fruit trees (apples, pears, peaches, cherries, etc.), and a grape arbor. Any remaining acreage would have been planted in forage crops for the livestock being raised. Most of the homesteads had a barn, hen and hog houses, and a root cellar. Modern amenities not commonly available around the country at that time – electricity, indoor plumbing, and a refrigerator – were provided to all 165 homes.

The Arthurdale School was also an experiment – in progressive education. The first administrator of the school was Elsie Ripley Clapp who was a student of John Dewey. Students learned through hands-on activities rather than theoretical learning and undertook projects related to agriculture and construction. There were also classes for adults and one such class was on agricultural accounting. Wayman’s 1971 A History of Vocational Agriculture in West Virginia identifies several individuals who taught agriculture at Arthurdale.

Figure 5. Agriculture students at Arthurdale learning about surveying.

Educational advisers to the Arthurdale project included Lucy Sprague Mitchell of Bank Street College, Dean William Russell of Teachers College, Columbia University; John Dewey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clarence Pickett, and W. Carson Ryan, a future editor of the journal Progressive Education.

Eleanor Roosevelt took an intense interest in Arthurdale. It was her pet project. Each year she would visit Arthurdale to give out the diplomas to the graduating class. Additionally, in May 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Arthurdale to give the commencement speech. There was even a women’s club at Arthurdale known as the Eleanor Roosevelt Farm Women’s Club. Some of Eleanor’s other activities for Arthurdale included:

  • Buying nine looms for the spinning and weaving cooperative established at Arthurdale
  • Paid for a high school graduate to spend 18 months studying weaving in Louisville, KY with a master weaver.
  • Donated books, money, and supplies to the school.

The Federal government closed down the Arthurdale Homestead in 1947 and all the land and buildings ended up in private hands. There is now a five-building museum on that location. Most of the Arthurdale information came from https://arthurdaleheritage.org/.

 Aberdeen Gardens (Hampton, VA)

Aberdeen Gardens, originally named Newport News Homesteads, was built for African American families who lived in substandard housing in the Hampton and Newport News area. Many of the residents worked in the nearby shipyards. In the mid-thirties most of the 2,500 black workers of this urban-industrial area lived in dilapidated frame houses that were lighted by coal oil lamps and had no running water, central heating, or bathrooms. While providing the amenities of modem housing represented a great improvement for these workers, the project went further by proposing a transformation of the residents to a “higher social and health level.”

A government press release about the planned project dated March 13, 1935, stated in part:

The living conditions of the workers are extremely poor. A majority of the houses are substandard and without space for gardening. Many of the workers walk a half mile in order to cultivate gardens . . . The aim of the project, then is to help these people to leave their present environment, to give them an opportunity to utilize their spare time in the production of food they require, and to lift them to a higher social and health level. The project will give a new economic stability to families who have hitherto been in constant danger of going on relief. It is also hoped that this demonstration of homesteading will attract the attention of private building industries with the possibility of homestead development for persons belonging to the low-income group.’

This 440-acre site contained 158 brick houses. The historic marker for Aberdeen Gardens reads:

Built by Negroes for Negroes, Aberdeen Gardens began in 1934 as the model resettlement community for Negro families. It was the only such community in the United States designed by a Negro architect (Hilyard R. Robinson) and built by Negro contractors and laborers. Aberdeen Gardens is composed of 158 brick houses on large garden lots, a school, and a community store, all within a greenbelt. The streets, excepting Aberdeen Road, are named for prominent Negroes. Aberdeen Gardens offered home ownership and an improved quality of life in a rural setting.

Figure 6. Building the homes in Aberdeen Gardens and Historical Marker

Aberdeen Gardens included garden plots for each resident and a greenbelt area where larger truck farming was planned. In addition to growing produce, residents were encouraged to have livestock. Chicken coops were built for each property. The federal government provided twelve mules, twelve cows, one-thousand hens, and twenty-five thousand chicks. Pigs were purchased later and kept mostly in the eastern area of the greenbelt. In addition to livestock, apple, pear, and peach trees were provided for an orchard area, as well as strawberry and blackberry plants. The plots were 1, 2 and 3 acres in size.

Aberdeen Gardens was controversial. The controversy was the fact that the white people in the area were opposed to it. The homes were nicer than those in which many of the white folks lived. According to the National Register of Historic Places application form (Salmon, 1994) the project was “treading on dangerous ground by proposing to raise a segment of the black population to a higher social level.”

The Virginia Peninsula Association of Commerce formed a committee to investigate the homestead and a petition was signed by hundreds of citizens protesting the project.  After it was built a local newspaper called for it to be turned over to white workers. In a show of support, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Aberdeen Gardens in 1938, the year after it was completed. She was reported to have said “They will not be moved” referring to the black residents.

Dalworthington Gardens (TX)

Elliot Roosevelt, the son of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, was engaged to a woman who lived in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area of Texas. In 1933 Elliot and his mother came to the area for a visit. While visiting one of Elliot’s friends, Eleanor saw the possibilities for a homestead on the land across the street and passed her idea on to those who were investigating sites for the homestead projects across the country. And as the saying goes, the rest is history.

In early 1934 the federal government bought 593 acres near Arlington, TX. It was to contain 80 homesteads (79 were actually created). The smallest homestead was 3.75 acres with the largest being 24.4 acres. In the center of the project, forty-three acres were reserved for a park and community house. The name of the Homestead – Dalworthington Gardens was a combination of the names of three surrounding towns – Dallas, Fort Worth, and Arlington.

A local contractor was awarded the contract to build the houses. Applicants for the homesteads were issued a temporary contract agreement good for one year. If the homesteader passed this test, he was issued a permanent agreement allowing him to purchase his homestead outright. The applicants had to presently reside in industrial areas or have recently moved from industrial areas and had to be “earnest people of good reputation … Only families with a real desire to better their condition by making a part of their living during unemployed hours will be considered.”

Figure 6. The entrance to Dalworthington Gardens

People who moved to Dalworthington Gardens soon learned the country life was not all that idyllic. Hubert Tull, an early resident, observed “They thought that all they would need to do was throw a few seeds out and they would have a garden, a few chickens and they’d have eggs the next week.”

The first settlers in the Gardens were faced with several hardships – no fences, no garages or driveways, no paved roads. Fuel for heating and cooking was wood or coal until butane gas was furnished later. Water was tainted by pipe formerly used in an oil field; forcing residents to tote water from a nearby spring until the problem was corrected. Because the building of fences in the project was delayed until 1937, it was rather difficult to raise livestock on the premises. Many homesteaders already owned cows, chickens, and pigs, and they brought them along to their new homes. It was not unusual for the animals to roam about the project ruining other people’s gardens and disrupting their normal activities. A common sight around the colony was a group of disgruntled residents herding the animals back to their apologetic owners.

By 1937 many of the issues facing the residents had been resolved and life in the Gardens entered a period of normalcy. A community center had been built. Texas Industries, a cooperative, met at the community house where they began to build furniture, stepladders, and butter churns. In September of 1937 a school bus service began to transport children from the “Gardens” to various nearby schools.

In a 2013 application for a state historical marker (which was the source for this information) it was stated (Bagby, 2013):

Today, DWG is the only subsistence homestead project existing as an autonomous community in the state of Texas. Dalworthington Gardens still maintains a rural atmosphere with many residents gardening, raising livestock especially horses, stables for local FFA students’ animals and only single family lots of no less than ½ acre.  It is now surrounded by Arlington and Pantego but is an oasis of small town living in the middle of a thriving metroplex.

Unfortunately, the settlement has been a victim of the teardown trend and most of the small little houses have been replaced with McMansions. There may be less than ten original houses. But it still has a very rural feel. In a future Friday Footnote, we will explore a modern-day equivalent of the Subsistence Homesteads – Agrihoods. They are similar but drastically different.

Concluding Remarks

The Subsistence Homesteads program showed that city people, when given the opportunity, like to engage in agriculture. Even though many people believe agricultural education is for rural people, the fact is that all people, both urban and rural, can benefit from agricultural education. As we look to grow agricultural education, urban areas might be where we should concentrate our efforts. Table 1 (below) contains a list of the various 1930 era Subsistence Homesteads found across the U.S.

Figure 7. Urban subsistence homesteaders tending their garden.

If you teach about subsistence agriculture, you might want to assign your students to conduct research about the subsistence homesteads and report to the class what they learned The students could also collect photographs of the homesteads from the Library of Congress.

Table 1. Location of Subsistence Homesteads (Source: Wikipedia)

Name Location State
Aberdeen Gardens Hampton Virginia
Arthurdale Arthurdale West Virginia
Austin Homesteads/Austin Acres Austin Minnesota
Bankhead Farms near Jasper Alabama
Beauxart Gardens Jefferson County Texas
Cumberland Homesteads Cumberland County Tennessee
Dalworthington Gardens Tarrant County Texas
Dayton Homesteads Dayton Ohio
Decatur Homesteads Decatur Indiana
Duluth Homesteads Duluth Minnesota
El Monte Homesteads El Monte California
Granger Homesteads Granger Iowa
Greenwood Homesteads Near Birmingham Alabama
Hattiesburg Homesteads Hattiesburg Mississippi
Houston Gardens Houston Texas
Jersey Homesteads Roosevelt New Jersey
Lake County Homesteads Chicago Illinois
Longview Homesteads Longview Washington
Magnolia Homesteads Meridian Mississippi
McComb Homesteads McComb Mississippi
Mount Olive Homesteads Near Birmingham Alabama
Palmerdale Homesteads Pinson Alabama
Penderlea Pender County North Carolina
Phoenix Homesteads Phoenix Arizona
Piedmont Homesteads Jasper County Georgia
Richton Homesteads Richton Mississippi
San Fernando Homesteads San Fernando California
Shenandoah Homesteads Rappahannock County Virginia
Three Rivers Gardens Three Rivers Texas
Tupelo Homesteads Lee County Mississippi
Cahaba Homesteads/”Slagheap Village” Birmingham Alabama
Tygart Valley Homesteads Dailey West Virginia
Westmoreland Homesteads Norvelt Pennsylvania
Wichita Gardens Wichita Falls Texas


Bagby, P. 2013). National Register of Historic Places Registration Form – Dalworthington Gardens. https://web.archive.org/web/20130827094059/http://cityofdwg.net/history.html

Oberhotlzer, L, Dimitri, C & Pressman, A. (December 2014).  Urban Agriculture in the United States: Characteristics, Challenges, and Technical Assistance Needs. Journal of Extension. Volume 52 Number 6 Article # 6FEA1 Feature.

Salmon, John (1994). National Register of Historic Places Registration Form – Aberdeen Gardens. https://web.archive.org/web/20131029194251/http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Hampton/114-0146_Aberdeen_Gardens_HD_1994_Final_Nomination.pdf

United States Department of the Interior, Division of Subsistence Homesteads, Memorandum for the Press. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112078101505&view=1up&seq=279&q1=substandard