During the Great Depression of the 1930s, ninety-nine subsistence communities were built as part of the New Deal to provide relief to unemployed families stranded in impoverished communities across the country. Three of those communities were built in West Virginia. One of them, the Tygart Valley Homestead, was developed right along US Route 219 in Randolph County, West Virginia, just 10 miles south of Elkins.
Between 1936 and 1941 three famous photographers–John Vachon, Carl Mydans, and Marion Post Walcott– would visit the Tygart Valley Homestead to document and photograph the community for the Farm Security Administration. The Library of Congress has digitized hundreds of these and made them accessible at its website, in addition to a number of field recordings of music made there (one of which you can hear in this story). This is the story of the Tygart Valley Homestead:
The Tygart Valley lies between Cheat Mountain (3,750 ft. in elevation) in the east and Rich Mountain (3,000 ft.) to its west. The valley has been an important transportation route for centuries through this part of the Allegheny Mountains. Indian tribes, soldiers in blue and gray, and the railroad came through this valley before the federal government bought the land in the 1930s for the subsistence homestead relief project.
Established as an experimental, self-subsistence community by the federal government during the Great Depression, Tygart Valley was the largest homestead community in West Virginia. Like its better known sister community Arthurdale, Tygart Valley was established by Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration to provide a new start to unemployed and dispirited men and women. One hundred and ninety-eight men were chosen, along with their families, to become homesteaders in the three communities built in Tygart Valley.
The families were not given handouts and were chosen based on their willingness, need and ability to help build a self- sustaining community. The settlers helped build their own houses, farmed the fertile land, and worked cooperatively at the community’s lumber mill to help generate more local industry. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to develop and nurture all of the homestead settlements, and she visited the Tygart Valley Homestead a number of times during the Great Depression.
Two types of houses were built on the Tygart Valley Homestead, many of which can still be seen today. They are distinguishable by either their A-frame style roofs (see photos above), or barn-style roofs (see below). Most of the original homestead houses are still standing and in good condition. Many homestead homes were originally planted with fruit trees, nut trees, or berry trees, and garden plots were made for each homesteader. By 1935, a cannery and 550-acre cooperative farm were also established in keeping with the subsistence homestead vision, where wheat, corn, oats, potatoes, and other vegetables were grown for and by the community, though this only last two years.
In 1938, with funds loaned from the federal government, the Tygart Valley Association developed a woodworking shop, sawmill, and dimension lumber mill, which it leased to the Kenwood Corporation. The dimension mill would employ up to 150 homestead residents, manufacturing furniture that was sold around the country. However, the mill was very controversial at the time, and competing businesses and the media argued that the government’s involvement amounted to unfair competition. During World War Two, 85% of the mill’s production went towards the war effort, and many women went to work in the mill.
Many of the men chosen for the homestead had previous experience working in logging camps and timber mills around the region. Along with the coal industry, the logging industry was hard hit by the Depression, and many timber towns in the Allegheny mountains, especially in Randolph and Pocahontas Counties, saw rising numbers of unemployed men and women. These made good candidates for homesteaders at Tygart Valley, which employed many men in its lumber mill.
With the coming of World War Two and the end of the Great Depression in sight, the government began to withdrawal from the homestead project. By 1945, the government sponsored Tygart Valley Association had sold off most of its cooperative buildings, including the lumber mill, trade center, weaving shop, woodworking shop, and cannery. The houses the homesteaders had been living in and making payments on were sold to them for around $3,000–a modest price when the national average home price was around $10,000. In the end, the Tygart Valley Homestead was able to repay the loans it had originally received from the government in a space of about 10 years, making it one of the successes of the national homestead project and the New Deal.
Thomas, Jerry Bruce. An Appalachian New Deal. 2010.West Virginia University Press, Morgantown.
Rice, Donald L. Randolph 200: A Bicentennial History of Randolph County, West Virginia. Elkins: Randolph County Historical Society, 1987.
Ross, Thomas R. The Tygart Valley Homesteads, Dailey and Valley Bend. Elkins: Randolph County Creative Arts Council, 1975.