Historical Markers
Norvelt Historical Marker
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Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
LR 6406 Mt. Pleasant Road, on V.F.D. property, Norvelt

Dedication Date:
September 8, 2002

Behind the Marker

Black and white map outlining Norvelt.
Norvelt, Westmoreland County, Pa., circa 1959.
In 1933, as part of the sweeping National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), Congress allocated $25 million for the creation of "subsistence homesteads" for dislocated industrial workers. Over the course of the program's eleven-year history, the federal government seeded nearly 100 planned, cooperative communities. Norvelt, in southwestern Pennsylvania, was the fourth.

The idea for the program owed much to a "back to the land" movement, popularized by American idealists who promoted small-scale subsistence farming as an antidote to the economic exploitation and alienation of modern life. In the 1920s, the idea gained currency among a wide variety of progressive organizations, including church-related groups such as the markerAmerican Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

The economic crisis of the Great Depression supplied an opportunity to put ideals into action. Supporters lobbied for the creation of a government-sponsored resettlement program that would place unemployed industrial workers in farmstead communities. Although promoted as a relief measure, it quickly became weighted with the much more ambitious goal of cooperative living.

Black and white photograph with a wide view of the houses in the Westmoreland Homesteads.
Westmoreland Homesteads, Westmoreland County, PA, 1936.
In 1934, Interior Secretary markerHarold Ickes named Milburn Wilson to head the newly created Division of Subsistence Homesteads. Wilson, in turn, selected the AFSC's Clarence Pickett to help administer the program. As the AFSC's executive secretary, Pickett already had overseen vocational reeducation and cooperative farm programs for unemployed coal miners in West Virginia. The AFSC's work supplied the prototype for the federal program. In the years that followed, AFSC lent its support to the federal program and later sponsored its own cooperative community, markerPenn Craft in Fayette County.

Although the government opened its program to broad segments of the unemployed, the division was especially keen on it reaching bituminous coal miners. Geographically isolated and dominated by a single employer, the residents of most patch towns were especially vulnerable once employment evaporated. So the division designed the homestead program to give miners and their families an opportunity to become economically independent by working the land, which, in theory, would also free them from the boom/bust cycle of industrial capitalism.

A man plows, with a team of two horses, the fields of the Cooperative Farm. Housing is in background.
Horses mowing near homesteads, Westmoreland Homesteads Cooperative Association,...
Encouraging home ownership through a rent-to-own program, the program's administrators expected residents to grow or raise everything they needed to survive, but they also hoped that the new communities would lure local industries that would in turn provide jobs and needed income.

In April, 1934, federal officials acquired close to 1,500 acres of farmland in Mt. Pleasant Township, Westmoreland County, and announced construction of the Westmoreland Homesteads. Following Division guidelines, architect Paul Bartholomew designed the planned community's buildings and its overall layout. On 772 acres he arranged 254 individual lots, ranging in size from 1.7 to seven acres, in six, mostly curvilinear sections. Each lot was to feature a simply designed, one-and-a-half story Cape Cod-style frame house, supplemented by a poultry house, garage, and connecting grape arbor. The remaining 728 acres Bartholomew reserved for a cooperative farm, a schoolhouse, playground, post office, and other common buildings.

A small white house with two dormers and a chimney on the roof. There are three shuttered windows on the side of the house. A one car, detached, garage sits to the side of the house. Attached to the garage is a roofed bay area. There is one small out building in the back.
Typical Home in Norvelt, Garage and Outbuilding, Mt. Pleasant Township, Westmoreland...
Although the project faced few political hurdles, the design of the houses for Norvelt and other subsistence farmstead communities set off a debate that revealed top government officials' contrasting ambitions for the program. Both President Roosevelt and Harold Ickes believed that the houses should be constructed to minimal standards, without electricity and running water, as befit a relief program. But program director Milburn Wilson and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that the homes be furnished with plumbing, electric lights, and other modern conveniences. Virginia senator Harry F. Bird criticized such features as an "extravagance" for "simple mountain folk," but Wilson and the First Lady prevailed. Both argued that the project, as a demonstration project, should afford its residents with homes that would elevate their standard of living.

Westmoreland received over 1,850 applications for just 250 slots. The first 1,200 residents were broadly representative of the region's ethnic and racial diversity. As they arrived, heads of households were put to work building the houses they would later occupy. To make construction as efficient and cost-effective as possible, the division assigned crews to a single, specific construction task, such as digging the foundation or installing flooring–thus anticipating the mass building methods that would characterize large-scale residential developments such as Levittown after World War II–and applied most of workers' wages directly to the cost of their homesteads.

In May 1935, the first families began trickling into Westmoreland Homesteads, and the task of creating a livelihood–and a community life–began. Under the direction of a community manager, homesteaders established garden plots and raised livestock, including hogs and chickens. Some families produced enough to sell their surplus at a market, but for most, subsistence farming failed to meet their needs. To remedy the situation, administrators at the Division, now under the Rural Resettlement Administration, approved a loan for the construction of a small garment factory on site. Administered by the Cooperative Association, a nonprofit entity which also operated a cooperative store and a community health center, the factory by 1940 employed around 150 men and women.

White cabinets, white, ruffled curtains on the door window and window above the sink, a double sink, white stove, and refrigerator decorate this modern kitchen. Decorative magnets sit across the freezer section of the refrigerator and a kitchen towel hangs from the door handle.
Modern kitchen in a Westmoreland home, circa 1936.
In May 1937, the First Lady made a personal visit to Westmoreland Homesteads to mark the arrival of the community's final homesteader. "I am no believer in paternalism. I do not like charities," she had said earlier. But cooperative communities such as Westmoreland Homesteads, she went on, offered an alternative to "our rather settled ideas" that could "provide equality of opportunity for all and prevent the recurrence of a similar disaster [depression] in the future." Residents were so taken by the First Lady's personal expression of interest in the program that they promptly agreed to rename the community in her honor. (The new town name, Norvelt, was a combination of the last syllables in her names.)

Such high-level support helped Norvelt survive until 1944, when the federal government disbanded the program and dispersed its assets. Most residents had by this time already managed to purchase their homes and property. By 1950, the cooperative store and farm had shut down, but the garment factory, now under private ownership, continued for many years.

Norvelt never achieved the lofty goals that Eleanor Roosevelt and others had invested in it. As a relief measure, however, it was a success. In 2002, Norvelt's handful of surviving original pioneers, expressed their appreciation. "God bless them," said ninety-seven-year old Catherine Grimme, "the Roosevelts gave us houses, jobs and a way to feed our kids during the Great Depression."
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