July is readers’ choice month, and this June — for the first time in our 11-year history — two readers (Gary Marsh and Dr. Thomas Porter) came forward at virtually the same time, yet independently, asking that we do an article on the same subject — namely the rural Resettlement houses near Hopkinsville, which appeared in the 1930s.
The idea for this program came out of the Arthurdale Project, the first of the many New Deal planned communities that appeared in 1934, just a year after Roosevelt was first elected president. Hot on the heels of Roosevelt taking the presidency in March 1933, plans for implementing this community began to take shape, which had obviously been in the works for some time in the minds of its guiding lights.
One of Eleanor Roosevelt’s major priorities — which she, at the time, poured most of her own personal income into — Arthurdale involved the
relocation of laborers, farmers and coal miners to rural communities that would allow them to become economically self-sufficient. Bernard Baruch was another major contributor to the program. Each of the 165 houses built, at Eleanor’s insistence, was insulated, had indoor plumbing and a refrigerator.
Concurrent with the Arthurdale Project, the enactment of the Glass-Steagall Act of June 16 (known simply as the Banking Act of 1933) put an end to the banking panic by effectively separating commercial banking from investment banking, while simultaneously ushering in the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Restoration of confidence in the banking system was key to the implementation of this and all of the Roosevelt-era programs that would follow.
The overlapping and successive so called “alphabet agencies” of the Roosevelt administration are a potential quagmire to navigate, and so we will attempt a simple and chronological progression here.
The RA, or Resettlement Administration, was the brainchild of one of Roosevelt’s three-member “brain trust”: a professor at Columbia University in New York City named Rex Tugwell; (the other two were Raymond Moley and Adolph A. Berle Jr.
The administration came into being May 1, 1935, and lasted for only two years, due to mounting conservative criticism that the programs were too socialist in nature.
The Resettlement Administration’s focus during these Depression years was on financial aid, conservation work, building a physical and social infrastructure and the construction of model farm communities. The RA was able to build 95 camps, mostly for California’s migrant workers and those seeking refuge from the Dust Bowl.
A key to understanding the plight of laborers during the 1930s in general, migrant workers and the inhabitants of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in particular is author John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” published in 1939 and made into an award-winning movie in 1940.
Under the umbrella of the New Deal, the Resettlement Administration planned to build 100 so called “greenbelt towns,” but only three ever came to fruition. They were the Greenbelt, Maryland, Greenhills, Ohio, and Greendale, Wisconsin, projects.
In 1936, the federal government purchased 8,300 acres of land in southwestern Kentucky, which was obtained through foreclosure sales of large farms in the area, that were then subdivided into smaller ones that would comprise the resettlement farms and houses. Much of this land was in the communities of Gracey, Julien and Howell along the railroad corridor that stretched from Gracey to Clarksville. Later this railroad bed would become highway 117.
This Christian-Trigg counties project was one of only 37 in the nation and two in Kentucky. Its aim was to help tenant farmers become landowners. These farms could be financed over a 30-year period with 3 percent financing — terms unheard of at the time in banking circles.
Though well intentioned, this small scale “utopia” fell short of the mark. The farms were too small to be the economically self-sufficient units. They did, however, give the farmer a psychological boost when most needed, and if a farmer was fortunate enough to participate in the program, the post-war boom — just a decade away — would indeed propel him out of debt and into the landowning class.
Although this program was initially intended to expand into Trigg County, it was subsequently scaled back and only resulted in approximately 100 “government farms,” all of which were in Christian County.
A number of these Resettlement houses are still in evidence, mostly around the Julien community. While simple in design, they are also quite distinctive and easily identifiable — even though most have undergone extensive remodeling and transformation.
The broken roof line — somewhat of an enigma — sets these houses apart from their neighbors and is the first and most important clue to their true history. As built, they consisted of four rooms and did not have either indoor plumbing or electricity. They did, however, include a chicken house, smoke house, privy, barn and stable.
These houses were promoted at the time as “the instruments with which to educate farmers in the new principles of ecology and conservation farming,” and through the construction of uniform housing to “modernize” Kentucky life.
Preservationists managed to get the C.A. Baldwin Farmstead onto the National Register of Historic Places in October 2015 under the umbrella of “preservation of the cultural landscape.”
In an effort to preserve, expand and perpetuate its only moderately successful goals to date, the Resettlement Administration was transferred to the Department of Agriculture on Jan. 1, 1937, and renamed the Farm Security Administration.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 offered additional support for the struggling farmer with alternative forms of price subsidies (replacing previous New Deal policies that had been outlawed). It made price support mandatory for corn, cotton, wheat and many other basic farm products.
We are indebted to Marsh and Dr. Porter for the inspiration for today’s article. Join us in August when the adventure continues.
James B. Coursey’s Hiding in Plain Sight column appears monthly in the Kentucky New Era. His column is researched jointly with County Historian William T. Turner. Reach James Coursey at 270-719-9462 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.