Thursday, August 22, 2019


CCC Homestead Water Tower

“It would be great if a program like the New Deal Subsistence Project of Homestead Communities could be instituted today,” I told the docent at the Homestead Tower in Crossville, TN after watching a documentary at the Tower. She was a descendant of one of the original Homestead families and agreed with me but added, “I’m not sure anyone wants to work that hard anymore.”

Under the regime of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and with the encouragement of his wife, Eleanor, The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 had created a progressive program called the Subsistence Homestead Communities. It provided an opportunity for families who were permanently unemployed or displaced to purchase small equipped farms. One-hundred homestead projects were scattered across the U.S., and one highly successful one was centered in Cumberland County, Tennessee which had experienced massive flooding during the Depression of 1929.

The Homestead Project was an experiment in community living from which 233 families were selected to participate. They included 30 percent stranded farmers; 30 percent textile workers; 30 percent stranded coal miners, 10 percent labor leaders, teachers, a physician, a nurse, and two sociologists.

In the beginning years of the project, the Homesteaders were paid one-third in cash and two-thirds in credit hours. The credit hours were to be applied to the purchase price of their farms. The Homesteaders worked together toward a goal of creating their own homes from wilderness and becoming self-supporting. The houses built, one of which is featured below, were cottage style homes with 12-inch mason walls and siding of either sandstone or stone. Walls and ceilings were paneled with pine, floored with oak and heated with fireplaces. They were also plumbed and wired for electricity, eventually delivered by TVA. Many of the homes were built before roads and driveways reached them.

Home Built for Homesteader

The program wasn’t a hand-out program and is detailed in depth in a magazine published by The Crossville Chronicle which we picked up at the Homestead Tower, shown above. The Tower, built in 1938, is an octagonal stone tower that housed a 50,000-gallon water tank with a lookout tower at its peak. We didn’t climb the Tower, but we examined the exhibits of photographs and artifacts used during the Homestead Project. The Cumberland County Homestead Project in Crossville, TN gained national notice as the “Showplace of the New Deal.” 

Fifty percent of the original Homesteaders eventually owned their homes, and homeowners had learned valuable construction, farming, and business skills. They had been trained by experts in agriculture, engineering, and construction and assisted by FDR’s boys, CCC and WPA workers (both programs in which my father participated in Louisiana).

FDR once said that there was only one objection he had to the whole Homesteads Initiative, and that was the word “subsistence.” “I wish we could come up with a new term to take its place. This work we are doing is not a matter of subsistence…we want more for these families than that…it is the thing that we have called ‘the more abundant life."* 

The Homestead Project in Cumberland County, and nationwide, ended in 1946, but descendants of the Project still occupy many of the Crossville cottages erected during the era of the New Deal. Of interest to me: Of the 1500 applicants to this program, 233 were selected for “high character, ability, honesty, willingness to work and cooperate.” If participants didn’t measure up under a probation contract of two years, they were asked to leave.  

*Reference from Crossville Chronicle, “The Cumberland Homesteads.”

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

1 comment:

Jo Ann Lordahl said...

Terrific, as usual - And great pictures! Jo Ann