Mount Pleasant 'subsistence' homestead let families start over
April 2, 2009 10:00 AM
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits a nursery school in Norvelt in 1936.
By Kate Luce Angell
Lois Weyandt, 80, wants to set the record straight on the small town where she spent her childhood.
"It was a wonderful place to grow up," she said from her current home in Greensburg. "Everyone knew everyone -- nobody locked their doors."
Part of Mount Pleasant Township, Norvelt was created by the New Deal's Resettlement Administration in 1934 as one of the country's first "subsistence homesteads."
At that time, the idea of giving unemployed workers land, a home and the equipment they needed to start over was new and controversial.
"People used to say we were Communists, that we took government money for granted," Mrs. Weyandt said, adding that at least the local critics soon realized that life in Norvelt was no free ride. "They realized we worked, really worked for what we had."
Penncraft, Fayette County, was the other subsistence homestead founded in Pennsylvania.
James Steeley will offer a glimpse into the past of these communities during his presentation "The Power of the Image: Norvelt Through the Lens of the New Deal Photographers." It will be at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Westmoreland County Historical Society, 41 W. Otterman St., Greensburg,
More events celebrating Norvelt's 75th anniversary are planned for this summer.
Mr. Steeley said the photos were part of the Farm Security Administration's effort to document conditions of people's lives during the Depression, and to show the progress on the subsistence homesteads.
Mr. Steeley, 70, is a retired history teacher with the Hempfield Area School District and has spent his life in the Greensburg area.
"It was supposed to be a return to the land, where unemployed workers could become self-reliant," he said of the subsistence homestead program. He noted that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was very involved in the details of its execution.
"At the beginning of the program, the workers were to be given decent housing, but Mrs. Roosevelt wanted the homes equipped with indoor plumbing and heating," he added.
Each of the 99 eventual homestead projects across the country was different, Mr. Steeley said. But most were like Norvelt's in that the plan was for each homesteader to become independent of government help, and for each cooperative community to eventually become self-supporting.
The 254 homes of Norvelt, then called Westmoreland Homesteads, were built by the homesteaders in 1934. Each family got a 1.6- to 7-acre plot, a house, a garage, a chicken coop, fruit trees and a grape arbor, as well as a stove, refrigerator and farming tools.
A cooperative farm was stocked with cows, pigs and chickens and the town center had a post office, school, playing fields, general store, library, doctor's office, barber and cobbler.
In 1937, Westmoreland Homesteads became Norvelt when a resident, Adah Smith, won a contest to rename the town.
Mrs. Weyandt said that despite all that was given to homesteaders such as her father, Paul Schlingman, an unemployed miner, that was only the beginning of the hard work involved.
"The houses didn't come with yards. They dumped dirt in the front and you got grass seed -- you had to make your own lawn," she said, adding that town sidewalks were laid by the homesteaders using creek stones.
"We raised chickens, but we weren't allowed to eat the eggs -- they went back to the government," she noted, "unless they were already cracked."
The $14 rent-to-own installment on her family's house was taken out of her father's pay automatically, sometimes leaving little left over.
But in the dark days of the Depression, said Mrs. Weyandt, Norvelt seemed like a haven.
"I remember one family had been living in a mine shaft before they came there and they had never seen light sockets before."
Mr. Steeley pointed out that by economic standards, the subsistence homesteads were not a success. By the start of World War II, most homesteaders had become private homeowners and the communities had started to become independent towns.
But he added that their success could be measured by other means.
"These homes gave families the opportunity to start over, to regain their self-confidence," he said.
He pointed out that one of the program's biggest boosters, Mrs. Roosevelt, believed the homesteads had been a success. "In her autobiography, she said, 'The good they did was incalculable.' "
Admission to Tuesday's program will be free to society members, $3 for nonmembers. Call 724-836-1800, ext.10, for reservations.