Homesteads Historic District
By 1933, the Great Depression had left the mountain people of the Cumberland Plateau without jobs, hungry, desperate and despairing. To overcome the devastating economic effects of the times, U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, began a series of programs across the country to help stimulate jobs, provide opportunities for affordable housing and restore hope. The Cumberland Homesteads is one of the planned New Deal Communities built by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads between 1934 and 1938. Thousands of unemployed miners, textile mill workers, and hardscrabble farmers applied for one of the proposed 250 Homesteads to be constructed and purchased by the selected Homesteaders who had to meet rigid requirements of “high character, ability, honesty, and willingness to work and cooperate with the government in this planned community.” The project began with the clearing of ten thousand acres of timberland. Architect, William Macy Stanton designed the community and structures. The wood and stone used in the construction were taken from the land around the homesteads. The homes were paneled in pine and heated with fireplaces. Fifteen different house designs were used, only eleven of which were repeated. The houses had indoor plumbing at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt who had a special interest in these projects. The homes were wired in anticipation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which provided electricity by 1937. The Cumberland Homesteads has been a historic district since 1984 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. There were over one hundred of these projects across America. This was the largest of the resettlement communities built by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads. The Homesteads retains its unique sense of community and approximately 200 of the houses remain today. The Cumberland Homesteads project emerged from the New Deal era begun with the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 when the country was in the grip of the Great Depression. President Roosevelt called a special session of Congress to enact a series of measures to deal directly with the severity of the economic decline that was affecting the lives of millions of people. During the fabled “100 Days” this congress enacted a major piece of legislation which was the omnibus National Recovery Act. In that act was an almost insignificant clause of a few lines which directed the President “for the aid of stranded areas” to set up a credit of $25,000,000. Out of these words will come projects affecting thousands of lives.
On the basis of the law the President created the Federal Subsistence Homestead Corporation and soon subsistence farms projects were underway in several states. Bob Lyons, the Cumberland county farm agent felt that this area had the needed land and was certainly a depressed area populated with people needing employment and hope for a better future. Mr. Lyons was able to secure support from the Crossville business community, and thus an application was submitted for one of these projects to be located in Cumberland County. It was approved and January 1934 saw the clearing begin on the 10,000 acres that had been purchased with the grant of $431,500 from the federal agency that was to oversee the project. This money was also to cover the building of farm homes, out buildings, and roads. The project was to have farms of varying acreage, with modern homes having from two to four bedrooms. The initial plan was that 60 percent of homesteaders be taken from Cumberland, Fentress, and Morgan counties. The other 40 percent were expected to come from Bledsoe, Putnam, Rhea, Roane, Scott, and White counties. Over 2000 families applied for the planned 252 available farms. Applicants had to write for an application form. When it was received an investigator would be assigned to interview the applicant to learn about family character, skills, work experience, and commitment to become a homesteader. The deportment of one’s children was also asked about. The early plan called for about a two year “trial period” to determine if the person and family was suitable as a homesteader. Many approved applicants were out of work coal miners, loggers, landless farmers, construction tradesmen, and some were from a “white collar” background. Many additional men were employed on the project that were not designated to be owner of one of the farm homesteads.
Eventually the 10,000 acres were cleared, the roads were built and the Cumberland Homesteads Project helped create a scenic area of Cumberland County featuring farms, pastures, orchards, modern homes, churches, and a school. One major myth or fallacy that lingers over this monumental project is the persistent belief that these modern homes with their assigned acres were given, as in gifted, to the approved homesteaders. This is NOT SO. In the early days of the project the men’s wages were fifty cents an hour. When paid, the men received one-third in cash with the remaining two-thirds “returned” to the government as credit hours (sweat equity) to be credited to the eventual purchase of their homes and farms. The homesteaders worked on, somewhat blindly, for several years. During this time the administration of the project was overseen by about five federal agencies.
Finally the homesteaders organized and were able to get answers to questions about ownership of the properties they had labored on so long. Government agents and the homesteaders agreed to accept market values assigned by outside appraisers. This allowed the homesteaders to know the market value of what they were working toward and thus could begin “for real” to pay for their homes, and initiate the process of obtaining the deeds to their farms. It is interesting to note that a house and farm of 20 to 25 acres was assessed at about $2,000. In 1946 the federal government ended its involvement in the Cumberland Homesteads Project. Deeds were given to the homesteaders who had paid for their homes and land. The others were given five years to comply with the set purchase price. It is believed that a small number of the original homesteaders chose to leave the project at that time. This community of subsistence farms as envisioned by the Roosevelt administration, is often called the most successful of all those established under the original plan. Jobs were generated, skilled workers emerged, productive farms and pastures were created, families built and had homes during those hard years. Ties of neighborly love and kinship were forged that have lasted to the present time. The homesteaders dealt with a hard life, a shortage of conveniences, and little money with an enthusiasm and willingness because they knew they were building a community where they would live, work, and raise their families.