Today, it’s Tennessee’s largest historic district, at approximately 11,400 acres. During the Great Depression, the Cumberland Homesteads community came into being as part of a nationwide New Deal agrarian movement to create subsistence farm communities to aid out-of-work, rural residents. President Franklin Roosevelt assigned the homesteads project to Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes. Ickes, in turn, established within his department the Division of Subsistence Homesteads (DSH).
Cumberland Homesteads was one the first of 33 communities built by DSH between 1934 and 1938, and eventually consisted of 250 homes, a school, a park area, as well as a stone water tower and governmental building.
The DSH advisory committee identified three types of clientele and three types of proposed communities: Homestead colonies established for industrial workers and located in the out-skirts of cities or large towns; rural settlements in which small industries or branches of large industries can be established; and agricultural settlements.
The Cumberland Homesteaders, in the main, had not been subsistence farmers but were “displaced” and “stranded” workers—they were initially coal miners and only later textile mill workers and farmers. Coal operators of the time had drastically curtailed mining operations throughout the bituminous coal fields of Appalachia—production levels demanded by World War I had long since dropped—as the surplus of American coal continued to glut national and international markets.
DSH regulations denied participation in the homesteads to persons on relief rolls. The application for a subsistence homestead required that the successful applicant be an American citizen; living or normally living in an industrial center; over twenty-one years old; have an income sufficient to meet homestead payments; and not have an income sufficient to secure a loan for a home using orthodox financial instruments.
Plans for Cumberland Homesteads intended to create 351 farms on lots ranging in size from 10 to 160 acres; the average homestead consisted of 16 acres. Areas determined unsuitable for farming remained timberland. Originally 8,903 acres were farm tracts; 1,245 acres were common land (grazing, woodland, cooperative enterprises); 11,200 acres were set aside for further development; and the cooperative association owned 5,505 acres.
Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia condemned the costly absurdities of electricity, refrigerators, and indoor privies for country people. Likewise, Senator Kenneth D. McKellar of Tennessee complained that the Resettlement Administration was constructing stone mansions and voiced his resentment that relief workers lived in houses better than he did. No matter; the houses wound up with indoor plumbing at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a special interest in these projects.
“After the Resettlement Administration began massive resettlement, the DSH projects seemed to be nonproductive, and the residents seemed to be beneficiaries of government largesse.
“Most of the homesteaders led lives indistinguishable from their contemporaries; furthermore, the government had provided the homesteaders with modern conveniences, tools, and equipment that their contemporaries had to purchase.
“It seemed to full-time farmers that the homesteaders “piddled” around in their gardens, while the resettled farmers actually had to do farm work.”
Clarence E. Pickett,
executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee
Monthly Labor Review (September 1933): 1327-328.
Although each family received a section of land, the community was designed to function as a cooperative, including both agriculture and some industrial production. Eventually the cooperative ventures failed, plagued by rampant politicking both locally and at the Federal management level. Many families, confined by small lots, soil too poor to raise crops, and serious erosion problems, simply moved away.