Arthurdale WV: poster child for New Deal efforts to ease the suffering, part 1

Posted by | January 31, 2011

Please welcome guest writer Judi Tarowsky.  Judi is a storyteller living in St. Clairsville, OH.  She enjoys telling original tall tales and non-fiction historical pieces.  She is a member of the West Virginia Storytellers Guild and the Ohio Organization for the Preservation of Storytelling.  A graduate of the West Virginia University School of Journalism, she has been a radio account executive, newspaper reporter and editor, public relations and advertising writer, Cub Scout Den Mother, and adjunct college instructor.  Currently she is a meeting leader for Weight Watchers.  In May she will be among the WV Storytellers Guild members performing at the Children’s Tent during the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston.

This article is based on a talk Judi gave at the Marshall County Historical Society [WV] on January 17, 2011.

My father, Bayard Young, a native of Glenville, WV, was a graduate student at West Virginia University during the mid-30s. To earn cash to supplement his assistantship in the Chemistry Department, he freelanced newspaper articles and photographs. He had a darkroom and a press quality Speed Graphic camera – a monster to handle by today’s digital standards.

Eleanor Roosevelt in Arthurdale WV

Mrs. Roosevelt visited the Phillip-Jones Shirt Company, probably in 1937, and was presented with a supply of shirts for the President.

Dad stayed alert to any likely news pieces that he could cover and sell to some of the major East Coast newspapers. He had a fast turn-around with this photographs, and he was able to type out his copy at what was considered blazing speed on the clunky typewriters of the day. So when he learned that Eleanor Roosevelt was due to visit nearby Arthurdale, her personal project, he made sure he was among the crowd gathered to see her.

By this time in Arthurdale’s construction, Mrs. Roosevelt’s frequent visits had gained national attention, to include a traveling press corps from the national wire services and major newspapers. When Dad, Speed Graphic in hand, approached the clutch of newsmen who were tailing Mrs. Roosevelt, he overheard one of them grouse, “Hunh – just what does this kid think he’s going to with that thing?” – referring to the Speed Graphic. Whether the remark was meant for his ears or not, Dad assumed it was.

“I’ll show them what this kid is going to do,” he recalled thinking, and promptly walked up to Mrs. Roosevelt and introduced himself. She graciously accepted his introduction.

Congressman Jennings Randolph of West Virginia in Arthurdale WV

Then-Congressman Jennings Randolph addressed the crowd at the shirt factory. As a news reporter, I had the opportunity to interview him many times when he was U.S. Senator.

Once he explained who he was and what he was doing, Dad said Mrs. Roosevelt made sure he had unfettered access to her as she traveled around the site. He snapped all the photographs he wanted, and sped back to Morgantown with his notes and film. He wrapped up his story and photos in short order and sent them out in the afternoon mail – in time to scoop the national press corps. So much for what “this kid” could do!

Dad kept his photos and his story about meeting Mrs. Roosevelt. When telling it, he always added the reminder that “the bigger the person, the nicer they are likely to be” about famous people being approached.

No wonder he had been intent on getting a story about her visit.

Arthurdale arguably was the poster child for the New Deal efforts to ease the suffering caused by the Depression. Arthurdale was originally named the Reedsville Project because it was sited near Reedsville, WV in Preston County. West Virginia actually had three homestead projects – Arthurdale, Tygarts Valley in Randolph County and Red House in Putnam. Arthurdale drew the most attention because it was the first.

According to her memoir, “This I Remember,” the Quaker group, American Friends Service Committee, invited Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in the fall of 1933 to investigate conditions they were working to remediate in the coal mining areas of West Virginia, particularly the area of Scotts Run, near Morgantown. She conferred with the president, and they agreed a visit would be wise. (I can imagine the conversation: “Franklin, I’m going to West Virginia.” “Yes, Eleanor.”)

Scotts Run had been an active coal mining area. In the late 19th Century it had been part of the coal boom in West Virginia that continued through World War I. The miners were so-called marginal farmers who had been lured to mining by the regular wages. Their families made their homes in company houses and the miners were paid in scrip good only in the company store. This payment structure kept the miners in constant debt that made their leaving for better conditions impossible.

During the 1920s coal mining became over extended and this area saw strikes and bloody violence. By 1928 a lessened demand for coal lead to mine closures, throwing many miners out of work. The 1929 Crash made economic conditions even worse. By 1930, a White House Conference on Child Welfare highlighted the plight of undernourished Appalachian miners’ children.

In 1931, Federal aid dollars originally allotted from Post-WW I aid to Belgian and French children, were given to the AFSC, at then-President Herbert Hoover’s request, to help feed miners’ children in West Virginia, and the Pennsylvania Mon Valley. The AFSC centered its efforts on Scotts Run.

Clarence Pickett, the secretary of the AFSC, had visited the Roosevelt home
before the new president’s inauguration in March 1933, to discuss the group’s vocational rehabilitation and subsistence living projects.

That fall, by the time the Quaker group invited Mrs. Roosevelt on the fact-finding tour, she knew she had not yet been photographed enough to be recognized, so she was able to freely move around with one of the social workers near Morgantown. No one would know who she was.

(continued tomorrow…)

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