Lois Weyandt, 90, likes to joke about growing up in central Pennsylvania as a communist.
She’s one of the few people still living who, almost a century ago, lived in a “subsistence colony” — communities built as part of the New Deal that sought to give workers battered by the Depression new hope by encouraging them to go back to the land.
Weyandt’s colony was Norvelt, Pa., about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, where she recalled picking elderberries and wearing petticoats fashioned from feed sacks.
“We were called communists at one time because of the way we took care of each other,” she said. “It wasn’t that at all. We wanted Norvelt to succeed, and it did.”
Little evidence of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s agrarian pitch to the poor remains. Whether because of the strength of market forces or a failure of the human spirit, this plan, at least as it was conceived, outlived its usefulness by World War II.
Though dozens of homesteads were built, perhaps the best surviving example — a collection of small houses in Mississippi that became living quarters for National Park Service employees and now serve as office space — is slated to be dismantled by the agency unless someone can come up with a better idea.
In May, the National Park Service invited the public to comment on plans to remove part of Tupelo Homesteads, completed in 1936, citing a lack of resources to maintain the property. The agency issued a request for proposals last year but received none.
Christina E. Smith, a cultural resource manager for the National Park Service, said 11 homesteads in the original 35-unit colony would remain after the planned removals.
“We held an open house providing the public an opportunity to visit the houses and hosted interviews with local news outlets,” she wrote in an email. “There was a great deal of interest, but no proposals.”
Jennifer Baughn, chief architectural historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said her agency — funded by the National Park Service — sought to preserve the homestead even after the colonies disbanded decades ago.
“It’s an interesting experiment that showed the transition from an agricultural lifestyle to a more urban or suburban lifestyle,” she said. “The federal government was trying to come to grips with how that was going to work. . . . People’s lives changed.”
By establishing the Division of Subsistence Homesteads in 1933, New Dealers sought to fix the broken economy and the people broken by it, using it and other agencies to establish colonies as far away as Alaska. Depending on where they were established, the communities often catered to idled factory workers or farmers. They tried to respond to regional culture — including segregation in the South. Tupelo Homesteads, for example, was designed for whites, not African Americans.
“Every undertaking will be regarded as experimental,” an agency advisory committee wrote in 1933. “The experiment is to test a method of living that may conserve the best of both urban and rural life, afford greater stability in family living and point the way to a more permanent adjustment for workers.”
One portrait of such a homestead came from country music icon Johnny Cash. In a memoir, the singer described how his father heard of the New Deal program, moving the family on a flatbed truck to Dyess, Ark., where it received 20 acres “with no money down” and a communal stake in a general store, cannery and cotton gin.
Cash recalled the songs his mother sang on the two-day trek to the property as he lay under a tarp, his only protection from the rain, through mud so thick homesteaders called it “gumbo.”
“I grew up under socialism — kind of,” he wrote. “Maybe a better word would be communalism.”
Archived photos of the Tupelo homestead, about 150 miles southeast of Dyess, show tidy homes with small porches. The houses, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, are islands amid flat fields under tall trees, the entire landscape resting on Mississippi’s fertile topsoil.
Fred C. Smith, a former professor at the University of Southern Mississippi who wrote a book about homesteads, said the program was the result of an alliance of New Dealers and Christian socialists whose dream of a rural renaissance was undone by economic reality.
As war approached and the economy boomed, many homeowners sold them on the private market rather than continuing to live cooperatively.
“As soon as things got better, they bugged out,” Smith said. “Nobody wants to be dictated to by people — by people who have no right, knowledge or station to dictate.”
Despite the short-lived enthusiasm to homestead projects, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt took a particular shine to them, visiting Tupelo in 1934 and Norvelt in 1937. The name “Norvelt” was derived from the last syllables of her first and last names.
“Only a few of the resettlement projects had any measure of success; nevertheless, I have always felt that the good they did was incalculable,” she wrote in a 1961 memoir. “Conditions were so nearly the kind that breed revolution that the men and women needed to be made to feel their government’s interest and concern.”
Weyandt doesn’t think of Norvelt as a failure. She said her father was able to purchase the Pennsylvania home, where she stayed until she got married.
When it no longer functioned as a co-op, Norvelt remained tightknit. Weyandt started an annual Norvelt reunion picnic for descendants of the original homesteaders.
If only the world was as simple a place now as it was then, she said.
“Nobody stole from anybody,” Weyandt said. “It’s a shame that it isn’t like that today.”