Historic houses from the New Deal era are in the news, and hopefully, it will be good news. The National Park Service, which owns the houses located behind the Natchez Trace Parkway Visitor Center since they were transferred in 1940, requested expressions of interest in the properties in May 2015, and those expressions were due in July. The houses will not be sold, cannot be moved, and cannot be altered without following historic guidelines for the National Register of Historic Places properties (Moore, 2015). After reviewing expressions of interest and ideas proposed, NPS will decide whether to request proposals. Buildings may be used individually or combined.
The plan for the Tupelo Homesteads was conceived in 1933 by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, and construction began in 1934 (Jennifer D. Brown, 1996, nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places). Twenty of the original 25 remained in 1996. Across the road from the wood-frame houses, a second set of brick homes were constructed in 1936 by the Resettlement Administration–the successor to DSH, to complete the 35-unit subsistence homestead community 5 miles north of Tupelo.
The details of the houses varied somewhat, to provide a “unique” look to each home. A “car shed” and pump house was also constructed for each house.
In the southwest corner of the property, the DSH built a lake and park for recreational use. . . The landscape was further altered in the 1960s when the dam broke on the man-made lake, obliterating all traces of that landscape feature. (Brown, 1996, p. 2 of section 7)
It is good that we have this [Natchez Trace Parkway] well-maintained, well-researched, and well-articulated commentary. However, undocumented and in the shadows, unheralded by signs and unnoticed by travelers is a provocative and well-preserved physical testament–an artifact of an era not so far gone–to an effort to assuage the consequences of arguably the bleakest period of our history, the Great Depression. (Fred C. Smith, 2006, The Tupelo Homesteads: New Deal Agrarian Experimentation, The Journal of Mississippi History, p. 85)
The vision behind the homesteads (constructed in communities as remote as Palmer, Alaska–then a territory, and as citified as those built in Dalworthington Gardens (named for proximity to the surrounding communities of Dallas, Fort Worth, and Arlington), and Hattiesburg, Mississippi) was “an entirely new class of producer/consumer who could speed industrial recovery” (Smith, p. 86). Briefly summarized (the research on the development and outcomes of these projects is significant and cannot be adequately covered here), families would be housed on small-acreage homesteads with an expectation of working part-time in the “cities” (this was not the case for the homestead in Palmer, which had a different focus) while engaged in subsistence farming: producing the vegetables, eggs, and milk needed to feed the family. Initially, the Division of Subsistence Homestead plans for combining the benefits of working for wages–generating cash income–with subsistence farming was seen as an answer to some of the problems connected with the Great Depression.
Five communities were chosen in Mississippi for homestead communities, and Tupelo was the center star of the South, having been the first city in the US to contract with Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for electricity.
The presence of the TVA guaranteed inexpensive electrical power and virtually ensured the future growth of industry. In 1937, Tupelo had three garment factories, a cotton mill, and oil mill, a fertilizer plant, and a milk plant, which together employed some 2,000 workers. (Donald Holley, as cited by Brown)
Architect Frank R. Kincannon worked with DSH architect Walter R. Nelson on the design. Tupelo Lumber Company was awarded the contract for construction to build 25 houses for $50,600. Construction began in late summer 1934 and was completed in late October. The homesteaders moved in mid-November and several days later, President and Mrs. Roosevelt visited the community and Mrs. Roosevelt randomly picked unit 20, pictured in the photograph above, to visit with a family (Smith). Including the cost of construction for housing and outbuildings, land, utilities, roads, and administration, the total cost amounted to $74,737.22 to develop the Tupelo Homesteads (Brown).
Although the subsistence homesteads were envisioned to eventually lead to the homeowner purchasing the houses, few did–in Tupelo or elsewhere. In October 1940, the Tupelo Homesteads were transferred to the National Park Service for use by the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Tupelo location is one of two homestead communities known to have any remains in Mississippi by 1996.
This neighborhood, quiet and secure, free from traffic, sits behind the Tupelo Visitors Center on the Natchez Trace Parkway. There are no signs informing passers-by of the genesis or philosophical motivations or the human drama associated with the Tupelo Homesteads; there is no information linking the Trace itself or the hidden houses to efforts of the government to help people endure the Great Depression. No sign marks the visit of the president or the First Lady at #20. (Smith, 2006, p. 112)