After the post a couple of weeks ago about the National Park Service’s proposal to demolish half of the Tupelo Homesteads Historic District, I thought we needed more context about the homesteads, which were a 1930s program that attempted to solve the problem of industrial workers whose industries went through boom and bust cycles, such as timber and textiles. These workers would be laid off during the busts but businesses needed them to stick around and not leave town for something better so that when the boom came back, they could start back up with barely a hitch.
So, I went into my somewhat disorganized and dusty files and pulled out this little gem of an article from the Jackson Daily News, May 13, 1934. Of course, I’m a sucker for any article with architectural renderings (four of them!) AND floorplans, but the text accompanying the drawings gives us insight into why the subsistence homesteads were considered so important in the midst of the Great Depression. On the face of it, they were an experiment with mixed success–a few projects at least sold most of their units, but others failed to get off the ground, or if they did get their houses built, they couldn’t interest the industrial laborers in participating.
But the second-to-last paragraph seems prescient, indicating that this experiment’s larger goal was to help planners figure out the best approach for the housing problem nationally, not just for a few scattered industrial families, and not necessarily government-funded projects. In this light, the subsistence homesteads are significant because they helped pave the way for the massive changes in the housing market after World War II, where large home building firms mass-produced entire neighborhoods using a few model home types and employing Federal Housing Authority-backed loans to entice new home-buyers.
When I search for “homesteads” in the MDAH Historic Resources Database, I see that the Hattiesburg, McComb, Meridian, and Tupelo projects are listed, with the Tupelo Homesteads being the only one on the National Register. I don’t see the Richton or Laurel projects listed–does anyone in those areas know whether these were actually built and if so, where they are?
Someone asked me after the Tupelo Homesteads post whether there were any African Americans allowed in these developments. To my knowledge, these were whites-only and there were no African American homestead projects either proposed or built, at least in Mississippi.
Work Starts to Place 160 State Families in Federal Homesteads
LAUREL, May 12–(Special)–Construction work has begun on house in Mississippi’s program in the Division of Subsistence Homesteads through which 160 families in the state will be placed in modern homes and rehabilitated to the extent of being placed in position by which they might combine part-time jobs with agriculture and supplement their industrial earnings.
Every effort is being made by the Richton Homesteads of Mississippi, Inc., the corporation building the homestead project in Perry county, and which operates as a part of the state set-up under direction of I.R. Bradshaw, field representative of the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, to locate small industries to afford employment for the homesteaders to enable them to repay their loans and to furnish a market for some of the farm products that will be raised.
Negotiations are being made by the board to secure a starch plant, a milk products plant, a distillate plant to utilize stumpage in the vicinity for making turpentine and rosin, a packing plant, canning plant and other factories.
Produce from these small factories is to be marketed under the “Richton” label.
At Tupelo, Meridian, Laurel, Hattiesburg, and McComb, no strenuous effort is being made to locate industries. The boards of directors however are offering the closest cooperation to the communities in such movements. Their principal idea however is to conduct an experiment in housing of industrial workers who may through intensive farming operations on their small garden plots of from three to fifteen acres, supplement their wage or salary incomes and thereby boost the standard of living for themselves and families.
The present program of the Division of Subsistence Homesteads as it is being worked out in Mississippi and other states is not meant as a definite program for rehabilitation or housing of the American people. It is, however, intended as a measuring stick by which a concrete example may be set for such a program, which may in the future be launched either through the use of federal or private funds.
In the meantime, modern comfortable, well built homes will be built to house the 160 families who will pioneer in the program that will see the lifelong dream of President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt realized.
More about homesteads and New Deal architecture . . .