In our last column, we looked at the whole drama of the Cumberland Homesteads (CH) through a lens that allowed us to see the major role of Quakers in planning and conducting the project. Here, we look at a few of the many visitors who came to see what was going on up on the Plateau and how it was going. A few special visitors will be highlighted.

 

THEY CAME EARLY & OFTEN

Likely, the lobby of Taylor Hotel had never been this busy since it was built in 1921. Men in boots passed through to get started on their new jobs as supervisors of the various crews working to clear the land and start construction. The men who were workers did not stay at Taylor; in fact, many of them walked several miles to get to their first jobs in months. A steady stream of experts from the government or one of the agencies (TVA and UT) lending support to the work passed through CH in the early days. 

The magnitude and mission of the project CH attracted a tremendous amount of attention from the 6000-plus families looking for a better future and from the curious and the specialists. Perhaps, the best way to demonstrate the scope of early visitors is to look at the progress report from the files of Chairman N.D. Walker. Here are a few entries from the first report: 

1) Feb. 15, 1934 — “Mr. Kocher of the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry and Soils and Mr. Shivery of the Forestry Committee spent one day on the project;” 

2) March 5, 1934 — “Mr. Chadwell and Mr. McSpadden of the Poultry Committee spent several hours conferring with CH officials. A well-defined policy on poultry matters was outlined.”

3) "Directors C.A. Morris and O.W. Dynes made a flying trip to Crossville where an area on #1 was selected for testing out the new fertilizer combination in cooperation with TVA.”

The report continues:

4) March 22, 1934 — A number of distinguished visitors were at CH last week. Chairman A.E. Morgan of TVA and ex-Governor Sweet of Colorado expressed approval the development. Alles Eaton of the Russell Sage Foundation, an outstanding authority handicrafts spent two days with management as official advisor of the Head Office of Subsistence Homesteads. Dr. Taylor of Vanderbilt University brought his class in Rural Sociology to study the general set-up of the organization.” In April '34, Drs. Clarence Pickett, Homer Morris and O.W. Dynes came over for a visit. This is a small sample of the site visitors in the early months. At one point CH, Inc. Director Homer Morris complained to Washington that there were so many visitors that it sometimes made it difficult to do the work.

 

THEY CAME FROM EUROPE

The CH project and others of Subsistence Homesteads caught the attention of people in Europe and they came to see for themselves. An early visitor from Europe was Michial Straight from London, who came to the U.S. and to CH to study conditions relative to the housing problem. He was involved with a similar effort in Totnes, a small town in Devonshire, England, and was keenly interested in what he witnessed here. Mr. Straight shared with locals: (1) depression conditions in England are much worse than in the U.S.; and (2) the SH method at CH is far better than the dole system in use in his country. He was in this country from July 20, 1934, to Sept. 23, 1934, and at CH on Sept. 3, 1934.

On Nov. 13, 1935, a delegation of European Health Authorities representing 11 countries and sponsored by the League of Nations visited CH. Details are a bit sketchy, but we have their response recorded as “sincerely impressed.”

The Soviet Union was represented by Russian Ambassador to Washington Alexander Troyanovsky, who with his aide L. Gashkel, toured CH on Nov. 30, 1936. He was very interested in the size, construction and cost of the homes and the acreage assigned to various homesteaders. The ambassador asked about the use and cultivation of the soil and the plans for crops and land use. True to the code of politicians he told assembled journalists that he was not in a position to comment on the European situation. After lunch at the home of Manager Stanton, the party headed for Knoxville and a tour of TVA projects, certainly a visit to Norris Dam.

 

VISITS FROM PROMINENT OFFICIALS

The CH project received a steady stream of inspecting and advising government officials, curious academics, journalists from many locales and numerous others not fitting a single classification. Archives at the Homesteads Tower include the register from the guest house with signatures of interest from many. It is accurate to report that the CH has recorded visitors from every U.S. state and some 40 other countries. At the risk of not mentioning all of the important visitors in important positions, this report will include visits from four officials — Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry A. Wallace, Charles Pynchon and Rexford Tugwell.

 

Eleanor, Our Biggest Booster, Pays a Visit — Homesteaders were understandably excited when they learned that Eleanor Roosevelt was planning to visit. She was already known to be the biggest supporter of CH. Her visit took place on July 6, 1934, and included her personal friends Nancy Cook and Marian Dickerman. Newspaper people took interest in every detail of every minute of her stay; perhaps, the most important feature of her visit was the fact that she came at all to this out-of-the-way place. That fact certainly supported the idea that the project was of great importance. 

The aftermath of her visit was significant; local homesteaders had already decided that she was a friend in deed who lobbied for upgrades and conveniences in the houses being built. (Perhaps they were less interested in the conveniences than in the message that they are valued citizens with worth and dignity that have been seriously challenged by their treatment under harsh circumstances). 

The three ladies drove into the entrance to the project at #1 Grassy Cove at about 11:30 a.m. after a visit to Norris Dam on the day before. Mr. Stanton was awaiting her arrival and blew the dinner whistle at the sawmill; the men gathered quickly and Eleanor personally greeted as many of them as she could. A make-shift stage was created on the back of Paul Monday’s lumber truck. 

In her down-to-earth style, Eleanor spoke to the assembled homesteaders about things that they and she were concerned about. Her brief talk made these points: 1) do not be too proud to accept some temporary assistance from the SH agency;

2) I care for you and so does my husband’s administration;

3) FDR and DSH will see to it that you will have decent housing; 

4) we will recruit private industry to provide jobs after construction is completed; 

5) be patient because it will take some time to achieve the results we want; 

6) “keep the faith” in this undertaking for its success depends entirely on “your continued enthusiasm, sincerity, and will” to make it happen. (Playhouse actress Patty Payne has achieved some distinction by presenting the speech of Mrs. Roosevelt on several occasions).

Eleanor’s party admired the many activities underway at #1 Grassy Cove, the acres of land cleared and the crops already growing. As they toured four homesteads, greeting and encouraging as they went, she expressed her genuine pleasure at actually seeing those things being done, which by some had been declared impractical and impossible. 

Original Homesteader Harry Wellons recorded in his reflections that “she was a gracious lady and a polite conversationalist.” A particularly touching incident took place when she saw a young homesteads family — J.T. and Velma Vaden and their four young children (they only had to walk across the road from the barn where they were living to see her at #1). Eleanor borrowed two-year-old Lavon from his mother’s arms and observed that we are witnessing a “new beginning” for this little boy. Sensing the potential significance of the moment, as she was wont to do, she added, “I’m going back to Washington and telling the President what is being accomplished here” (Unfortunately, we are unable to locate a photo which preserves this touching memory). 

Moving on after two hours Eleanor and her entourage went to Hotel Taylor for an informal luncheon where she signed autographs on napkins and menus and anything else serving the purpose. Once again she made herself available to ordinary people. In the party with the three ladies mentioned were Earl Draper of TVA, Mr. and Mrs. Homer Morris and Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Macy Stanton. Crossville had not witnessed anything like this and the moment was not soon forgotten. 

The Roosevelt party drove on to Berea, KY, in the early afternoon. The memories of Eleanor’s visit are renewed as original Homesteaders have told their children and grandchildren about their meeting and hearing this amazing lady. She was at once complimentary, encouraging and challenging; she would later share the fact that of all the projects she visited in Tennessee, she was most impressed with this one. This writer has not been able to verify a second visit from the First Lady, though at least three references in our records report such a visit.

One of the most telling and challenging things Eleanor did was to author a six-day-a-week newspaper column from 1935-1962 titled “My Day.” The website The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers (erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu) has this to say: "ER did not keep a diary. While she sometimes detailed how she spent her day in correspondence to confidante Lorena Hickok, ER focused more on responding to family crises, political jousts, and social crises than she did recording her own responses and reflections. 'My Day,' while by no means a complete record of ER's daily activities, is the only account we have of her actions from 1936-1962. The columns reveal whom she met, where she traveled, what she thought, why she reached that opinion, and how she handled the pressures of public life."

The website continues, "By 1954, 'My Day' had become her political platform as well as her diary of her political activities. It was the major venue in which she challenged complacent Democrats, timid liberals and apathetic Americans to accept the responsibilities of living in a democracy. By 1957, political commentary so dominated the column that the Scripps Howard syndicate dropped 'My Day' for being 'too political.' By 1960, she waged a consistent battle with those political leaders who were more concerned with 'profile than courage' and urged her readers to follow their consciences rather than their fears."

 

Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace Comes to CH — Most historians agree that the two most significant contributors to the New Deal administration were Henry Agard Wallace and Harry Hopkins. Mr. Wallace was secretary of agriculture, under which department the CH was managed during numbers 2-4 of the five government agencies which were assigned this “honor.” His visit followed that of the First Lady on Oct. 29, 1934. Given the high probability that his visit was the highest ranking government official to ever address a gathering in Cumberland County, it could be considered strange that so little record of that visit remains. He was, after all, a cabinet member twice over (agriculture then commerce), vice president and candidate for president (this statement is made in awareness that presidents from Tennessee passed through this county as they traveled to Washington as did Vice President Gore). 

The most frequent references to the visit of Wallace say, “He too was well received.” Several newspapers reported that “Henry A. Wallace after an inspection tour, approved progress at the Tennessee development.” For the best report on his visit, we look at a paper written by Personnel Director Folger some 30 years later. He wrote, “Mr. Wallace after a few hours visit made a speech from the back end of a truck to the homesteaders gathered at No. 1. I remember all of it! He said, ‘If you learn to live and work together cooperatively this project may succeed.’”

To begin to understand the lack of high-profile publicity accorded to the secretary’s visit, it might be helpful to note that Secretary Wallace, at that time, had no direct responsibility for the SH projects. For further insight into this situation, those who choose to do so are invited to consider the low-profile, humble nature of this remarkable man and the style of his public service. 

He is remembered as the “champion of the common man” for good reason. His father, also a secretary of agriculture, was teaching dairy sciences at Iowa State University when George Washington Carver presented himself as a student. The Wallace family invited young Carver to live with them at a time when the dormitory was not integrated. That brilliant student, who spent countless hours with then six-year-old Henry on nature walks, instilled in him a love for plants and a vision of what they could do for humanity. The boy’s life was pointed in a very specific way long before he became vice president of the United States. It’s beyond the scope of this series, but how interesting is it to reflect on what might have been if FDR, acting to placate the conservative and pro-business element of his party, had not dumped Wallace as a running mate in favor of Truman; Wallace would have become president upon the death of FDR.

As we leave the story of Secretary Wallace, let’s look at a statement that connects his religion with his politics.

"The concept of freedom," Wallace explained, was rooted in the Bible, with its "extraordinary emphasis on the dignity of the individual," but only recently had it become a reality for large numbers of people. 

"Democracy is the only true political expression of Christianity," he declared, adding that with freedom must come abundance. "Men and women can never be really free until they have plenty to eat, and time and ability to read and think and talk things over.”

A better understanding of his world-view can be helpful in reviewing his impact in politics and some reasons that he was not popular with some of FDR’s backers.

 

Federal Subsistence Homesteads, Inc. Executive Pynchon Speaks at CH — The president was invited to attend and witness a big celebration when the first homesteaders moved into their new houses after living in barns. FDR declined and sent Charles Pynchon to represent him. The “move-in day” celebration on Dec. 1, 1934, was a big deal that attracted a large crowd of well-wishers. The pageant and other parts of the celebration will be explored in greater detail in another column.

Here, we consider Mr. Pynchon as an official representative of the administration. He began his speech with high praise for the Tennesseans who were staging a “come-back” at CH. He noted that homesteaders here on Cumberland Plateau had found “acres of diamonds” and predicted for them a successful and prosperous future. Pynchon had accepted the role of interpreting and advancing the cause of SH. His agency is the parent corporation under which a corporation was organized in each of the early projects. CH, as previously noted, had already established Cumberland Homesteads, Inc. to handle the finances of CH.

In his speech, conversations and writings he elaborates on CH and others: “Temporary relief will not meet all their economic need except in so far as it keeps them from starving. These permanently unemployed workers represent a problem of rehabilitation where they must be retrained so that they can again become self-supporting.” 

He then spoke of the significant problems involved and emphasized the need for retraining and added the importance of leisure time activities (think park and recreation). "CH is, therefore, what is known in the subsistence homesteads programs as a ‘self-help’ project. The homesteaders work on their own houses and improving their land and community property, and through ‘work credits’ materially reduce the price they pay for their property. One of the by-products of this new procedure is the tremendous enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation.” He noted the “tremendous social significance” of the project.

 

Tugwell, Our New Boss, Checks Us Out — A lot of enthusiasm and unbridled curiosity surrounded the announcement that Rexford Tugwell was coming to CH to personally inspect one of the most successful of more than 300 other projects recently assigned to him as Under Secretary of Agriculture and head of the newly established  Resettlement Administration. As FDR’s top “brain-truster,” he was a “lightning rod” for focusing the many criticisms of New Deal programs and many had heard of him and were anxious to see and hear him. 

He was scheduled for a talk with/to homesteaders at 3 p.m. on a rainy Sunday (July 21, 1935). More than 200 formed a major crowd at the community center/ school on Deep Draw. They dressed in their Sunday best, came early for church, ate a chicken dinner “on the church,” and had an old-fashioned song service for a few hours while they awaited their distinguished guests from Washington.

The Tugwell party drove to CH from Knoxville, where they toured Norris Dam, the TVA-built town of Norris, and Big Ridge State Park. Always looking for ideas of ways to allowed homesteaders to earn money, they visited a ceramic shop, a weave shop and a mountain craft outlet. Insiders attached some significance to what they saw as a change in favor with TVA when the party stopped for tea at the home of Director David Lilienthal rather than with Chairman Arthur E. Morgan (see Morgan photo in the earlier article). Surely enough, the chairman was replaced within a year. 

Upon a noon arrival at CH, Tugwell and the seven staffers with him immediately began an inspection tour of the bustling project. As they drove the 11 miles (with 16 to go) of road constructed by homesteaders they saw completed houses (56) with families moved in, truck crops thriving after the refreshing rain and acres of corn and Irish potatoes. Mr. Stanton supplemented what they saw with information which he shared with a cadre of reporters. He told them that 217 homesteaders were working alongside more than 600 other workers hired on federal work programs, 1,700 acres were cleared, three sawmills had produced 4,250,000 board feet of lumber, and 39 of 200 planned miles of fencing were in place.

Arriving at the community center, Tugwell broke the sad news that he would not be making a speech on this day. The explanation given was that he had not been on the job long enough to make definitive statements. Former Project Director F.O. Clark, always popular and back from a Georgia project to which he was assigned earlier, saved the day with an impromptu speech. It is of considerable interest to note that our most controversial visitor — a man that critics loved to hate — chose to decline an opportunity to give a speech (the reporters were certainly here and ready to add to his legend). 

Tugwell parried with reporters and responded to their questions with questions of his own. In one recorded exchange a reporter asked, “What do you think about this layout?” 

“What do you think?” he replied. 

“Swell,” said the reporter. 

“So do I,” replied Tugwell. 

Although Mr. Tugwell resigned (Dec. 31, 1936) his post after a few months to allow FDR a break from the opposition that he was so adept at attracting, his policies continued under M.L. Wilson, who shared his views but not his flair. Almost immediately he ordered the purchase of new land to allow for larger farms — an idea strongly recommended by Congressman Ridley Mitchell, an early visitor to his office. He suggested to CH that more money could be borrowed from the Feds to support co-op activities (it was done and a loan of $550,000 was secured in 1936 — an act from which the project never fully recovered).

Some of the negative images of DSH derived in part from Director Tugwell. He was an ideas man who favored cooperation and collectivism; these views were shaped (as recorded by his critics) from a couple of months spent in the Soviet Union. This somewhat unfair view was further advanced by the tag “Rex the Red.”

In an unpublished article found at Yale’s Sterling library, John Fischer, a personal friend of Rexford, compares him to a possum that only becomes angry after children poke it repeatedly with a stick. Tugwell and his work had been criticized incessantly, so it wasn't his fault that he "sometimes snapped back.” Those who would give him a “fair treatment” face a major challenge.

We wrap up the Tugwell visit with a rather domestic note: The Tugwell party of eight was hosted with lunch at Manager Stanton’s home, where only CH grown food was served. The centerpiece of the meal was fried chicken with side dishes of squash, string beans, stuffed tomatoes, Irish potatoes and slaw. Dessert was homemade ice cream. 

These folks who were not from the South were not accustomed to such hospitality, but they managed to accept it. The only female in the party was Miss Grace Fulke, executive administrator, who engendered some notice by the attention she gave to her boss in helping him to get a balanced meal. The party moved on to Knoxville at 3 p.m. to catch a train back to Washington. Please, do not be surprised if Tugwell and his daughter, Tanis, show up in a future feature in this series or if Miss Fulke becomes the next Mrs. Tugwell.

 

HOW IT ALL BEGAN REVISITED

In keeping with our intent to tell our story in more than one voice, we go back to the first article in the series and give an account of the early days written by one who was at the center of this amazing development. Here, in part, is the story from county Agent Robert Lyons as taken from his annual report for 1933-'34; he writes of himself in the third person:

"Here is a project that the extension service had a great hand in setting up. It was due to the service rendered these counties by this organization in setting up the Irish potato project that brought the Homestead to this county. This being the only project of the kind in the state, it will be well to write a full story of this project.

"The county agent went with the representatives of the government, namely: Dr. H.L. Morris of the SH Division; W.O. Hearn, Soil Specialist of the Agriculture Department, Was. DC; W.O. Dynes, Soil Specialist of UT; and the pond geologist of Nashville, to look over tracts of land in Morgan, Scott, Fentress, and Cumberland counties. It was decided that the best prospect for the project would be an 11,000-acre tract owned by Missouri Land Company. The county agent secured the best obtainable price for this tract through their agent, Mr. W.J. Hodges, Crossville, which was $7.50 per acre. The reason this land was agreed on was due to the amount of timber it carried and the location of good highways. This tract was bought in December 1933.

"Then there was a board of directors to be set up and these men were to be accepted by H.L. Morris, who asked the county agent to give him the names of 3 local men who had been active in community work and who were real public spirited; one of these men to be an employer of labor, one a banker, and the other a minister. N.D. Walker was suggested as an employer of labor, M.E. Dorton, a banker, and A. Nightingale as a minister. These men were the suggested list and after Dr. Morris had consulted Mr. B.M. Elrod of the Extension Service, the same names were recommended by him and the name of W.O. Dynes, who was connected with the University, was added to the list. These four men together with Dr. Morris, who represented the Washington division are set up as a board of directors. It was then the duty of the directors to employ a general manager for the project."

Mr. Lyons then described the hiring of Mr. F.O. Clark as general manager. Perhaps, we will check back with him for more insights on how the project was set up. We have already looked at the early process he described, but his personal perspective from being there for all the action as it unfolded, gives us a more complete picture.

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