Homesteads: President Roosevelt's New Land and Population Policy
by Ralph Borsodi
School of Living, Suffern, New York
Under the leadership of Elizabeth
H. Nutting and Virginia Pierce Wood, executive secretary and chairman
respectively of the Character Building Division of the Council
of Social Agencies in Dayton, in the fall of 1931, groups of unemployed
and partially employed families in ten sections of the city were
organized into so-called "Production Units". This in an attempt
on the part of the Council to develop a more constructive program
of relief than that to which the city Welfare Department was limited
by law. The aim of each unit was primarily to manufacture for
the group's needs, and secondarily to barter a portion of their
products for raw materials which they were unable to produce themselves.
Though in this they differed from most self-help, barter organizations,
i.e., in their emphasis on production for use, their unusual success
from the start must be attributed rather to the outstanding leadership
which spurred them.
excellent as the plan was, helpful as it was in supplementing
meager incomes, the limitations inherent in it prevented its
even attempting to take its membership completely off relief.
And in the last analysis that was the real problem. The difficulties
were simple. Distribution and overhead costs, the inability
to grow or manufacture their own material in the city, and the
necessity of paying rent for headquarters and individual residences
made it impossible for the members to secure enough for their
labors to make them self-supporting. Indeed if the units were
charged fully with all that was donated to them‹rent, land for
gardens, tools, implements, materials and supplies‹the virtual
impossibility of their ever breaking even is self-evident.
As consultant economist to
the Unit committee (a group of public-spirited men and women appointed
by the Council of Social Agencies to sponsor the activities of
the DACPU) it was my privilege a year ago to point all this out
and to outline a future program. My suggestion was that a plan
be developed for moving groups of families (some members of whom
would have work in the city though inadequate to meet the families'
needs) to the country within commuting distance of the city, each
group of families to live on a "subsistence homestead" where their
chances of making themselves independent‹partly through production,
supplemented by wages from those who worked in the city‹was possible.
This plan was adopted and members of the Production Units were
encouraged to move into the country as rapidly as possible. Dayton,
Ohio, it should be remembered, is an industrial city of about
200,000 population. Well-known products made in the city include
National cash registers, Frigidaire refrigerators, Delco electrical
appliances. Demand for these products has been hard hit by the
depression. Last winter some seventy thousand persons (fourteen
thousand families) were on relief. At this writing there are about
fifty thousand persons on relief, with the numbers steadily rising.
This winter promises to be as bad if not worse than last. A still
larger number are on the verge of being forced on relief by the
final disappearance of their savings, or are kept off relief only
by earnings insufficient to maintain a decent standard of living
or by going deeply into debt. The majority of relief families
seem to be capable, hardworking-people normally self-supporting.
Photographs by Frank G. Betz,
A dayton family after a few weeks
on the farm.
They had been on relief, discouraged, and under care
of a physician
THE first Homestead Unit was organized in the spring of 1932.
A farm of 160 acres, purchased for $8000, was divided into thirty-five
three-acre plots, fifty-five acres being reserved for community
pasture and woodlot, commons and public roads. Thirty-five families
immediately took possession.
themselves are a cross-section of American society, ranging
from families of professionals (architect, teacher, engineer)
to tradesmen and white-collar workers (grocer, bookkeeper,
clerk) as well as craftsmen and laborers (carpenters, bricklayers,
plumbers). They include men and women over fifty with grown
children, some of whom join their parents in purchasing the
homestead, as well as young couples without children. Two
young people in fact married on the strength of this opportunity
to build a home of their own.
The background and attitude
of one family while perhaps not typical may be regarded as symbolic
of the entire group. The family consists of the parents in their
early twenties and two young children. The fathera man
with a good work record at the National Cash Register Company
where, however, employment has been unsteady-and the mother,
a trained nurse, have gone at the task of building a homestead
with the spirit and determination of pioneers. Together these
two, unaccustomed to manual labor, did not hesitate to swing
picks in an effort to speed up work on the foundation of their
home. I saw them industriously at this work one Saturday afternoon
holiday at a time when the man happened to have some work at
the cash register factory.