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Subsistence Homesteads: President Roosevelt's New Land and Population Policy

by Ralph Borsodi

School of Living, Suffern, New York

January 1934

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A FEATURE of primary importance in the Dayton plan is the system of land tenure. Title to the land and the original farm buildings, used for community purposes, invested in the Homestead Unit as a whole. Separate plots are then leased to each homesteader on annual terms fixed by the Unit in accordance with the relative desirability of each plot. Leases are automatically renewed each year though there are provisions for terminating them at a time.

If terminated by the Homestead Unit—as they may be for violations of the provisions of the lease—the buildings and improvements on the plot may be sold by the homesteader or disposed of if he fails to find a purchaser upon an appraisal determined by arbitration. On the other hand the homesteader has title to all improvements upon his plot, and may sell his property at any time to anyone eligible to become a member of the Unit. In other words, title to land rests in the community which creates the land value, and title to improvements in the individual. Under this system the holder of a plot is practically compelled to use it or abandon it to someone else who will. This, I believe, obviates the danger which has wrecked innumerable idealistic communities as well as commercial real-estate developments—the danger that the original owner will merely leave the plot unused awaiting an opportunity to sell it at a profit after an increase in value.

The ground rents collected from the leaseholders furnish the community the income with which to pay taxes levied upon the property, interest payments, payments upon the principal borrowed in order to purchase the land, and any other community expenses.

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.

The homesteaders 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 father—a 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.



Hand-woven cloth comes from these looms
made by members of the unit

Bakery and Shoe Shop

Members erected this building to house all unit work
including a bakery and a shoe shop

The advantages of this plan for homestead colonization recently summarized by a writer in The Architectural Forum present the views of a competent and disinterested observer:

  1. The advantage of great individual freedom which can be enjoyed by the households on the various homesteads together with the possibility of as much collective activity as the group freely chooses to carry on.

  2. The emphasis on family life where a family as a unit will produce its basic necessities and therefore where the influence will be in the direction of binding the family together rather than driving the members apart as in the case of the present situation.

  3. A sense of permanence and economic security which will grow out of the homes actually owned by the homesteaders to which they will be attached because these homes will be largely the work of their own hands and the result of their own planning.

  4. The combination of small electrical machinery with subsistence farming will give families ample food and clothing with much of the drudgery eliminated.

  5. The scheme allows for full-time employment by the breadwinner of the family since the homesteading activities can in most cases be carried on by other members of the family, and if this will not work, the employed homesteader may in turn employ another to work on his property.

How this first Homestead Unit has been financed is no doubt the question arising in the reader's mind. Enough funds were raised locally at the outset to acquire possession of the land, to repair the old farm buildings, to purchase a tractor, and even before any building operations began, to enable the families selected to plant gardens, buy milk goats and establish flocks of chickens. Thus production of their own foodstuffs was started. Later a loan of $50,000 was secured from the Subsistence Homestead Division of the Department of the Interior in addition to a grant of $30,000 from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration for the revolving fund needed for working capital to all the units ultimately to be organized.


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