New Deal's Norvelt Homestead Offered Help, Hope to Families

Article excerpt

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Norvelt on May 21, 1937, inspecting the town and several homes.

In April 1933, a month into the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt penned a note to an ally, Sen. George Norris of Nebraska, asking him to add $25 million to an existing bill to place 25,000 destitute families in brand-new homes.

"It can be done," the president wrote. "Will you talk this over with some of our fellow dreamers on the Hill?"

The dreamers created not just new homes but entire communities. One was Norvelt, in Mt. Pleasant, which celebrates its 75th anniversary in July.

Out of the depths of the Great Depression, Norvelt -- named for its greatest champion, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt -- gave refuge to 250 young families, including hundreds of children who are custodians of its legacy.

"There will never be another Norvelt," said Earl Saville, 81, who still lives in the house his parents and seven siblings moved into in 1935. "It was unique."

Spread over some 1,900 acres in central Westmoreland County, Norvelt was an experiment.

The idea was to restore hope to men and their families who ravaged by the most tumultuous economic upheaval in history: the Great Depression.

Families were provided with jobs, comfortable homes, ample property and, for good measure, government assistance in re- ordering their lives.

The families of Norvelt lived in five- and six-room homes complete with running water, indoor plumbing and a coal furnace. They tended three to seven acres -- enough land to grow a large garden, plant fruit trees and install a chicken coop.

Renting for $12 a month, a home in Norvelt -- painted white, gray or yellow, according to government specifications -- beat the alternative, possibly a coal company house without central heating or plumbing in nearby villages of Hecla, Calumet or United.

To earn money -- 50 cents an hour for an eight-hour day, a large portion of which the government retained for rent -- adults worked on cooperative farms. One farm raised pigs, another chickens, a third dairy cows. A garment factory, which came to town in 1938, was another community-owned venture that provided employment.

Government in charge

Norvelt was run by the federal government from its inception.

There was no town council; a director chosen by the government ran the place. …