No discussion of historic homes on The Cumberland Plateau would be complete without a mention of The Homesteads. Much has been written about this program, and I’ll try to provide some links at the end if you want to know more. They are lovely homes and I stopped by the Homestead House Museum to get a look inside.
Between 1934 and 1938, two hundred-fifty homesteads were built just south of Crossville, Tennessee. One of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, The Cumberland Homesteads was just one of dozens of Roosevelt towns. The original vision was a village surrounded by twenty to thirty acre farms which would serve to house and educate a starving Appalachian populace. While they left a series of picturesque farms, the program itself wasn’t overly successful.
The government believed that the mountain people were in distress due to ignorance and if they could educate these people then their poverty would disappear. Therefore, the families who acquired these properties signed on to a rigorous program that required them to report their every action to the overseers. Those directors would tell the farmers what would be planted (and when) in each field they tilled. Not surprisingly, the independent mountaineers did not take to this plan very readily.
There was constant turn-over and after just four years the funding was ended and the homesteads given over to those farmers who could secure independent financing to pay off the loan. Sadly, the families had not been given a final price when they began the program; they were simply told they would work a certain number of hours and make a certain monthly payment. The acceptance of these terms no doubt speaks to the desperate economic condition for none of us would agree to them now, would we?
A wood-framed village was erected to support the logistics of the building but this was demolished in preparation for a permanent downtown which was never completed. The focal point of the city center would be a tower surrounded by a cross-shaped building. This was intended to house the administrative offices and in the tower was a water tank topped by a lookout platform. Fire towers were very common in that day and this platform allowed a clear view of nearly all the homesteads. Today, Homestead School sits adjacent to the tower, but it was originally located in a wooden structure on another site.
The homes were built on eleven repeating plans, as well as a few unique plans. The architect, William Macy Stanton, lived onsite in one of the first and unique homes. He was responsible for designing not just the floor plans but the farm, roads and community buildings. The houses were built almost entirely with indigenous materials by both local labor and the homesteaders themselves. As families arrived, they would initially occupy one of the completed barns and moved into the Crab-Orchard-stone homes as they were finished.
Inside, the houses have a hand-pumped well in the kitchen that fills a holding tank located in the attic. Some of the designs allow you to fill a bucket right from the pump while others only allow water access from the actual sink tap. The houses do have indoor bathrooms, although that was not originally planned. However, Eleanor Roosevelt, who no doubt enjoyed the indoor plumbing in the White House, felt that everyone should have an indoor bathroom. Therefore, the architect re-drew his plans, carving out enough space for a small restroom. The locations of these are interesting because we usually see plans with centrally located plumbing. However, the bathrooms in these houses are well away from the kitchen, the hand pump, and the holding tank. In the museum, the bathroom seems to have borrowed space from the dining room and the master bedroom.
The houses are generally three bedrooms, with one being downstairs and two bedrooms located atop a narrow staircase. The stairs are open in some plans, but the museum’s floor plan has an enclosed staircase that is really quite dark and steep. The beautiful beaded pine paneling has aged to a golden-red, and the beauty of the local stone is continued inside with fireplaces designed as the center of the living space. Many of the plans have two chimneys to accommodate both the fireplace and a wood burning cook-stove in the kitchen.
The museum is furnished with 1930’s era furniture – and even vintage clothing in the closets! The bedrooms are small by our standards today, but the full-sized beds and straight backed chairs are perfectly proportioned for the rooms.
I visited on a warm and breezy day and while the horizon today is dotted with modern homes, the beauty of the distant mountains remains. It is easy to imagine rising with the sun to begin a farmer’s day and being greeted by such a landscape. These families had so little when they arrived from all over the Cumberland Plateau. These homes would have been mansions compared to the shacks that many left. In fact, the families did not complain when asked to first live in the new barns – they were new and well-built; the families made do quite nicely in them for a short period of time.
A government agent remained on-site until 1946 and the turn-over of homesteads continued. As World War II drew to a close, returning veterans were promised priority in getting the homesteads. This brought in a new wave of families eager to carve out a home and living from The Plateau.
It’s so easy to live right down the road from an amazing piece of history and never really see it first hand. I want to encourage you to get out and visit The Homestead. The museum at the tower and the open house both offer a wealth of information. Even a simple drive through the community is a joy.
Here are a few links if you want to read more about the Homesteada and their history: