Friday, December 25, 2009

Paying homage to Eleanor, West Virginia

Dan Barry writes of Eleanor, West Virginia, on the front page of today's New York Times. The town of Eleanor, which is named after Eleanor Roosevelt, was founded in the 1930s as part of the federal government's program to create jobs during the Great Depression.

Much of Barry's story is based on interviews with Marlane Crockett Carr, who moved to Eleanor when she was four after her father helped to build the town, which lies on the Kanawha River, about 30 miles west of Charleston. Here is an excerpt that features Carr's thoughts, while also saying something about Eleanor today and putting the town's establishment in historical perspective.
Ms. Carr watched Eleanor grow, from a place planted in mud nearly 75 years ago — well before the Levittowns of post-World War II America — to a town that proclaims itself the cleanest in West Virginia; a town with a budget, a mayor, a library, a Dairy Queen. Its development has been bitter, sweet, messy, quiet, ugly and beautiful, not unlike the evolution of this country.

Barry explains that early housing projects like the one in Eleanor and others were ridiculed as pet projects of Mrs. Roosevelt, but "the first lady had seen first-hand the scrawny children, eating scraps hardly worth a dog’s time. She held her ground." Just 150 families of the 1000 who applied were accepted to live on the homestead, initially known as Red House Farms. A rigorous vetting process identified the "physically and morally strong" who would have the privilege of living in the new homes, each on a one-acre lot with a garden and chicken coop. The families were expected "to work, grow vegetables, learn home economics and engage in cultural pursuits, like joining the band. Their children were to keep clean, stay in school and take cod liver oil to ward against rickets." The families paid a "modest" rent that applied toward the purchase of their home.

The full story is well worth a read. One part that I found especially poignant was Barry's mention--at least twice--that the new homes had an "exotic" feature--indoor plumbing. He tells of how Carr, as a child, christened the new home--by repeatedly flushing the toilet.

Eleanor's current population is 1,345. It is in Putnam County, population 51,589, which is part of the Charleston Metropolitan area.

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