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Guest Jeffery

Dayton Subsistence Homesteads: A Suburban Experiment from the New Deal Era.

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I first heard about this failed experiment of the 1930s from an elderly gay guy who used to be a librarian here. He mentioned it over dinner once, and I got curious about it.  There was nothing to be found back then (pre web), so this was just a historicak rumor.  I finally found an on-line article about it at the online Ohio History site, Subsistence Homesteading in Dayton Ohio 1933-35...which had enough info for me to locate the various sites on a map and to find sources in books. 


Most of the info here will be from that article, "Flight From the City" by Ralph Borsodi,  and some books on the Federal resettlement program (the same program that started Greenhills near Cincy), since this got wrapped up with that. 


The context for this was a cultural anti-urban bias in US society and the hard times of the early Depression, when there wasn’t enough work to provide living wages and no welfare beyond private charity.


The anti-urban bias is part of our national DNA.  It goes back to Jefferson, but later became tied to a certain cultural nostalgia for “traditional” rural & small town life and values in reaction to a modernizing society and culture.


Dayton would have been quite receptive to this as the city was expanding due to the rise of mass production/mass employment industry.  The population to staff this expanding economy came from rural in-migration instead of foreign immigrants, so the new urban masses were not that urban in the cultural sense.  This was the case with local industrialists, like country-boy-made-good Charles Kettering, as well as the factory hands.


At the national level the anti-urban reaction came from various sources like Henry Ford, an ironic pillar of modernity who also celebrated small town and rural life, Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre City (which could be read in this anti-urban context),  and the back-to-the-land movement, which apparently kicked off in the 1920s.  In the 1930s Helen and Scott Nearing and Ralph Borsodi were the well-known national exponents, with Borsodi having a close connection to the Dayton experiment, bringing it to national attention via his book, Flight from the City


Back-to-the-Land would resurface again in the early 1970s as a social movement arising from the 1960s counterculture.


Subsistence Production & Back to the Land in Depression-Era Dayton


Subsistence homesteading was an outgrowth of an early Depression movement in Dayton to develop a network of co-operative workshops and a barter system to provide work and basic goods (like clothing) for the unemployed.  12 “Subsistence Production Units” where set-up involving 350 to 500 families, done under the auspices of local non-profit charitable organizations. 


By early 1933 the opinion of the nonprofit organizers was that these urban production units had gone as far as they could and really didn’t solve the problem of “relief” (the 1930s term for welfare for the unemployed).  This resulted in an interest in land colonization and homesteading by the social reformer organizers of the production units.  The organizers were familiar with the work of Ralph Borsodi and brought him to Dayton to consult.



Ralph Borsodi


Borsodi was an early proponent of self-sufficiency and economic decentralization, having set up a homestead for himself and his family outside of NYC (Suffern), and also became a bit of social critic, writing a series of books and articles in that vein.  Borsodi wrote This Ugly Civilization in the 1920s (reprinted in the early 1930s) and it was this book that caught the attention of the Dayton reformers and brought Borsodi to Dayton.  (a discussion of the book can be foundhere, but a good take-away point is this:


According to Borsodi, the way out of this "ugly civilization" should be led by small groups of "quality-minded" individuals who would organize their families into self-sufficient units through the use of labor-saving machines within the home. This elite, he warned, should not expect the urban masses to adopt homesteading unless a national economic catastrophe struck, but such an elite could at least find a richer existence for itself. 


His proposed homesteads were essentially an escape, idyllic little pockets of "intelligence and beauty amidst the chaotic seas of human stupidity and ugliness."


Borsodi was brought to Dayton starting in early 1933 as a consultant, and later assumed a quasi-management role.


The Dayton Subsistence Homestead


In winter and spring of 1933 the local nonprofit group organizing the production units spun off the Unit Committee, which then purchased the Shaw property west of Dayton, just beyond the VA and Drexel, south of US 35 for the first homestead.  The property contained a brick farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings.







”The original plan was to divide the farm into thirty-five three-acre tracts for as many families, and to use the remainder of the acreage for common parks, roads, pasture and tilled fields, orchards, and woodlands.”




… with financing by a private bond issue.  This failed and the Feds ended up subsidizing the purchase. More on that later.


A typical homestead plot (basically a farmette):





The homestead was officially dedicated on May 14, 1933. and the first homesteaders began to move on site, living at first in the old farmhouse.  Later arrivals lived in huts, tents, and sheds.


The idea was to build rammed-earth houses (one experimental straw house was also built) and then expand the houses as needed.  In this drawing the lighter shaded walls would be the additions:




This proved impractical, and only one house was built, using conventional construction methods.


The homesteaders would not own the land:


”In order to prevent speculation in land and houses and to preserve economic and aesthetic unity, land tenure in fee simple had been rejected in favor of corporate ownership.  Each homesteader received a lease for his plot and paid an annual "ground rent," which included principal and interest of 5 1/2 percent on his loan from the Unit Committee, the tax assessment on his land and any property on it, and a share of communal and administrative expenses.  This rental payment was fixed by a nine-member board of trustees, elected from the membership of the homestead community there was a system of arbitration to settle challenges to the trustees' decisions and there was provision for voluntary withdrawal on sixty-days' notice and for eviction by a vote of two-thirds of the members.”


Pretty socialistic, yet 30 applications were approved and twelve families started plots, though not all lived on site. Some commuted out to the homestead to tend their gardens.


Concept of Operation


There were mixed motives and principles behind the concept.  Here are few:


1.  People could live on the homestead and grow their own food to supplement the low wages and intermittent employment in a reduced manufacturing sector (since the location was near city factories)


2.  The homesteads would be cooperative production units for non-ag things like clothing and shoes with their own workshops, resulting some degree of self sufficiency


3. Reduce relief rolls by putting people on the land to grow their own food.


The Dayton press provided two editorials on the concept:


”The people who are all farmer have been for more than 10 years are in a direful state. Tied to the land, the land unable to return them aliving, they have suffered in helplessness. Now for four years the people who are all-city have been in direful straits. Dependent wholly upon jobs, they have lost their jobs. Their jobs lost, all was lost .... But there is another estate, the independent farmer-laborer, which has not yet been much thought of or much developed.”




”This unit may be the laboratory out of which will come a serum that will forever lay the spectre of grim want that has haunted millions of families for the past four years and further immunize many against the virus of technological unemployment”


Failure of the Concept


Though starting out as an attempt to provide relief to the Dayton unemployed, presumably factory workers and tradesmen the homestead actually became an experiment for middle class types:


”Apparently, homesteading appealed primarily to middle-class people--Borsodi's elite--rather than to the neediest members of society for the first group of homesteaders accepted by the Unit Committee included two civi1 engineers, two agricultural experts, two electricians, a plumber, a mechanical engineer, a chemical engineer, a librarian, three nurses, several teachers, and an architect.”


…echoing similar failed utopian communities and projects like New Harmony, Brook Farm, and the 1960s and early 1970s “intentional communities.  Or perhaps aspects of the modern day “green” movement like that Agricultural Hipster thing.


And like some of those internal dissension mixed with inept management led to nothing getting done.  The concept eventually failed, and the property was taken over by the State of Ohio.


The site today, back to farmland with some ribbon development on the Snyder Road frontage to the west






Some birds-eyes of the brick farmhouse and the one surviving house from the homestead






…like nothing ever happened:




Flight From the City:  Homesteads All Around Dayton


Borsodi wrote-up the homestead in his very aptly titled book, Flight From the City, as a solution to urban ills and the economic crisis.


Flight From the City proposed a ring of homesteads around Dayton, which probably would have provided the critical mass to make a self-sufficient barter economy real as these homesteads could trade with each other or market things in the city, with the city factories providing part-time employment.  The proposal was for 50 additonal communities housing 1,750 families.


This concept would have set a new model for suburbanization for Dayton.




The Dayton Homestead is in blue.  Four others are labeled, which brings the tale into the bigger picture of the New Deal. 


Subsistence homesteading as a general concept had wider interest as a way of resettling farmers, providing subsidence to urban factory workers, and for dealing with “stranded” rural workers like miners.  The concept made it into policy via the NRA, which established the Division of Subsistence Homesteads (DSH).  The DSH was under the administration of Milburn Wilson, a westerner who was impressed with the self-contained aspects of Mormon villages.


The Dayton Homestead was one of the first to receive a grant, and was perhaps the only one that pre-dated the New Deal.  The grant helped purchase the Shaw farm.




Nationally the program had mixed results.  Some homesteads, like these in Austin, Minnesota (for Hormel meatpacking workers) and in the Phoenix and Los Angeles area, were quite successful and remain desirable areas today:






Since this was a Federal program during the Jim Crow era there were specific homesteads set up for blacks.  A successful one was affiliated with the Hampton Institute near Newport News;  former Energy secretary Hazel O’Leary lived there as a child.


Federal approval was received for four of the proposed Dayton homesteads.  Apparently there was an attempt at a fifth in 1933, since the East Dayton production unit bought a farm to grow stuff, though its unclear whether anyone was to live on this farm as a homestead. 


The four Federal subsistence homestead sites in Dayton:


Willow Brook


The first additional homestead was affiliated with or sponsored by the Stillwater and North Dayton production units, presumably two of the early self-help workshop/barter units set up in the early Depression.  It was to be located on the north county line, the present site of the Carriage Hill Farm park (ironically. a park interpreting and celebrating farm life in SW Ohio)




Rolling Acres/Miami Homesteads


The next two were to be on adjoining farms north of Needmore Road and west of Wagoner Ford, in one of the great bends of the Great Miami River. 




Valley View


In keeping with federal Jim Crow this was to be the black homestead.  The exact location is unknown based on available plat maps, but it was to be somewhere off the West Carrollton/Soldiers Home Road in rural Jefferson Township.  The 1930s black neighborhoods are shown in brown tint (based on a 1933 housing survey and Sanborn maps showing black churches).




Valley View and the other homesteads were vociferously opposed by the residents in the surrounding townships and by local homeowners and realtors associations as an early example of NIMBYism.  Some of this was perhaps part of a generalized opposition to the New Deal sponsored by local industry.  Local industrialists reportedly bankrolled the Dayton Review, an anti-New Deal “alternative newspaper” that regularly criticized the homestead concept and highlighted the mismanagement and dissension in the local program, critiques that were apparently justified, (though the ideological opposition was there, too).


However, in Valley View’s case the opposition was explicitly racial:


”At least for the residents of Jefferson Township, the key issue seems to have been race. In response to a request for clarification of a petition signed by over 1100 protesters, Cooper and two other leaders of the agitation submitted to the Division of Subsistence Homesteads through Borsodi a document preponderantly devoted to objections to a Negro unit. This document referred to the disastrous effects on schools, property values, and racial purity that would supposedly result from the "arbitrary implanting of a colony of thirty-five or more families of colored people with their lower standards of living" in the midst of white people who maintained by "inheritance and culture the higher standards of living." It called on the Division of Subsistence Homesteads to allow white communities to "pursue their development without blending with the Ethiopian race," suggested placing the Negro unit next to existing Negro areas on the West Side of Dayton, and threatened an appeal to the courts and "if necessary to the court of last resort for protection”


And here one can see that already there was the implacable racism and rejection of the idea of black folk as neighbors that eventually helped doom Dayton during the postwar era.  Borsodi’s “Flight from the City” was to become (White) Flight from the City.


The irony here is that Jefferson Township already had “the Ethiopian race” within its boundaries, in the Ridgewood Heights section, directly west of the VA.  Clearly the white residents of the township were sensitive to the expansion of the black area of the city:  “They’re Coming”.  And in the postwar era they did, but that’s another story.



The End of Homesteading In Dayton


Though approved the four additional homesteads were not funded or developed.  Borsodi terminated his involvement due to philosophical opposition due to a move away from decentralized management by the Feds.  The entire scheme was federalized in late 1934, and the new manager was the former director of the TVA new town of Norris, Tennessee.  So a promising start on expansion, but this never happened. 


Apparently the Feds thought better of the idea and homesteading died in Dayton in 1935:  ”….on December 30, 1935, the property was purchased by the  Ohio Rural Rehabilitation Corporation, which intended to develop it as an experimental urban community…”


…which never happened.  Instead….


”….early in 1936 those few homesteading families still remaining finally departed.”


Though the homesteading experiment in Dayton was a failure the flight from the city and the penchant for a mix of urban work and rural life was a real impulse in local culture, and had already found an expression in another form of land development, which we’ll look at in another post.



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I was into this back in the 1970s, when that second back to the land movement was part of the culture.  There was a lot of itnerest in self-sufficiency back then, going solar, etc.  In a way it was a mix of the 1960s idealism/rejection of mass consumer culture, the early environmental movement and a response to the "energy crisis".  The back-to-the-landers of the 1970s were rediscovering the earlier proponents, writers like Borsodi and the Nearings.


Now we have the "Green movement", for want of a better word.  I guess past was prologue.





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Great research and a fascinating post.  Some of these New Deal practices were really innovative and out there.  I think that if innovative and creative projects like this were to be implemented today, there would be an incredible backlash.

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Great research and a fascinating post. Some of these New Deal practices were really innovative and out there. I think that if innovative and creative projects like this were to be implemented today, there would be an incredible backlash.


Oh, man, if the Obama administration did anything even remotely like this, the red states would probably melt down in open rebellion. You'd have local "militias" establishing checkpoints at interstate highway crossings into red states.

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