In honor of the Thanksgiving season, the Dominion Post and the Aull Center are proud to bring you a special audio piece of local holiday history.
What follows is a transcript of the audio piece.
CHRIS: Welcome to a special Thanksgiving episode of Aull About History, the local history podcast from the Dominion Post and the Aull Center in Morgantown, West Virginia.
I’m Chris Schulz, the show’s producer, and I just wanted to jump in here before the main attraction to say thank you for tuning in and happy Thanksgiving.
Aull About History will officially launch in just a few short months at the start of 2020 but while we work on our first episode, we wanted to give you a little holiday sampler of what you can expect from our new show. The Aull Center’s. Nathan Wuertenberg put together an excellent history of a Thanksgiving at the White House over 80 years ago with an interesting connection to the Morgantown area.
Without further ado, please enjoy the show.
NATHAN: I’m Nathan Wuertenberg. I’m a staff researcher at the Aull Center. This is Aull About History.
So the 1937 Thanksgiving in the White House with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, featured a 16 pound turkey from a family of miners that hailed from West Virginia. And not just any West Virginia, not just any part of West Virginia, but Monongalia County itself.
In order to figure out why that was, we have to reverse in time and talk about the Scott’s Run mine in Monongalia County. Several mines, actually, it’s about a dozen plus mines in the area that run along a Creek called Scott’s Run, that’s across the Monongahela river.
Mining came to Monongalia County and the rest of West Virginia relatively late, which is, which is, um, maybe surprising for folks because West Virginia is sort of thought as the center of of coal country.
The first substantial mining operations and Monongalia County, um, occur in Beechwood in 1886. That happens as a result of the completion of the railroad between Morgantown and Fairmont. But it’s not really until the First World War that coal mining really takes off in the area. And that’s because the mechanization of the United States military machine prompts an increase in the demand for coal as fuel. So coal production in Scott’s Run actually starts 1917, which is the same year that the U.S. enters the First World War.
So in 1899, about 57,000 tons of coal are produced in Monongalia County. By 1921, four years after Scott’s Run is established, Monongalia County is producing 4.4 million tons of coal.
So there are dozens of mines in Scott’s Run, uh, and they attract workers from across West Virginia, the United States and Europe. 60% of the population has got to run, is foreign born and they’re primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe, Italians, Czechoslovakians, that sort of thing. And another 20% are African American.
These are, um, incredibly diverse areas, much more diverse than many of the surrounding areas. They’re often characterized as isolated. The idea is that the, they’re disconnected from the outside world, but they’re really not. I mean, it’s surprisingly easy to go from a major city to a coal mining community because of the railroads that are essential to, to take the coal out of the area.
Historians prefers stranded. The idea is that they’re cut off from the larger world, um, and abandoned as a result of the lack of alternative employment opportunities, language barriers and racism.
In 1923, a geologists from WVU, Dr. Israel Charles White, characterizes Scott’s Run, uh, in, in, in the following words. He says, “How is it possible to exaggerate the wonderfully prosperous future that unfolds itself in the horoscope of Morgantown? What the future has in store for this remarkable coal field remains to be seen.”
And, uh, those words could not have been less prescient.
1923 is actually pretty much the height of coal production in Scott’s Run. You know, it’s just a few years removed from World War I when the demand for coal goes through the roof. And after that, the demand falls precipitously and that results in fallen prices and coal companies, uh, in order to save money, uh, try to cut wages.
Unfortunately for the coal companies, much of Scott’s Run is unionized. It’s really the bastion of union labor in West Virginia. And that whole area, the Fairmont coalfield that Scott’s Run is a part of is staunchly unionist.
And so when coal companies try to cut wages, the miners respond by striking. So as a result, Scott’s Run basically becomes the focal point of resistance to lower wages after World War I. It’s really the center of strike activity in West Virginia after the first period of the, uh, the mine Wars.
So the lower demand for coal and, uh, the lack of production during the, the multiple strikes that happened between 1924 and 1931 leave minors without the necessary income to feed and care for their families. And it also effectively destroys their union organization, the United Mine Workers of America. Um, and this leaves them further vulnerable to decreases in wages and worsening working conditions.
And then the Great Depression hits.
Scott’s Run is hit harder than most because of the events these proceeding years. Local relief workers in Monongalia County and students from WVU even, they try to do everything they can to help the workers in this situation, but there’s only so much that they can do because they, they only have local resources. They don’t have net national resources to, to tap into, you know.
Most notably the local Presbyterian congregation in Mon County establishes The Shack, which is a self-help cooperative that worked to teach miners and their families skills like sewing and writing to make them more self-sufficient and, and, uh, employable in other fields.
Most of the time workers, relief workers, uh, in Scott’s Run are dealing with illness, uh, as a result of malnutrition and poor sanitation. Relief worker Mary Behner, who’s one of the more famous ones, one of the, uh, the better known relief workers in Scott’s Run, records in a letter home in 1932 that half the families in the camp had nothing to feed their children and records that a minor says that, “he himself had two children of high school age being deprived of an education and three other small ones home from school for lack of shoes,” because he had no money to get anything.
1934 report by the Upper Monongahela Valley planning board describes a Scott’s run camp where, “all the toilets were erected over a running stream, which in turn runs through several other camps below and empties into the Monongahela river.”
So Scott’s run is getting all sorts of attention from local relief workers, but it’s not until Eleanor Roosevelt gets involved that it receives national attention. And as a result of her personal intervention in Scott’s Run, it sort of becomes the poster child for the impact of the Great Depression, not only in Appalachia but across the country.
She visits the area first on August 18th, 1933 and, uh, she learns about Scott’s Run from her aide, Lorena Hickok, who is a former news woman, um, who’s brought to the area by Morgantown relief workers.
Hickock makes similar observations in her report to Eleanor to the ones that I mentioned earlier. She writes that there was, “a gutter along the village street that was filled with stagnant, filthy water that was used for drinking, cooking, washing, and everything else imaginable by the inhabitants of ramshackle cabins that most Americans would not have considered fit for pigs. And within those shacks, every night, children went to sleep hungry on piles of bug infested rags spread on the floor.”
So Eleanor is inspired by this report to visit the Scott’s Run area. She stays at the Hotel Morgan, she drives herself, which is not something that a first lady would be able to do today.
She visits 12 families, uh, during her time, her first visit at Scott’s Run and uh, in one such family, she meets a brother and a sister and the brother is holding a white rabbit. And Eleanor recalls that it was, it was evident that it was a most cherished pet, but the little girl was thin and scrawny and had a gleam in her eyes as she looked at her brother.
And she told Eleanor, “He thinks we are not going to eat it, but we are.” And at that the small boy runs down the road clutching the rabbit closer than ever.
I heard this story and I immediately connected to it and Eleanor obviously thought that other people would as well because she talked about it all the time. She told this story everywhere in all these sorts of charity events. And she eventually inspired, uh, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, the first U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, William C Bullitt, um, to write her a check for $100 to save the rabbit’s life, uh, and it was saved.
So the story has a happy ending. Uh, that little boy’s sister didn’t get to eat his pet rabbit.
After her, her first visit to Scott’s Run and then her many subsequent visits, uh, alleviating alleviating the suffering there become a sort of her main project as first lady. She makes you know, countless pleas for assistance from the, the rich and powerful in Washington and elsewhere.
On her visits, she brings journalists and photographers along with her to, to get as much media attention as possible for the suffering at Scott’s Run. And one, one writer for the Atlantic Monthly who comes to the area during one of these visits, describes Scott’s run as the, “damnedest cesspool of human misery,” he had ever seen in America.
Famous photographers like Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Marion Post Walcott and Ben Shahn, um, spread images of the poverty in Scott’s Run across the country in countless, uh, media outlets.
This gets the gears going for, for something to be done on a federal level for the miners at Scott’s Run. Um, and, uh, so Eleanor is able to convince FDR to include relief for the Scott’s Run miners in his new deal programs.
And, uh, she’s, she’s given the idea by a local relief worker, Clarence Pickett, uh, who’s the head of the American Friends Service Committee who suggests to Eleanor that unemployed miners should be moved out of Scott’s Run and, and put somewhere where they could grow their own food. And this is an idea that FDR also has, he, he, he, he writes to various senators that he thinks it would be a good idea, uh, to establish homesteading communities is what is what they’re called across the United States.
The idea is that citizens in areas that are hit hardest by the depression would be relocated to, to nearby farm land where they could work together to build houses and cultivate family farms.
So this all results in Congress establishing a $25 million fund for subsistence homesteads in 1933 and West Virginia is chosen as the first site for such a community at Elanor’s urging. So, uh, this program of eventually results in the establishment of almost two dozen, uh, homestead communities across the United States and something like 15 states, but the first is in West Virginia and it is home to miners for Monongalia County.
Shortly after the legislation is passed for this, uh, for these homestay communities, Eleanor and the presidential adviser Louis Howe purchase a historic 1028 acre farm in Preston County that was at the time owned by Richard Arthur. They name it Arthurdale after its a its former owner.
Over the course of the process by which Arthurdale is established, Eleanor is intimately involved in basically every aspect of, of the community’s creation. Uh, she’s named chairperson of the committee that’s appointed to select the families that would be given land in Arthurdale.
And she ends up frequently clashing with the committee over, uh, their selection process. She was especially opposed to the fact that applicants had to fill out an eight page questionnaire that determined, “moral character, intelligence, perseverance, and foresight.” And they were also asked to participate in an interview that checked for, “neatness, posture, church affiliation, debts and attitudes.”
Which was something else she didn’t appreciate because she believed that, “people of every type of ability and character should be allowed to live in this community.”
So after construction of the houses began at the end of 1933, Eleanor takes an active role in every aspect of that process as well. She intervenes with Interior Secretary, Harold L Ickes, uh, to ensure that the homes were built with modern necessities such as insulation and modern plumbing. And, uh, she also personally chose the refrigerators that went into each home.
She made sure that life would be better for Arthurdale’s inhabitants. She contacts employers who can bring, uh, jobs to the community after it officially opens and, uh, personally monitors the community’s budget and spent most of her own income on the project in its early years.
So when Armadale opened in 1934 Eleanor participated in the ceremonies and she visited the homestead on multiple occasions afterwards and she personally intervene to fulfill residents requests or resolve disputes. And she even convinced FDR to deliver the 1938 commencement address at Arthurdale High. And this is the only high school commencement that FDR delivers as president.
As a show of gratitude for Eleanor’s assistance, the residents of Arthurdale provide the president and first lady with a Thanksgiving turkey in 1937.
It’s the first Thanksgiving that the president and first lady have celebrated in the White House and they typically spend Thanksgiving in Warm Springs, Georgia, where the president carved Turkey for the children of the Georgia Warm Springs foundation, which was a recovery center that he founded in 1927 for young victims of polio. This is eventually renamed the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.
So the 16 pound turkey from Arthurdale’s flock was the centerpiece of a meal that included oyster cocktail, saltines, clear soup with Sherry, pearled celery, uh, toast fingers, olives, chestnut dressing, cranberry jelly, Deerfoot sausage. They also had string beans, scalloped sweet potatoes, which I’ve never actually thought of scalloping potatoes, so I might try that this year. Brussel sprouts, grapefruit and orange salad, cheese, pumpkin pie, ice cream and coffee.
FDR and Eleanor held dinner at 1:00 PM accompanied by select friends, their son James and his wife and their granddaughters, Sarah and Kate. And Eleanor actually wrote about the dinner in her syndicated newspaper column, which was titled “My Day” on November 26, 1937.
And she said, “our Thanksgiving dinner was eaten in the middle of the day because we wished to have at least one grandchild with us. We were a very small party indeed, and I imagine my mother-in-law had not many more with her this Thanksgiving, so it is too bad we could not join forces and all be together. This is the first time we have been in the White House for Thanksgiving so we felt it was rather an historical occasion for us, and we observed all the traditional customs and ate more turkey than one should eat with kindly thoughts of the Arthurdale Homesteaders who sent it to us.”
Meanwhile, Thanksgiving at Arthurdale was celebrated in a rather different, uh, style. They celebrated with a time honored Appalachian tradition: Thanksgiving is butchering day.
One homesteader’s wife wrote that year, that “Thanksgiving Day was butchering day. We killed our two hogs – they dressed 600 pounds. The men of seven families went together to an old house to do the butchering…We can’t be hungry this winter. Jim and I used to pretend we didn’t want any meat so the children could have all there was.”.
And I’ve also read other stories of coal miners who had things like hotdogs for Thanksgiving. Basically anything they could find.
But at Arthurdale residents had hogs, they had turkeys and they had other livestock. They were originally subsidized by the government as part of the homestead program. The turkey provided to the White House in 1937 was part of this collection and it continued to grow even after Arthurdale was reverted to a private ownership in 1941.
By 1966, six years after Eleanor’s final visit to the community, Arthurdale’s farms were producing 10 million chickens and 800,000 turkeys by a according to a Congressional report.
Eventually, you know, conditions made a turn for the better. Um, there were more economic opportunities elsewhere as well. And so people left Arthurdale for greener pastures. But, uh, without Arthurdale itself, I mean, they would never have had that opportunity.
CHRIS: What a fascinating story there from our friend Nathan. We hope you enjoyed it and perhaps learn something. Be sure to join us again in a few months when Aull About History launches in earnest. If you can’t wait until then, you can check out some of our Halloween stories from our mini-series Haunted History Month. But we do hope you’ll join us when Aull About History launches at the start of 2020. That’s all for now. Thanks for listening and happy Thanksgiving.