Elmer Rich had himself a pretty good deal in Arthurdale nine years ago.
On a golden July afternoon, the renowned fiddler, then 94, was sawing out timeless tunes — “Arkansas Traveler,” “Dill Pickle Rag” and the like — in the tiny Preston County town that sits in the bend of W.Va. 92, just 15 minutes from the county seat of Kingwood.
By then, he was an unassuming star.
Rich had emerged from newsreel ether some 13 years before (he was 81 then) to become a niche sensation on the old-time music circuit from Wilmington, N.C., to Washington State.
In 2014, his playing was as deft and strong as it ever was, and he and his fiddle were enthralling new audiences, courtesy of a well-received CD of his tunes recorded in part at his kitchen table.
Which was appropriate in the Arthurdale ethos.
A half-circle of people pulled in around him to listen at the town’s New Deal Festival that summer.
Meanwhile, Arthurdale’s 2023 edition of the gathering is this Saturday.
More on that.
Rich hadn’t been in Arthurdale for decades, but musically speaking, it was as if he’d never left.
The same songs the retired railroad man was playing this afternoon were the same ones Eleanor Roosevelt had square-danced to, in the gym at Arthurdale High School so many years before.
That was back during the school’s senior prom of 1936. He helped make the joyful noise that was part of the fun that night.
Rich, who was 16 that year, was a back-porch prodigy.
He could coax notes like scattershot out of a mandolin (he hadn’t yet fully committed to fiddle), and he regularly performed with the family band fronted by his father and uncle.
They were booked to play at the social event attended by Eleanor, who journeyed over the mountains from the White House as an honored guest.
(Socially) social media
Call up YouTube, type “Arthurdale” into the search field to see snippets of the evening (Rich included) in the RKO-Pathe newsreel footage filmed by Charles Seeger, the father of Pete Seeger, the iconic folk singer.
Eleanor didn’t require a special occasion such as a prom to call on Arthurdale.
That’s because the First Lady was always in Arthurdale.
From its mountain perch, Arthurdale, just like Rich’s stardom, also amazingly emerged — and Mrs. Roosevelt was the driving wheel.
Progressive in Preston
It was the nation’s inaugural Homestead community, born of the first 100 days of the administration of her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt.
The unadorned frame houses and masonry buildings of Arthurdale were the hammer-and-nails, brick-and-mortar embodiment of FDR’s New Deal pledge to pull the country — Appalachia, in particular — out of the crushing poverty of the Great Depression.
Ninety-seven such communities across the nation would follow, but Arthurdale was the first, and it was Eleanor’s.
She was its chief champion.
The president may have signed the paperwork, but the first lady did all the heavy lifting in the Preston County experiment in progressivism.
She was often spied at kitchen tables drinking coffee, and in backyards discussing matters of poverty and class, standing between clothes lines laden with laundry.
The original homesteaders were coal mining families from Scotts Run area, idled by events beyond their control on Wall Street.
Arthurdale’s version of the American dream came with a wood or stone house, outfitted with heat, electricity, a refrigerator, a bathroom and up to four acres, so families could grow their own vegetables or raise livestock.
‘She was something else’
Rich, who died a year after that 2014 concert, normally let his fiddle do the talking for him.
On that particular afternoon, though, he was philosophical about Arthurdale and Eleanor, as he looked back a bit.
His words came out in a haiku of heart, with Art Deco lettering.
“Mrs. Roosevelt,” the old fiddler mused, grinning and shaking his head.
“She was something else. She pinned a ribbon on me one time. I won second place in a music contest. First contest I ever entered. I remember it was a red ribbon. I let it get away from me. I lost it and never was able to find it.”
Arthurdale, technically, no longer exists — not as a federal experiment — but it’s not lost.
It’s still a town.
And it’s there that memories of Mrs. Roosevelt still glow, like American neon in a pre-war night.
This year’s festival — and new dealings, too
The 2023 edition of the New Deal Festival is from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday in the heart of the town.
Look for crafts, food trucks, a car show, petting zoo and history lessons on the fly, from Homestead descendants and others who now call Arthurdale home.
Music, too, including performances from Chris Haddox, the WVU professor and community activist-turned-Americana radio star.
In Arthurdale fashion, a pie-baking contest will also be part of the proceedings.
Visit https://arthurdaleheritage.org/ for details about the festival and other Homestead doings and deals waiting to happen.
“Waiting to happen” couldn’t be more apt, Darlene Bolyard said.
Bolyard is executive director of Arthurdale Heritage Inc., the organization that oversees the town and its official status as a historical landmark.
In recent months, the group has linked up with the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, which works to keep the state’s landmark, period architecture away from the wrecking ball.
A partnership is currently on the table to repurpose the former Arthurdale High into the new home of the West Virginia Historic Trade School, where people can go to learn how to do filigreed wrought-iron work, blacksmithing and other lost-art skills harkening back to the New Deal and before that.
The Appalachian Regional Commission has also lined up with the plans.
“No one today does this work,” she said.
Architects, contractors and designers are clamoring for it, the director added.
“This will mean everything to Arthurdale,” she said.
After living and working in Paris and other European locales, she came home to Arthurdale, the place that means everything to her.
The First Lady checks in
Bolyard was a little girl in 1955 when her family moved to Arthurdale after her father got back from the fighting in Korea.
They lived in a house on F Road, where there were plenty of neighboring playmates to ride bikes and romp the hills with, for one kid adventure after the other.
Arthurdale’s pioneering homesteaders still made up the bulk of Arthurdale, Bolyard remembers, and they always had an Eleanor story or other account of what those early days were like.
When Bolyard came back to the U.S. in the 1990s, there was no question of where she’d be residing.
She was able to make a deal on the old Ord place on U Road. That was the caveat. It had to be an original Homestead house.
Even into the 21st century, the essence of Arthurdale remains, Bolyard said.
Her office is at the corner of the town’s Center Hall complex, and every so often, the main door will pop open, without provocation.
No wind, no vibration from trucks and other traffic on nearby 92 … nothing.
Except, she said, it just might be something.
“Anytime that happens, we just say, ‘Hi, Eleanor.’ It’s the First Lady, looking in on us.”