When Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped off a train in Tupelo, it was the first visit to the state from a sitting president since Woodrow Wilson, 17 years prior.
But never had a sitting president made such a visit to Tupelo.
But the president did not travel to Tupelo alone. He was accompanied by his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. Although the first lady traveled with FDR some, more times than not, she ventured out on her on or the president traveled alone. But Eleanor Roosevelt had a special project in mind on this trip – the homestead houses – better known as the Industrial Subsistence Homestead Community. The idea: provide small acreage homesteads to help subsidize the income of industrial workers through farming and then, allow these workers to purchase the homes over time.
The beginning of the first lady’s focus on these steppingstones to a better life rested with a journalist, Lorena Hickock, affectionally known to Roosevelt as “Hick.” In 1933 Harry Hopkins, director of the Federal Emergency Relief Organization asked Hick to travel through the United States and report on the state of the nation.
In 1934, while in the Tennessee Valley, Hickock sent two reports that gave the impression of the local scene along with reactions to the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority. Through mountains of correspondence, Hick kept Roosevelt apprised of what she saw, heard, and felt. The poverty and lack of hygiene in the region haunted her.
After reading the nightly dispatches from the reporter, Roosevelt hopped in her Roadster and headed to West Virginia to see for herself the living conditions. The first lady worked the area like a warrior, meeting at community centers and sharing meals with locals at their homes. She witnessed the need to provide adequate, safe housing along with better paying jobs for the poorest of Americans.
She returned to the White House and FDR took up the battle, undiscouraged even when the business community rejected the idea of federal appropriations to help with the project. These businessmen countered that providing for the poor rested in the hands of the private sector. The fluctuation in the mining industry caused conditions that forced people to live in poverty, they argued.
The power dynamic in the White House thought differently. One of the early New Deal agencies became the Subsistence Homestead Division under the Department of the Interior, designed to relieve industrial workers and struggling farmers from depending solely on factories, mines, or commodity prices of crops for a living.
Aptly, Arthurdale in West Virginia became the first homestead community in the United States. But others followed. In Mississippi, the agency chose Tupelo, Hattiesburg, McComb, Meridian, and Laurel as homestead community sites. Yet, Tupelo stood apart from the others because those houses contained running water, electricity from TVA, and single-party telephone lines.
Construction in Tupelo began in August 1934 under the guidance of architect Frank Kincannon of Tupelo and DSH architect Walter Nelson. Tupelo Lumber Co. received the bid award for construction. On Friday, Nov. 16, 1934, the first new homesteaders moved into the houses. Ladies in Tupelo spent days preparing two vacant houses for FDR and Eleanor to tour on Nov. 18.
The first lady had other ideas. She wanted to see real people living their lives. So, she entered the house of J.C. and Allie Barron with reporters in tow. The Barrons welcomed their guest and showed her the five-room home into which they had moved just two days before. Allie Barron and Eleanor Roosevelt talked children for a bit. James Jr., 11, and Mary 9, stood close at hand. Roosevelt wanted to see the appliances that included an electric stove, iron, and radio. An electric refrigerator had yet to arrive. The lights, powered by TVA electricity, shined on the meeting.
But the first lady wanted to see more. She inspected the garage, the chicken house, and the barn before leaving the house for which the Barrons paid $13.07 a month. The contract said the couple would own the home in 30 years, but they moved to Hattiesburg before that time expired.
Allie Barron died in 1948. Daughter Mary lived in Hattiesburg until her death a few years ago. But before she died, she returned to the homestead house, now on Natchez Trace Parkway land, for one last visit with her daughter Susan Penland of North Carolina. They couldn’t get in the house. They looked around, and she recalled the Roosevelt’s visit. The most important memory to her: J.C. Barron insisted including Scout, their dog, in a photograph of the family on the front porch of their new home that day the Roosevelts came calling.
Leesha Faulkner and Sihya Smith are curators at the Orenn Dunn City Museum in Tupelo. Faulkner is also a columnist for the Daily Journal, and worked as a reporter for such papers as the Daily Journal and the Clarion Ledger.