Cumberland Homesteads

The Cumberland Homesteads Tower at night


Near Crossville is a place that was completely changed by the government a long time ago.

In the 1930s, the federal government bought about 10,000 acres in Cumberland County and turned it into what was known as a “subsistence homestead.” The Cumberland Homesteads eventually consisted of 251 homes and as many barns; a school; a park with a lake; and a water tower and headquarters building.

Most of these structures are still there. The tower has been turned into a small museum, with displays on the history of the community. You can even climb to the top of it and see a great view.

Now for more detailed history:

You can see this map at the Cumberland
Homesteads Tower.

The Cumberland Homesteads was started by the Franklin Roosevelt administration during the New Deal. Their original purpose was to provide work for men who were out of work and homes for their families.

There were many other homesteads projects in the United States as you can see if you click on the map on the left.

The museum at the Homesteads Tower

Families had to apply to live at the Cumberland Homesteads. Single adults (male or female) were not accepted. There was an interview process meant to determine whether men (who were assumed to be the heads of households) were hard-working and law-abiding, because the federal government didn’t want people at the homesteads who weren’t both. About a third of the men whose families were selected were coal miners; a third were factory workers; and a third were farmers.

New Deal projects in the South were segregated by race, so no African Americans were chosen to live at the Cumberland Homesteads. (There were homesteads projects elsewhere in the South for African Americans only.)

To live in the Homesteads, you had to sign a contract under which you agreed to work on all community projects and obey all the rules set by the administrators of the community. These administrators were chosen by the federal government.

A Homestead house under construction. The barn in the back is where families would have lived while their house was being built.
PHOTO: Yale University Library and Archives

The Cumberland Homesteads, including roads and all of its buildings, were designed by architect William Macy Stanton. Stanton divided the land into small farm plots (the average size of which was about 50 acres) on which houses were to be built and which families were expected to live. As families moved to the Homesteads, the men whose families had been chosen to live there began building all the structures Stanton had designed. If they didn’t have carpentry or masonry skills, they were quickly trained!

The most important of these structures was a cross-shaped building and water tower meant to serve as the headquarters of the homesteads. (This is the Homesteads Tower building that is still standing.)

Stanton designed blueprints for about a dozen different houses, and the Homesteaders would eventually use these plans to build all the homes. Barns were built so each family could live in them while the houses were under construction.

Eleanor Roosevelt visits the Cumberland Homesteads in 1934
PHOTO: Yale University Library and Archives

Today these homes might seem small and even crude. But in their day they were considered large and luxurious, certainly compared to other houses in Cumberland County.

Under Stanton’s original plan, homes weren’t going to have running water. But First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly intervened and made it clear that the homes had to have running water.

“Roosevelt insisted that the houses have indoor plumbing, for which we were thankful,” said Horace Hall, who grew up on the Homesteads. “The houses were wired for electricity awaiting the TVA and the Rural Electrification Administration that brought electricity in 1938. . . A front and back porch completed what we thought was the most wonderful house in the world.”

Homestead houses did not have a central water system, but used underground well water. Most of the children who grew up on the Homesteads said that they spent much of their childhoods pumping water from underground wells.

The Homesteaders also built a school, which is still standing. Although it has been greatly expanded over the years, it is now part of Homestead Elementary School, which is right next to the tower.

Byrd Lake at Cumberland Mountain State Park

To create a permanent place for recreation, and a place where fish could be kept, the Homesteaders also built a dam on nearby Byrd Creek, creating the lake which is now the centerpiece of nearby Cumberland Mountain State Park.

The original idea of the Cumberland Homesteads was to create a place where families that might have otherwise been living in poverty could live and even thrive. Families were expected to grow crops and fruit trees on their land, raise livestock, and work together — making community decisions about schooling, law enforcement and business operations.

The Cumberland Homesteads even started a business — a factory where residents canned vegetables and fruits to be sold elsewhere. But that business didn’t make ends meet and didn’t last long.

Former residents of the Homesteads gather at the 2017 Cumberland Homesteads Apple Festival

Homesteads projects such as this one were short-lived federal government experiments. They were heavily criticized for being, in the opinion of some, experiments in socialism. In the early days of the Homestead project, it was not clear whether the people who lived in the Homesteads would own their homes or renting them. It was also not clear how much they would be paid for the work that they did and, if so, in what currency.

The Cumberland Homesteads also suffered from the fact that it had five different administrators between 1933 and 1945 — each of which had different philosophies and areas of interest.

Emma Jean Vaden, whose father was one of the original residents of the Cumberland Homesteads, was one of the organizers of the museum.

After World War II, federal government homesteads projects were shut down. However, most of the people who had been chosen to live there eventually purchased the homes in which they were living and remained. Some of them have never been sold and are now owned by the children and grandchildren of original homesteaders!

The beautiful Homestead Tower was deeded over to Cumberland County, and by 1980 it had fallen into disrepair. People who lived in the surrounding area created the Cumberland Homesteads Tower Association to take care of it and preserve the history of the community. It puts on several annual fundraisers, such as an apple festival in September and a Christmas tour in December.

The association also runs the Cumberland Homesteads museum, which includes information on the history of the place as well as original furnishings, objects and machinery that would have been used during that era.

One of the original homestead houses

Most of the original Homestead homes are still standing, and as you drive around the surrounding area you can tell the difference between the original Homestead homes and other homes which have been built since.

You can tour one of the original Homestead homes as part of your museum tour.

Click here to be taken to the official website of the Cumberland Homesteads Tower Association.