Cumberland Homesteads

A rural resettlement community established during the Great Depression, Cumberland Homesteads is located in Cumberland County. This homestead community currently encompasses approximately 10,250 acres, less than half of the original total of 27,802 acres held by the cooperative association in 1938. The community, now incorporated into the city limits of Crossville, derives its distinct identity from the architectural style of the houses, outbuildings, and public buildings. The landscape of the Cumberland Homesteads is primarily rolling hills interspersed with hollows, deep ravines, and several small creeks. Cumberland Mountain State Park, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is located in the center of the project. The 1,300-acre park includes timberland and a stone dam and bridge that form Byrd Lake.

Work on Cumberland Homesteads began in 1934 with the clearing of land by Civil Works Administration workers and prospective homesteaders. William Macy Stanton, a Pennsylvania architect, designed the site plans, including the road pattern and the houses, outbuildings and community buildings. Stanton had previously worked on the house designs for the town of Norris.

Plans for Cumberland Homesteads intended to create 351 farms on lots ranging in size from 10 to 160 acres; the average homestead consisted of 16 acres. Areas determined unsuitable for farming remained timberland. Originally 8,903 acres were farm tracts; 1,245 acres were common land (grazing, woodland, cooperative enterprises); 11,200 acres were set aside for further development; and the cooperative association owned 5,505 acres. Unemployed miners and timber workers from nearby counties, many of whom had been out of work for several years, built the homesteads.

Properties included a residence and a range of outbuildings. Several farms still retain their original buildings. The distinctive houses are primarily one and one-half stories in height with indigenous Crab Orchard sandstone walls and gable roofs. Stanton designed approximately fifteen different house designs throughout the community but repeated only eleven. Most houses had four to seven rooms, contained one or two fireplaces, and featured paneled walls, built-in bookcases, and batten doors with “Z” braces and hardware. The wood used in construction of the houses came from land immediately surrounding the homesteads. The majority of the interior walls and woodwork are of white or yellow pine, with some poplar and oak. The community blacksmith shop made hardware such as door hinges. All houses had plumbing and wiring added at the time of construction. The Tennessee Valley Authority provided electricity to Cumberland Homesteads in December 1937. Homesteaders could make minor changes to the plans, but the most significant differences reversed the house plan, reoriented the house to the road, or varied interior room designs.

Most homesteaders first lived in a gable-roofed, wood-frame barn on their property while awaiting the completion of their houses. The chicken houses, sheds, smokehouses, and miscellaneous outbuildings were of frame construction with gable or shed roofs. Siding was either flush boards, weatherboard, or board and batten. Some smokehouses had raised Crab Orchard stone foundations. A few gambrel roof barns were constructed on the larger farm homesteads. Generally outbuildings were located behind the residence in a standardized pattern that still remains on many of the farm homesteads.

A design of the Cumberland Homesteads house appeared in the 1939 publication “Small Houses” by the Farm Security Administration as an example of a well-designed small house. During the time of their construction, however, many complained that the design and cost were extravagant. Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia condemned the costly absurdities of electricity, refrigerators, and indoor privies for country people. Likewise, Senator Kenneth D. McKellar of Tennessee complained that the Resettlement Administration was constructing stone mansions and voiced his resentment that relief workers lived in houses better than he did.

In addition to the homesteads, workers built a number of community buildings, including an eight-story water tower that housed offices and meeting rooms in the cruciform base. Cumberland Homesteads Tower is prominently located at the intersection of U.S. Highway 127 and State Route 68. The Homestead elementary and high schools are located behind the tower and are constructed in a unique pod style; free-standing classrooms are connected by covered walks. Cooperative buildings include two factories, a cooperative store, a government garage, and a loom house.

On July 28, 1938, the Cumberland Homesteads Community celebrated the completion of the project. Of the original units planned, only 251 were completed. Cumberland Homesteads is the largest of the communities built by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads in the nation. The community remained intact, in spite of an uncertain economic environment. The cooperative ventures eventually failed, the hosiery factory failed, and the farms proved too small with soil too poor to support the families. The men left for jobs in Detroit, Akron, and Dayton, as well as Douglas and Watts Bar Dams, sending money back to pay for the farm homestead. The turnover rate in the community was relatively low, and by 1941 only forty-four families had moved out, with six of those evicted.

Although the community failed to fulfill some of its original purposes, it provided work and shelter for many destitute Tennesseans during the depression. The community has remained largely intact, with houses looking much as they did when constructed, and the landscape retaining the form of the planned subsistence farms. The Cumberland Homesteads historic district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Suggested Reading

Sidney Baldwin, Poverty and Politics: The Rise and Decline of the Farm Security Administration (1968); Paul K. Conkin, Tomorrow A New World: The New Deal Community Program (1959); Phoebe Cutler, The Public Landscape of the New Deal (1985); Carroll Van West, The New Deal Landscape of Tennessee (2001)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Cumberland Homesteads
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 18, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018