Resettlement

One of the many homesteads in Prince William Forest Park.
One of the many homesteads in the park before its creation

National Park Service

In a 1936 article on the Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA) program, a reporter from the Washington Star wrote,

It was a dismal countryside of eroded, sterile fields, dilapidated little farm houses, ancient graveyards overgrown with blackberry brambles, cut-over woodlands, abandoned mining operations. About half of the farms were abandoned anyhow. . . . When the Resettlement Administration appraisers surveyed the tract, they found only a few straggling cornfields, and only one team of horses and no tractor in the whole area.

The National Park Service, who was overseeing the development of Chopawamsic RDA, also release a report in 1936 firmly believing that the landowners were in desperate need of relief.

About 150 families live in the project area. The heads of about forty of them had steady employment or regular income; seventy had part time employment and forty had irregular, inconsequential or nor employment and cash income during the last few years.

It has been observed generally that family hardships and sufferings are not made public, that the heads of most of the families, of early American decent, bear their wants and privations through to exhaustion. It is difficult to understand how living requirements were met by those of little or no income, but the following seems sounds explanation: On one side there are family assets; a farm, with little or no serviceable equipment, poor soil, cut-over woods area, perhaps a horse of old age, a hog or two, rarely a cow or an automobile.

On the other side are requirements for food, shelter, clothing, education, and recreation. Inter-farm employment has ceased on competitively-unproductive soils; exhaustion of timber resources has curtailed part-time sawmill employment; opportunity to labor by day on state roads or for private enterprise at Manassas or Quantico is not offered as in former years.

Public relief generally is not called on. The farm is worked and produced practical sustenance of life, without any extras and perhaps without all that is necessary; the dwelling depreciates except for application of labor without material; taxes become delinquent; clothing is obtained through credit at country stores or by inter-family borrowing (credits necessarily have become limited); medial attention for serious illness comes through dispatch of help by neighbors; school books are passed along by older children of other families or furnished by the county. There are no facilities for adult recreation and children play in their simple unguided way.

Mrs. Marion Lewis, Relief Director of Prince William County has stated “As Relief Director of Prince William County, I have visited many homes in the proposed area and I feel that the need for improvement of general conditions is most essential.”

A former prosperous blacksmith shop at Joplin did very little shoeing in 1934 even though horses are preferred to tractors thereabouts.

Three former storekeepers, now deceased, acquired many tracts of land, in connection with settlement of accounts held against owners of small farms.

Five storekeepers have given up their business in the area since 1925.

Thirty or more farms have been completely abandoned in the last fifteen years.

REHABILITATION AND RESETTLEMENT

More than one hundred families have been living in the area where the Chopawamsic project is being developed. Many of these people have been on relief, and others have suffered extreme poverty because of the general economic decline of the area. One purpose of the project is to help these families attain a position of being able to care for themselves under better circumstances. Here again the National Park Service and Resettlement Administration are cooperating.

Several of these families are being helped by the Resettlement Administration to move to productive farmland in the vicinity. Farms of proven value are now being selected. When they have been purchased and put in to satisfactory condition, they will be made available to the individual families on a long term payment basis.

Other families are best helped in their present homes through the increase in employment which the establishment of the recreation area has produced, and through a more careful use of their land for part-time farming activities. Rehabilitation loans, accompanied by expert agricultural guidance, are being made available for these families.

The people who lived in the area, however, had a very different impression of their homes.

...It was just a very simple life, it was just country living. ...You know most of them would work on public jobs somewhere. Then they would come home and try to farm their land that they had. They didn’t have time to do a lot of other stuff. - Anonymous local resident in his 80s recalling the depression-era.

Another resident recalled,

Everybody was really blessed and not really deprived… They were a self-contained community. ...They pulled together and they could make it together. They realized that they had something that everybody didn’t have. - Anonymous local resident.

Recent archeological studies have shown that was not as badly eroded from farming, though widespread logging was prevalent. Logging was certainly going on, but it was carried out on the same small, sustainable scale as it had been since the late 1700s, and aerial photographs show that the area of the Park was heavily forested in the 1930s. The park was certainly not a highly productive agricultural area, but it probably never was.

Topography and soil, not bad farming, limited the output of the land. Most of the people who lived there did not earn their livings as farmers anyway. They used "home work" (raising gardens, raising animals, or cutting trees) to supplement their paid "out work," which increased their economic independence.

For many African Americans, land ownership was also an important form of political independence, so they set a value on their land beyond what it could earn. Perhaps their quality of life did not appear sufficient to the college educated, urbanized staff of the Resettlement Administration, but, in short, to the people who lived here it was home.

Some may have been happy to sell their property and move on, but others held out until they were evicted leaving a lasting sense of sacrifice.

Last updated: October 23, 2017

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