Jackson Project residents celebrate 70 years

A Jackson Project home today
Part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, "subsistence homesteads" were built in about 100 places around the country. The Jackson Project in Hermantown was built in 1937. Most of the distinctive homes are still standing, and the Jackson Project is celebrating its 70th anniversary.
MPR photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Driving along Arrowhead Road just north of the Miller Hill Mall, you can't help noticing these unusual houses: they're brick -- which you hardly ever see in this part of the country. They're set back from the road and on big lots.

They were all built at the same time -- 1937. The depths of the Great Depression.

Mary Murphy still lives in the house where she grew up.

She's the state representative for this district. As she gives a private tour, she confides she's never wanted to live anywhere else.

It doesn't take long to peek into every room. The house is about 1,000 square feet.

Mary Murphy
State Rep. Mary Murphy and her four brothers grew up in a Jackson Project home with three small bedrooms and one small bath. She has landscaped the former pasture and hay field.
MPR photo/Stephanie Hemphill

There's a living room, kitchen and dining room, three small bedrooms upstairs, and a full basement. In the basement, there was a huge coal-burning furnace and a "cooler room," where the Murphy family stored produce from their big garden and home-canned vegetables.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Although the house was small, Mary's parents raised five children here. Her older brothers did most of the work, including out in the little barn.

"Pat and Jimmy cleaned house, and Paul and Leo took care of the animals. We had two cows." Half of the barn was for the car, and the cows lived in the other half.

In 1937, the government built 84 houses like the Murphys', on empty land 12 miles north of Duluth. The idea was to provide affordable homes to low-wage workers, with enough land so they could supplement their incomes with a big garden and an animal or two.

Pioneer days
Roger Johnson's parents moved into this home, built by WPA crews in a muddy field. It took a lot of work to improve the land. But the family appreciated the running water and electricity.
Image courtesy Roger Johnson

The government built a hundred of these back-to-the-land communities around the country. They were one of many efforts to provide relief from the devastation of the Great Depression. A small but long-lasting part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

Mary Murphy grew up thinking Roosevelt was the man who built their house.

"It was -- I don't know what year in grade school -- but the teacher was talking about Franklin Roosevelt, and I said, 'I don't understand how he could be president of the United States, because he was a house builder. Franklin Roosevelt built my house!'"

To qualify for the project, families like the Murphys, had to have a job but not too much money. They had to be fit enough to farm, and willing to cooperate with their neighbors.

Around the corner from Mary Murphy is where Bob Levander grew up. He remembers his parents' pride in the quality of their new home. He says Eleanor Roosevelt was the one who insisted the homes should have plumbing and electricity.

Modern living
Bob Levander's mother slices bread in her modern kitchen. Her husband was an electrician, and he replaced the wood-burning cook stove with an electric one.
Image courtesy of Bob Levander

"Even my wife, coming from the Arnold Road area, they lived with outdoor toilets," he says. "And here (with the quality of the new homes), people were a little envious in a way."

The Jackson Project neighbors got busy and built a co-op store, a credit union, and a community meat locker. Behind the store were warehouses filled with tools people could borrow.

"The caterpillar, the cement mixers, the pumps for the septic tanks -- because they had hand pumps in those days. And that was kind of a ritual to pump the septic tanks out."

The contents of the septic tanks were dumped on the ground.

"It usually ended up in the chicken areas," Levander says with a laugh. "I remember that. It smelled terrible."

Cooperative gardening
Two women snap peas in the back yard. The original residents of the Jackson Project often helped each other with chores. Such cooperation helped build a strong community.
Image courtesy Bob Levander

Bob Levander grew up with Roger Johnson, who still lives in the house where he was born. Their fathers car-pooled to jobs in Duluth, and the families relied on the co-op store for staples.

"We had everything in our root cellars," Levander says.

"Potatoes, carrots, you name it -- whatever you could do in the garden, we kept in the basement," Johnson explains.

"I remember the sprouts from potatoes coming through the floorboards!" Levander laughs.

"What we needed at the store was flour, sugar, coffee -- things you couldn't grow," Johnson adds. The subsistence homestead projects were considered one of the most successful fruits of Roosevelt's New Deal.

Now, 70 years after these homes were built, most of the families living here are barely aware of the special history of their homes.

Bob Levander
Bob Levander grew up in a Jackson Project home, which he has now sold to his son and daughter-in-law. He's hoping to get the entire neighborhood of 83 homes put on the National Register of Historic Places.
MPR photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Bob Levander has been talking with them about getting the whole neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places.

"They'll be proud of their buildings in a sense, and that'll unify these 83 houses again, and their current occupants. I think it would be great." (One house was torn down to build a new school.)

The Hermantown Historical Society has produced a book about the Jackson Project. And this weekend the annual summer festival includes a historical display, and tours of Jackson Project homes.