The experiment seems to have been successful.
The community of Penn-Craft was built to see if families of different races, nationalities and religions could live and work together when the country and the world were struggling for ways to recover from the Great Depression.
Using private money raised by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that is still operating, the Friends bought the 175-acre Isaiah Craft farm in Luzerne Township and selected 50 families of various backgrounds to try to create a self-sustaining community.
Families began working together to construct each others’ homes and build roads in June 1937. They built, worked at and shared in the profits from a knitting mill (now the Penn-Craft Community Center), a store (now the Penn-Craft Market) and a dairy farm.
“It was a social experiment as well as an economic experiment,” said Lou Orslene, president of Penn-Craft Community Association. “The idea was to be self sufficient.”
Many of the homesteader family breadwinners were displaced coal miners who lost their jobs to mechanism.
“At that time people were distressed. Everybody was out of work,” Orslene said.
Homesteaders selected lots for their homes and built temporary ones for interim housing. Behind many of the 48 remaining original stone homes are the 20-by-20 temporary ones, which the families converted into chicken coops.
“By the time they got finished they had a community,” said Louise Jameson, 93, who lives in what was House #50, the last one to be finished, with her 94-year-old husband Bob.
She said her parents bought the house for $5,000, and in 1943, moved in after the family who built the house relocated — though her family’s ties to Penn-Craft go back much further.
Her father rented a farm where the house is located in 1917 from the Craft family and operated it as a dairy and chicken farm until 1937 when the Crafts sold the land to the Friends Service. Penn-Craft is named after the family.
The families made some money picking tomatoes from a community-owned field, Bob Jameson said. The Friends Service sold the tomatoes to Heinz and found other “thrifty” ways to help cover the cost of building the homes and roads, he said.
All of the families profited from sales from the knitting mill, store and farm, said Orslene, whose grandparents Elizabeth and Joseph Shaw were among the original homesteaders.
The federal government funded other efforts to build self-sufficient communities following the Depression, he said, but opposition to racially integrated communities from some southern Congressmen led the Friends Service to solicit donations from U.S. Steel and the United Mine Workers of America to buy the Craft farm to try to create the first privately funded subsistence community. Five black families were among the original homesteaders, he said.
“Penn-Craft became that experiment,” Orlsene said.
Stone cut from a local quarry was ground into large, rectangular blocks and bricks from coke ovens were used to build the houses. Stone shavings from the grinder made up the sand in the mortar.
The solidly built homes were handcrafted one at a time with neighbors helping neighbors under the guidance of a mason and other builders who were hired by the Friends Service, Orslene said.
“You can see the mistakes in the masonry,” Bob Jameson said pointing to a slightly out of place, but thick stone block in his home. “People learned as they went.”
Window frames were hand made from insect-damaged trees cut from the area mountains, Orslene said.
The homes had indoor plumbing, an amenity lacked in many homes in coal patch towns at that time.
David W. Day, the Friends Service’s manager of the “Fayette County Rehabilitation Project,” which Penn-Craft was called before homesteaders picked the name, tracked the hours the residents worked on each others’ homes to make sure everyone worked the require amount of time.
Raising angora rabbits and selling the fur to mills in New York was among the self-help ways the homesteaders earned money, Orslene said.
About 90 homesteaders worked in the knitting mill, which was expanded at one point to keep up with demand, he said.
The homesteaders had to work at the store, mill or farm in Penn-Craft or find outside jobs, to pay off the mortgages on their homes and buy what they needed, he said.
“My mother-in-law paid $10 a month. That was a lot. They had to struggle to pay it,” Orslene said.
Louise Jameson said her father worked as the manager of a feed store in Republic and she worked for Bell Telephone in Brownsville.
The Quakers set up a mothers’ group and held dances and other social activities. Children attended public school.
Archived notes and memorandums from Day provide a glimpse of Penn-Craft’s first days.
Construction of roads and homes began June 1, 1937. Work on roads started first because contracts for the homes weren’t yet completed, according to a memorandum from Day to the homesteaders on May 27, 1937. Bids were sought for two “carloads” of lumber for temporary housing and the lumber was expected by mid-June, wrote Day.
Day’s notes indicated that work days for the homes started at a 7 a.m., with only Sunday off, and men were advised to work 10-hour days, with 30 minutes for lunch.
On June 7, 1937 Day wrote, the families drew for order of choice in home site selection. Joseph Pietrosky got to pick first. The following day, the lots were marked and appraised, Day indicated.
As the process moved forward, some families grew restless over delays in finalizing house plans and contracts, Day wrote. Two families stopped participating and said they wouldn’t resume until they had contracts.
“All of us appreciate what our grandfathers and grandmothers did to get us here. This was a hand up to middle class,” Orslene said.
Today, Penn-Craft’s history remains alive in it’s residents. Many are descendants of homesteaders who took over their family homes or bought homes when they were on the market.
Bob and Louise Jameson’s daughter Holly Winans built a home on lots subdivided from the original lots, creating a picturesque blending of old and newer homes separated by manicured lawns and landscaping.
When one of the original homes went up for sale in 2006, Kim Onesko knew that she and her husband would have to act fast.
“Not much turn over in homes. When they go up for sale they sell fast,” Onesko said. “We were the first to see the house. We knew we had to decide fast.”
The state took their old home in Thompson 1 through eminent domain to build the Mon/Fayette Expressway. That home was owned by Goodlow Bowman, the son of Jacob Bowman who built Nemacolin Castle in Brownsville.
“It had quite a historical background to it. When we moved, we wanted a place that had a history to it and this house came up for sale at the right time,” Onesko said.
Their yard is large enough for their garden and privacy, she said.
“It’s actually a really nice little community. ... Most homes are well maintained. There’s a lot of pride in the community. Most people have some ties to the history of the community. Amazingly enough many of these homes are still held by the families that built Penn-Craft,” Onesko said.
Measuring about 1,000 square feet, Penn-Craft homes are small when compared to modern family homes so the Oneskos, the Jamesons and many other residents have built additions that blend with the original designs.
“The size of it was secondary to everything else. It really is the history of the community and the character of the community, and the sense that you’re part of that. We really enjoy it and we have since the time we moved in,” Onesko said.
People who pass through Penn-Craft feel at home when they stop at the only business in the community, Penn-Craft Market, which her brother-in-law Mike Onesko owns.
The market is famous for the bread, buns and pepperoni rolls bakers start preparing at 4 a.m. for the 5 a.m. opening when employees of the nearby state prison, teachers and other people beginning stopping in on their way to work. Pizza and hoagies are the lunch favorites.
“It will be a constant flow especially at lunch time. Everybody knows everybody. The girls behind the counter know everyone’s name. The whole community is like a family. It’s nice to know everybody,” Mike Onesko said.
The community came to his aid, helping him rebuild the store after a lightning strike ignited a fire that destroyed the building in 2012, just two years after he purchased the business from the family of the original owners.
Built in 1938, the building started out as a place where residents could rent freezers to store food and a store was eventually added.
Tourists are frequent visitors in the summer.
“You get a lot of out-of-towners that come in. They know about Penn-Craft,” he said.
As work progressed to build Penn-Craft so many years ago, one of its initial supporters took the time to memorialize her thoughts on the experiment in giving people of varied backgrounds a hand up.
“The value of the Penn-Craft project would be only partly realized if we view it as just an adventure in community development,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about her visit to Penn-Craft. “We must see that its motivation of respect for the human spirit and faith in human resourcefulness have deep meaning for every area of economic and social life, not only in America, but in all lands.”