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Penn-Craft marking 65 years of self-help

Sunday, August 18, 2002

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

To first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, it was the embodiment of a grand ideal, a laboratory where all kinds of people could build a better way of life by shouldering each other's burdens.

The Rev. Thomas Logston operates an original knitting machine inside the restored Redstone Knitting Mill in Penn-Craft. "Our past is the prelude to the future," said Logston, who moved with his family to the community in 1938. "We very much want to tell people how we came to be and where we are headed."(Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

To Donald Kromer and his family, it was life itself.

Kromer was 5 weeks old and the Depression was still gripping the nation when his parents gambled on their survival, walking away from the coal mines that no longer provided even a subsistence living for them and their neighbors.

Kromer's father, Joseph, was lucky to get one or two days of work a week in the H.C. Frick mines, and his meager wages didn't stretch to feed, clothe and house his wife and two young sons. So in 1937, the Kromers and 49 other families left the crushing poverty of Western Pennsylvania's coal patches to become modern-day pioneers who pledged to build both a new community and a new way of life.

Their destination was Penn-Craft, a tract of sweeping hills rising above a green valley in Luzerne, Fayette County, that was to become the nation's first self-help subsistence community. Over the next half-century, it would be a model for more than 100 similar cooperative villages around the world.

About two-thirds of Penn-Craft's sturdy stone cottages are still occupied by descendants of founding families, many of whom, like Kromer, waited for months or years to settle on their own slice of Penn-Craft. They and hundreds of other former residents and Penn-Craft supporters will gather Sept. 14 for a Founders' Day reunion to celebrate the community's 65th anniversary.

"Penn-Craft enabled people to help each other get back on their feet and move to self-sufficiency," said Louis Orslene, a past president of the Penn-Craft Community Association and owner of a house his grandparents built there.

"The kind of stability we have here is amazing," said Orslene, whose brother's family lives in the house he owns. "You take pride in something your family built from the ground up. That creates close relationships that can't be broken."

Orslene's ties to Penn-Craft began with his grandparents, Joseph and Elizabeth Shaw, who were living in Brownsville in the mid-1930s. Joseph Shaw, a railway conductor, wasn't finding it any easier than his miner neighbors to make a living.

"He was only working part time and there was nothing else around," Orslene said. "So against my grandmother's wishes, he decided they were going to be pioneers."

Cross-section of America

In 1937, many of the mines in or near Fayette County were nearly worked out or closed. Nearly a third of the population was unemployed. Poverty and malnutrition were widespread, especially in the "patches," or coal company towns packed with out-of-work miners and their families.

Then came the American Friends Service Committee, the service arm of the Quakers, which had worked with the federal government through the Depression to alleviate suffering caused by economic conditions in the coal fields. At first, the Friends set up government-affiliated self-help communities for miners and other struggling workers in Westmoreland County and elsewhere around the country.

But when government bureaucracy proved to be a hindrance, the Friends decided to build their own smaller, private community. At first, it would depend on the their loans and sponsorship but would become self-sufficient as residents built homes, farms and industries that weren't dependent on the mines.

The Friends bought the 200-acre Isaiah Craft farm in Luzerne, between Brownsville and Republic, and spread brochures about their planned "social experiment" in the patches. As 250 applicants responded, the Friends chose a pool of families that were American citizens of good character and included a healthy, strong man in his 30s or 40s.

The Friends also made sure that homesteaders represented a cross-section of America, assembling a pool that contained five black families, 18 ethnic groups and several religious denominations.

No racial or religious prejudice was tolerated, and covenants were written into homesteaders' agreements to ensure the community would always be attractive. No alcohol could be sold, and no slaughterhouses or junk yards were to be permitted.

To make sure that families were sincere about working together on nearly everything and were able to handle the strenuous labor ahead of them, applicants spent a trial period clearing land at the farm.

Several men quit immediately, including the fellow who, as Penn-Craft legend has it, threw down his shovel and exclaimed: "I'm going home. I've worked for the [Works Progress Administration], and we never work more than six hours a day."

"The weak rejected themselves. It was hard, but most of the people stayed with it," said the Rev. Thomas Logston, 69, who moved with his miner father John Logston, mother Violet Logston and three siblings from Palmer to Penn-Craft in early 1938.

"My grandfather had a dairy farm and he wasn't for [the move]," said Logston, the current president of the community association. "But there wasn't much in Palmer. This was an adventure and my mother was all for it."

Fifty mothers

Each family was allotted a homestead of from 1.5 to 3 acres to build a home, outbuildings and gardens. To pay for the land, they borrowed up to $2,000 at 2 percent interest for 20 years from the Friends; with taxes and insurance, monthly payments were about $7 to $10.

At first, families stayed in their former homes while men and boys who were old enough to work were picked up each day in trucks and driven to the farm, which had been renamed Penn-Craft. With help from 50 Friends volunteers, they cleared and plowed land, marked homesites on four neat cul-de-sacs, dug basements and started to build trim, quarried-sandstone houses with basements and indoor plumbing.

Men and boys earned credits for each hour they spent on joint projects, and those credits then were applied to work owed to them by others. Each homesteader was expected to put in 2,500 hours to build homes for his family and his neighbors.

But families grew anxious to move, and they worried that too much time was lost each day while the men drove back and forth between Penn-Craft and their old homes. So they built wooden chicken coops on their homesites, then moved into the coops until their permanent houses were finished.

Those quarters were Spartan, chilly and small -- usually about 20 feet by 20 feet. Orslene said his grandmother couldn't fit all of the furniture she brought with her, so she had to store it outside, where it was ruined by rain and cold.

But families managed in the coops while they built their "big" houses, the roads that connected them and the communal sweater factory that was to be their new employer. They also established goat and produce farms, a community store to sell excess goods they'd raised and a clinic, library and canning kitchen in the old Craft farmhouse.

"We had Boy Scouts and Mothers' Clubs and a ballfield," Kromer said. "I knew everybody here and they knew me. You didn't have one mother but 50 of them, and they all looked out for you."

Although the men were handy, most had been miners and didn't know other trades. The Friends helped by bringing in stonemasons, carpenters, electricians and craftsmen who taught them how to quarry stone on the farm and turn it into attractive two-story homes trimmed with white woodwork and gables.

To make construction go faster, they didn't lay their walls stone by stone. Instead, they built square wood frames, then fit and mortared stones inside the frames to create walls.

Past prelude to future

Construction was still under way when first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a supporter of the Friends' self-help philosophy, visited and praised Penn-Craft on Nov. 29, 1937, with her friend, heiress Doris Duke. Although Duke didn't make a hoped-for contribution to the community, she is still remembered for her long black limousine and her assistant who handed out $5 bills to the children they passed.

Penn-Craft also attracted positive attention in the Reader's Digest and other magazine articles and books.

Penn-Craft's sweater factory, known as the Redstone Knitting Mill, initially was operated by the homesteaders and struggled for a time when World War II drew some of Penn-Craft's men back to mines and steel mills that had resumed production. Its management was later taken over by the Gallets, a family that fled Austria during World War II.

The Gallets made such a success of the mill that it outgrew the Penn-Craft building and moved to Uniontown, where it remained until it closed a few years ago. The factory building, after spending years in disrepair, has been purchased and restored by the community association.

The building is a busy community center, banquet hall and museum, with an original knitting machine from the factory and dozens of photographs, documents and artifacts that depict Penn-Craft's history.

Outside the hall, many homes have been enlarged with tasteful additions, and satellite dishes sprout from some of their roofs. But the community still resembles Brigadoon, an appealing hamlet of cottages, lush flower beds and rolling green lawns nearly hidden by wooded hills on all sides.

Penn-Craft's leaders are looking to boost its visibility, however, to make more people aware of the history and traditions that resulted in the community inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. While Penn-Craft has outgrown its reliance on communal industries and agriculture, today's residents say their community is still driven by the founders' emphasis on neighbors helping and looking after each other.

Penn-Craft has obtained a state grant and residents are raising funds to install air conditioning in the old factory so that it will be a more attractive spot for meetings, social gatherings, classes and a starting point for walking tours. Community leaders believe that the new Mon-Fayette Expressway and Fayette County's increased emphasis on promoting tourism will bring more people to Penn-Craft to learn the message that the founders taught by example.

"Our past is the prelude to the future," Logston said. "We very much want to tell people how we came to be and where we are headed."

For more information about Penn-Craft, call Logston at 724-785-2698 or Alice Illig at 724-785-5086.

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