Farming Communities of New Jersey
Jersey Homesteads (Roosevelt)

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Compiled by Barbara Ellman

Created: Sep. 2015

Copyright © 2015-2018 Barbara Ellman

During the dark, desperate days of the Great Depression, the government selected Central Jersey as the site of a bold, unprecedented experiment in stimulus spending.  With the jobless rate hovering near 25 percent, dozens of emergency anti-poverty initiatives were introduced through various New Deal agencies.
Originally known as Jersey Homesteads, Roosevelt was one of ninety-nine communities across the country created by the federal government as part of a New Deal initiative. In early 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) created the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, the purpose of which was to decentralize industry from congested cities and enable workers to improve their standards of living through the help of subsistence agriculture. 

Jersey Homesteads was unique, however, in that it was the only community planned as an agro-industrial cooperative which included a farm, factory and retail stores, and it was the only one established specifically for urban Jewish garment workers from New York, many of whom were committed socialists.

Incorporated on May 29, 1937, the settlement was like an American kibbutz, the countryís first and only secular Jewish commune funded by US government.

1930 Roosevelt

The land for the community is located in Millstone Township, Monmouth County, New Jersey (not far from Hightstown).

The organizers took applications for 200 settlers at $500 to buy into the co-operative community.

Five hundred acres of the 1,200 acre tract were to be used for farming, and the remaining portion for 200 houses on 1/2 acre plots, a community school, a factory building, a poultry yard and modern water and sewer plants.

Jersey Homesteads' buildings are characterized by their spare geometric forms and use of modern building materials (including cinder blocks). The houses are integrated with communal areas and surrounded by a green belt.

This is a view of Jersey Homesteads in the 1930s.

International Ladies' Garment Workers Union agreed that the Jersey Homesteads factory would be a new cooperative run by the settlers themselves, so that no union jobs would be removed from New York.  The factory opened in 1936.

The Workers' Aim Cooperative Association had overall responsibility for the factory: the trade name for its products was Tripod, signifying the triple cooperative (factory, farm and retail stores).

The retail stores--a clothing store, grocery and meat market, and tea room--were run by the Jersey Homesteads Consumers' Cooperative Association.

The garment factory failed within two years. Because of delays in housing construction and the resulting shortage of workers, the first year was disappointing.  The workers actually went on strike at one point, even though they owned the factory and there was no upper management to protest. They had gone on strike against themselves, picketing their own company.  The factory was declared a failure in 1939 by the Farm Security Administration which attempted to auction off the assets.

By early 1940, having failed to auction the factory fixtures, negotiations with Kartiganer and Co. succeeded and the company began operations at the Jersey Homesteads factory. Proving to be no more economically successful than the factory, the settlement's agricultural cooperative ceased operations in 1940. Although the clothing store failed with the factory, the borough's cooperative grocery and meat market endured into the 1940s.

The farm, consisting of general, poultry and dairy units, was known as the Jersey Homesteads Agricultural Association, and, like the other cooperatives, was run by a board of directors.

With a shortage of green thumbs within the community, the crops wilted. The former city dwellers didnít till the soil enthusiastically.

Despite conflicts and hardships, the residents of the borough did manage to build a close-knit community--working, playing and developing the land together. Indeed, in the late 1930s the Community Manager, through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), developed recreational programs of adult education, arts and crafts, and founded a library. The borough also had many clubs and societies.

The Orthodox synagogue (Congregation Anshei Roosevelt, later affiliated with Conservative Judaism) did not seem to be of central importance but religious services were held at various locations until a synagogue was built in 1956. Many of the homesteaders spoke Yiddish and, in general, all nurtured the community.

Roosevelt sign 
Artist Colony

In 1936, the artist Ben Shahn was invited to paint a mural on the wall of the school depicting the founding of Jersey Homesteads. Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson settled permanently in Roosevelt in 1939 and attracted other artists, including former chairman of the Pratt Institute's Fine Arts department Jacob Landau; painter Gregorio Prestopino and his wife artist Liz Dauber; graphic artist David Stone Martin and his son wood engraver Stefan Martin; photographers Edwin and Louise Rosskam; and others.

Additional artists associated with Roosevelt are pianists Anita Cervantes and Laurie Altman, opera singer Joshua Hecht and writers Benjamin Appel, Shan Ellentuck and Franklin Folsom. 

It was Ben Shahn who had the original idea to build a monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. In 1960, on the eve of the borough's 25th anniversary, a new Roosevelt Memorial Committee was formed which was able, through fund-raising and donated labor, to create a memorial to the man who was seen as the town's inspiration. Ben Shahn's son Jonathan sculpted a bust of the president.
Roosevelt monument

Borough of Roosevelt Historical Collection - Rutgers University Library

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