The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Sunday Profile

January 6, 2013

New look at New Deal photography in W.Va.


The son of Greek immigrants, Lou Birurakis grew up in Scotts Run, a cluster of coal mining communities stretched along a creek by that name in Morgantown.

Once, Eleanor Roosevelt came to his house to watch his mother bake bread in an outdoor oven, just like back in Greece.

As Rivard shows in her book, both Scotts Run and Eleanor Roosevelt were instrumental in the creation of Arthurdale, a New Deal “planned community” in Preston County. The town was part of a larger vision put forth by the Subsistence Homesteads Division, a New Deal agency.

 Arthurdale, one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s pet projects, was an attempt to resettle poor laborers in a modern, self-sufficient, rural community. Many families who ended up there were from the Scotts Run area.

“Scotts Run is the father and Roosevelt is the mother — when those two got together, Arthurdale was born,” said Lou, a keeper of history in his home community.

But Lou’s family wasn’t allowed to move to Arthurdale. Though Roosevelt disagreed with the rule, Arthurdale was for native-born whites only. Historian Ron Lewis estimates that only 20 percent of Scotts Run were eligible.

But Lou has a positive take on his family’s exclusion from Arthurdale.

“I’m kind of glad, because the result has been that when I grew up, we had to struggle.

“We had a piece of ground that was a steep hillside. We worked hard to develop that piece of land to survive. We had to haul rocks and dirt and topsoil to build walls and terrace the ground so it would grow food. And by working that area, it made me a tough guy.”

Scotts Run is nearly gone. As coal companies closed up, towns were torn down. Large roads projects also changed the landscape in dramatic ways. Now, the small family plots have nearly all been bought up and bulldozed to make way for commercial development along the highway.

“You go out there now, and other than the little town of Osage, there’s very little sign of what was there. You have to use your imagination,” says Crabtree.

He’s inspired enough by the photographs to hunt down where they were taken.

In particular, he wanted to see if he could find the boy in a 1935 portrait by Walker Evans. He gazes into the camera from a simple wooden chair in a miner’s shack wallpapered with cheerful advertisements.

“That’s what really got me out there, to find out who that boy was,” said Crabtree.

Though he’s spoken with many people who would have been the same age as the boy, he’s never found a trace of him or the shack.

“Even finding those spots is hard. That land is gone. That spot is gone.”

But he keeps trying to put the pieces together — tracking down Evans’s diary entries from the time of the shoot, driving through the hills to catch a glimpse of something that could remain from Evans’s time here.

“He pointed his camera more or less straight at a thing and saw it more clearly than anyone else,” said Crabtree. “Often it’s the ordinary thing. It’s dumbfounding. I don’t think anybody else has ever done it or understood it.”

“Evans just stood there and said, ‘Here it is.’”

The next year, Evans would go on to do some of his most famous work with tenant farmers in the American west.

Rivard, too, has been inspired to retrace the route taken by FSA photographer Marion Post Wolcott through McDowell County on Davy Road, where a proposed four-lane highway will soon increase access for residents and change the dynamics of the area forever.

“I got very curious about these little communities she visited. There are remnants of some of them, and some have disappeared,” said Rivard.

“I’ve been on Davy Road a lot of times now and I’ve stopped and talked to some people and gotten a feel for it. There’s a certain magic about it because it’s a little off the beaten path.

“There are places where you can really see what she saw.”

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