The Skyline Farms project, established by the federal government in Jackson County in 1934, was one of the more unique socioeconomic experiments in Alabama history. Founded on Cumberland Mountain, the cooperative farming experiment was intended to offer jobs and social welfare to unemployed Alabama farmers devastated by the Great Depression. Skyline Farms was one of 43 such projects attempted in various depressed parts of the United States, but it was one of the largest in terms of development, expenses, and national publicity.
Originally called the Cumberland Farms Project, the community was established by the Federal Emergency Relief Agency (renamed the Resettlement Administration in 1935). The name was changed quickly to Skyline Farms to eliminate confusion with a similarly named project in Tennessee. The idea for projects such as Skyline Farms developed from the "back to the land" movement that gained popularity in the United States in the 1910s and 1920s. Moreover, citizens of the economically troubled, industrializing nation viewed rural life as idyllic and desirable. President Franklin Roosevelt believed that American cities were housing an increasingly disproportionate segment of the population and wanted to see rural land put to better use. His administration responded to this vision by providing funding for community development programs in rural areas.
During the mid-1930s, the federal government purchased approximately 13,000 acres of land in Jackson County in northeastern Alabama, where it hoped to create a cooperative, planned community. Like most New Deal programs, Skyline Farms followed the Jim Crow laws of the South and was for whites only. A similar project named Gee's Bend Farms was established for African American farm families at the Gee's Bend community in Wilcox County. The communal center featured buildings that included a school, a commissary, a warehouse, and a manager's office. The remaining land was divided into 181 farms, varying in size from 40 to 60 acres. Families for the project were chosen from area relief rolls, primarily from Jackson County, and were provided with a house and farming equipment and were to repay the costs, which averaged close to $1,500 per unit, for these facilities over time through money made from selling crops, primarily cotton and potatoes. Records indicate that they were to have received animals as well, but it is unclear if this portion of the plan was ever implemented. Residents were members of the cooperative and together owned a store, a marketing association, a pre-paid health care program, and a pre-paid veterinary association, all of which were subsidized by the federal government.
Farmers participated in the construction of their dwellings and other structures, with the assistance of the Construction Unit of the Resettlement Administration. In addition, employees of the Resettlement Administration's Special Skills Division, such as Hollywood director Nicholas Ray, encouraged residents to participate in traditional arts, crafts, square dances, and music. Several musically inclined community members formed the Skyline Farms Band, which performed for President Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, at a garden party at the White House in 1938. This was the first time a traditional music ensemble had performed at the White House for an American president. Musicologist Alan Lomax later recorded the band for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.
In the early 1940s, Skyline Farms fell on hard times as cotton crops failed because of the unsuitable land and climate in north Alabama. A switch to potatoes failed as well. The federal government constructed a hosiery mill in the community to boost the economy, but it too failed as a result of a war-time shortage of nylon. The communal factory at Skyline Farms and other project sites brought charges of socialism from some members of Congress as well. Internal factions developed among participants over the management of the project, and beginning in 1944 the federal government began to liquidate the project's assets, selling to private buyers. Of the original farm families, only two were able to buy their farm units.
Today, all that remains at the site is the school building, which is now used as a local elementary school, and a few other
buildings. The sandstone community school was partially designed by landscape architect William Kessler and is listed on the
Alabama Register of Historic Places. Several of the houses, the commissary, and the project manager's office are now privately
owned, as are the factory and a warehouse that still exist.
Conkin, Paul. Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program. 1959. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1976.
Northeast Alabama Community College
Published May 22, 2008
Last updated March 30, 2010