"Federalized prefabrication" Southeast Missouri Farms self-help housing in the 1930s Academic Article uri icon


  • ¬© 2019 Construction History Society. All rights reserved. As agriculture in the "Bootheel" section of Missouri's collapsed in the early years of the great depression, sharecroppers sank into increasingly primitive living conditions as the land yielded less, the crops sold for less, and their landowners demanded more of their crop as rent. (Stepenojf 2003, Cantor 1969) As part of the second New Deal, The Farm Security Agency (FSA) undertook a program in 1937 called "The Southeast Missouri Farms Project" to build sanitary housing for sharecroppers evicted from the land in the bootheel counties, ultimately building barns, houses, privies, and small community centers and stores. Faced with the need to quickly address housing concerns the FSA undertook field research to make an evidence-based decision1 to employ "sectionalized" or "yard-fabricated" strategies for prefabricating buildings in addition to wellknown precutting processes. The implementation of prefabrication techniques allowed for the construction of 100 homes in Southeast Missouri in 212 days using some local skilled and mostly unskilled owner-builder labor. (Resettlement Administration 1940) Compared to the production time for contemporary house construction where a production builder is focused on a 90-day schedule, 100 homes (with barns and privies) in 212 days is impressive. This paper utilizes the final report of the Southeast Missouri Farms project written by FSA Head Engineer Edwin Crouch as a key primary source for insights into the organization, strategies, and implementation tactics Crouch and his team employed to enable former sharecroppers to become builders of prefabricated houses in Southeast Missouri on sustainable farmsteads. This effectively resulted in the most extensive self-help housing program in United States History to date. There is evidence that shows the Federal government employed prefabrication on other FSA subsistence homesteads and greenbelt towns subsequent to the Southeast Missouri Farms, however growing suspicions of socialism and a resurgence of labor union influence resulted in the end of the New Deal self-help experiments. The government would not revisit the idea of "mutual-self-help" again until the Department of Agriculture's Section 502 program in the 1960's,2 and The Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program from 1990.3 This paper will present an overview of pr√©fabrication in the 1930's, describe the Southeast Missouri Farms project and conclude with reasons for the discontinuation of self-help housing construction administered by Roosevelt's Resettlement Administration.

author list (cited authors)

  • O'brien, M. J.

publication date

  • January 2019