Jersey Homsteads: Brief History
Today a municipality of about 900, Roosevelt was called Jersey Homesteads when its cooperative opened in 1936 with the assistance of the New Deal's subsistence program. The original idea of Jersey Homesteads was formulated by the "back-to-the-land movement."
The most recognizable advocate of this movement was Albert Einstein, but another immigrant named Benjamin Brown is considered to be the father of Jersey Homesteads. The story of Brown's struggle to create a self-sustaining subsistence farm, combined with seasonal employment in a cooperative garment factory, is a fascinating one. He encountered numerous road blocks, most notably the opposition of David Dubinsky. Dubinsky was the leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union and felt that Jersey Homesteads would undermine union efforts in urban areas. But Brown's efforts began to earn dividends when the Resettlement Administration, under the direction of Rexford Tugwell, took over the Jersey Homesteads project in May, 1935.
It was estimated that the cost of the homestead project would be $600,000. Ben Brown applied to the federal government for $500,000; $100,000 was to be provided by 200 homesteaders, each paying $500. As it turned out, only 120 of the 200 Bauhaus style homes were actually purchased by homesteaders. The remaining eighty houses were put up for rent. It was as renters that Ben and Bernarda Shahn came to Jersey Homesteads in 1938.
It has been said that even if the W.P.A. had done nothing else, its place in American cultural history would be secure because of the impressive group of painters and photographers which it sponsored. In the 1930's, Ben Shahn attracted attention with a series of watercolors illustrating the Dreyfus case and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. He assisted Diego Rivera on murals for Rockefeller Center and worked as a photographer for the Farm Securities Administration from 1935 to 1938. Shahn applied his skills in mural design by creating a famous mural
in the elementary school at Jersey Homesteads in the late 1930's. His wife Bernarda accompanied him during his travels, and she was an artist in her own right. Though Ben Shahn died in 1969, Bernarda continued to live and work in the town of Roosevelt, NJ until her death in 2004. On this website, you can listen to her comments related to the Jersey Homestead mural and the history of the town.