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A Pennsylvania town once known as ‘communism on the prairie’ is all about Trump now

Norvelt was a government-planned homestead established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now, fear of socialism runs deep — and so does support for Trump.

Ann Misselli on the front porch of her original Norvelt home.
Ann Misselli on the front porch of her original Norvelt home.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

NORVELT, Pa. — Lois Weyandt was only 7 when her family moved to this government-built town in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

They had lost their home during the Great Depression, and Norvelt was a so-called homestead founded by New Deal Democrats to help out-of-work coal miners and other struggling families. Now 91, Weyandt glowingly recalls the tidy lawns in front of Cape Cod-style houses, the kind neighbors, and the idyllic community of her childhood.

“Everybody helped everybody else,” Weyandt said from her home in nearby Greensburg this month. “It was a very good community. If you needed something, you just went to your neighbor.”

Norvelt, first established as the Westmoreland Homesteads, was one of 92 such government-planned communities established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Families who successfully applied to live here got a house, a chicken coop, and a plot of land with a grape arbor, for which they paid rent.

There was a co-op farm where everyone was expected to work, a dairy barn, and a garment factory. The community was so collaborative that a local newspaper once described it as “communism on the prairie.” Weyandt remembers being called a socialist.

Weyandt’s love of Norvelt hasn’t changed. But her politics have. A lifelong Democrat, she became a Republican during Barack Obama’s presidency and supported Donald Trump in 2016. While she may have shrugged off the socialist label as a young homesteader, today she sees the 2020 election as a battle against socialism.

“I don’t believe in people working and getting what they make on their own and then somebody saying, ‘Well, I want some of it,’ and getting to take it," she said. "That’s wrong. Let ‘em work for it. In Norvelt, people worked for it. We worked hard.”

People here once so admired Eleanor Roosevelt, who insisted the homes have running water and electricity, that they renamed the town for her, using the final syllables of her first and last names. But Norvelt has been bending toward the Republican Party for decades.

Now, Trump signs are everywhere. And the president’s framing of his campaign against Democrat Joe Biden as an existential fight against creeping socialism in America is rallying voters here. Disaffected current and former Democrats in surrounding Westmoreland County, and across small Rust Belt towns in Southwestern and Northeastern Pennsylvania, make up the core of Trump’s support in the state. These onetime Democratic bastions swung hard to Trump.

Interviews with more than a dozen voters, as well as historians who have studied Norvelt, suggest that the ethos of community born 86 years ago has given way to a more individualistic outlook — and quite a bit of fear.

“There’s this fear that we’re going to work hard and pay all the taxes for illegal immigrants to come in and not work as hard and get the same benefits, same schooling,” said the Rev. David Greer, pastor of the historic Norvelt Union Church, who lives in one of the original 1930s homes. “And we’re afraid of what we’re seeing. We don’t want our houses burned down.”

The fear here is not new and reflects familiar parts of Republican politics over the last 40 years, dating to when Ronald Reagan won over Democrats in places like Southwestern Pennsylvania by warning of “welfare queens.” But it’s been intensified amid sweeping peaceful protests against systemic racism, the looting and rioting that have occasionally followed those protests, and Trump’s efforts to make the violence a defining issue.

People in Norvelt are afraid what they’ve earned will go toward government help for those they think don’t work as hard. They’re afraid of losing their religious rights. Of losing their right to bear arms. And that the scenes they see playing out on TV in larger, faraway cities will come to their town of about 1,000 people.

Most residents work in nearby Latrobe, where Trump held a rally this month, or about 40 miles west in Pittsburgh. There’s a pizza place, a funeral home, an insurance broker, a hardware store, and a gun shop.

“More people are buying guns around here than since Sandy Hook,” Timi Fowler, who has worked at the Johnson Gun Depot for 12 years, said of the 2012 elementary school shooting that killed 26 people.

“They’re afraid of the Democrats getting into office," she said. "That’s their biggest fear. They’re saying they took over the cities, now they’re going to take over our little towns. ... You just gotta protect your own.”

Fowler has worked since she was 17, first at a factory making soda bottles, then loading trucks at Dick’s Sporting Goods. She helps support her son and husband.

Biden “wants to take everything you have and give it to people who don’t work or who don’t want to work,“ she said. "I’m sorry, I’m 58 and I’ve worked too many years to lose everything I have.”

Strictly speaking, socialism is a theory of societal organization in which a community shares ownership of goods and regulations. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), who identifies as a democratic socialist, advocates policies like Medicare for All and across-the-board free college tuition. Biden, a relative moderate, hasn’t gone that far. Colloquially, the word socialism is thrown around as a stand-in for many things.

But painting Biden as a Trojan horse for left-wing leaders in the Democratic Party is a core campaign theme for Trump, and it resonates in Norvelt. Asked about Biden, voters here were quick to bring up Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.).

“I don’t think Biden would really be in control,” said Bob Horrell, 64, an electrical worker on disability and a Democrat-turned-Republican who once voted for Obama.

There were 254 families that originally settled in Norvelt. Many stayed, and property was passed down to children and grandchildren. That history bonds second- and third-generation residents, several of whom gathered one day this month in the Norvelt Room, a small museum that houses town mementos and archives.

“I was born in that house,” Betty Sue Mondack said of her family’s Norvelt homestead. Gesturing to her older sister Virginia Vahaly, sitting beside her, Mondack added: “She came home from school one day and there was a baby.”

The family had moved from a three-room house with outdoor plumbing into a homestead with five bedrooms, running water, and electricity in 1935, when Vahaly was 7.

Vahaly, 92, and Mondack, 81, still live on that same property.

Few in the Norvelt Room saw parallels with their family’s fresh start and debates over government aid today.

Three professors who cowrote Hope in Hard Times, a book about Norvelt’s history, found that after World War II, when families were able to purchase their homes from the government outright, the tight-knit community started to become more individualized. An economic rise and conservative social views led to the growth of the local Republican Party, partly in opposition to the Great Society programs of the 1960s.

Only one of the original 254 families was Black. The Ku Klux Klan had a presence in the county in the 1920s, the authors found, and the regional newspaper was bought in 1969 by the late Richard Mellon Scaife, a major backer of conservative think tanks. The town is still 99% white, according to census data.

That history has shaped how people distinguish between what helped lift their families and government support today, said Tim Kelly, who chairs the history department at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe and who cowrote Hope in Hard Times.

“In my experience hardworking is a stand-in for white in Westmoreland County and Western Pennsylvania,” Kelly said. “So the story that Norvelters tell themselves is: ‘Our grandparents were poor, but they were hardworking. And they needed assistance, but they didn’t need a handout.’ "

“They’ve [made] a clear distinction between hardworking and the undeserving, the lazy,” Kelly added. "And I think that’s a stand-in for racism today.”

Greer and several others disputed that characterization, saying they don’t want to abolish all government aid — they’re just wary of expanding it and think many current programs need reform.

“I really don’t think most people are racist," the pastor said. “I think Republicans, they like President Trump, but they are also a little embarrassed by him. We don’t want to be categorized as a racist.”

The loss of mining and industrial jobs, which weakened labor unions, was also a key driver of Norvelt’s shift from a more altruistic society, said Margaret Power, another coauthor.

“There was this whole sense of ‘It’s us working-class buddies together,’ and then there was this shift and that sense of individualism was really reinforced,” Power said.

Bob Heide, 88, a retired steelworker, stayed a Democrat even as many around him didn’t. He’s voted for every Democratic presidential candidate since Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s. Heide, who lives in Latrobe and whose wife, Sally, grew up in an original Norvelt homestead, doesn’t understand his neighbors' fears of socialism. “Biden’s no socialist," he said. “He’s a very good man.”

Ann Misselli, who lives in one of the original homesteads, drew a distinction between the Great Depression and the current coronavirus-driven economic crisis, which, like Trump, she blames on Democratic governors who she said have been too strict about public health rules to stem the pandemic.

Norvelt has not been hit particularly hard by the virus, and most people only wear face masks to go into stores. Several people said they weren’t “big believers” in the virus.

“It was sort of socialism here, but FDR was trying to pull the people of the poor rural areas out of the Depression because they had absolutely nothing," said Misselli, 65 a retired business owner. "The big difference is the Democrats are causing this depression.” (Gov. Tom Wolf has lifted most restrictions, and Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator said this month that the state has done a “remarkable job” handling the pandemic.)

The homesteaders of Norvelt, Misselli said, listed skills they could offer the town on their applications. “You couldn’t just come in here and be a nobody or be a slouch,” she said. “You had to be able to work the farms. The women had to work the sewing factory or the schools. Was it socialism? Yeah, but there was a fair return.”

That sentiment frustrates Courtney Kubovcik, a member of the progressive group Voices of Westmoreland, who lives in nearby Jeannette.

“People are like, ‘You have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’ That only works if you have boots," Kubovcik said. "It only works if you have the tools, and unfortunately for a lot of our communities who are primarily minorities and primarily living in poverty, they were not given the tools to come out of that.”

Norvelt is home to three generations of Jim Novotny’s family. His grandfather was an original homesteader and he’s spent his life here, running the pizza place behind the church.

Novotny, 57, said he isn’t against all social-welfare programs. He just opposes their expansion.

“We’re not vicious people,” Novotny said. “We just want to keep what’s ours. We just want to keep the country the way it is.”