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.