Roads, bridges, parks, trails, public water works, community buildings, libraries, new schools and school additions…you name it. Examples abound of public infrastructure built with New Deal-era federal work relief programs that continue to exist today. During the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress created a broad set of programs known as the “New Deal.” These programs constituted a massive investment in public infrastructure that at the same time alleviated some of the worst social and economic effects of the Great Depression. Operating for about a decade, from 1933-1943, they involved federal agencies partnering with state and local sponsors. Their long-term impact included the creation of much needed, long-lasting public infrastructure.
When a central Minnesota leader made the comment during a public meeting that I attended that New Deal-era federal work relief programs were only about putting people back to work, not about building public works let alone public works that last, it came as a bit of a surprise. The meeting was about whether or not to support and maintain, or potentially destroy by neglect or lack of funding and oversight, public assets built or significantly improved during the New Deal-era. The official’s comment was even more striking as the meeting was taking place in a building that had seen upgrades as a result of New Deal-era programs. The official had also most likely traveled to the meeting on a road built or improved as part of a Works Progress Administration project, one of the best-known of the work relief programs, and had probably gone past one or more New Deal-era parks or park beautification projects on the way. The park projects were created or developed with the help of one or more of the programs – the Civil Works Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the National Youth Administration and the Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration.
How could the official be so certain in his conviction, with no one challenging the comment and a fellow public official even nodding in agreement? Are New Deal-era public works so well-built and well-used that we do not notice them? Are they so ubiquitous they have slipped into the background of everyday life? Are they a victim of their very success?
The Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) is perhaps one good example of a New Deal-era public work that has survived and even thrived. Organized in 1936 as an outgrowth of a WPA project to collect oral histories from “pioneer” residents, MCHS has grown over the past 80+ years to become one of the most respected county historical societies in the state today. Despite this, much like other New Deal-era projects, it is often overlooked when it comes to funding and recognition. MCHS is fortunate, however, to have strong support from various leaders throughout the county. These leaders recognize the organization’s integral role as a resource in the community and the importance of its mission to preserve and share local history. This mission has a long-lasting impact on the health and vitality of individuals, communities and organizations across the region, state, and world.
Other more physical examples of public assets created or developed during the New Deal-era in Morrison County include a bridge in Swanville, the water softening plant in Little Falls, the shelter cabin in Charles A. Lindbergh State Park, the wall and gates at Camp Ripley, Buckman’s City Hall, and a community building in Bowlus known as the Bowlus Fire Hall. Community concern over the continued use and maintenance of the Bowlus Fire Hall has resulted in the creation of a local advocacy group, Friends of the Firehall. The Friends are working to support the rehabilitation and preservation of this WPA-built stone structure, once the Bowlus Village Hall and Firehall. Their efforts will allow the facility to remain a vital part of their community infrastructure.
New Deal-era projects, whether we notice them or not, are still around. Like the Bowlus Fire Hall, the Morrison County Historical Society, or any of the other examples in Morrison County, they are public assets that continue to play a strong role in everyday life. Incidentally, if the local public official who made the comment used the bathroom in the building where the meeting was taking place, that official would have directly benefited from a significant New Deal-era project intended to last – the City sewer system. How’s that for long-lasting public infrastructure!
~ Ann Marie Johnson
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2019.