During every Friday afternoon in February 2009, the Morrison County Historical Society hosted “Conversations with Jan,” an informal history discussion led by Jan Warner, MCHS Executive Director. This year’s topic was the Works Progress Administration or W.P.A. The W.P.A. was a social program begun in the 1930s by the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in order to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression. Given the current state of the world economy, the choice of topic was no accident.
Each of the four Friday sessions was well attended and the conversation was lively. Following is a summary of a portion of what was discussed during “Conversations with Jan.”
Jan began by explaining some of her history. Her parents, Earl Pigman and Lillian Sundquist, were going to get married in 1928 and had saved money in the bank for their wedding. The bank closed during the 1929 stock market crash and Jan’s parents lost everything. In spite of this, they were married in 1930 and Jan was born in 1931, during the Herbert Hoover administration and in the midst of economic turmoil.
Jan grew up in Cushing, Minnesota, and as a child was aware that people around her were getting jobs through the W.P.A. Her father had a job with Dr. Robert Green, who was part of the federal government’s Bureau of Biological Survey for Wildlife Disease Investigation and had a laboratory at Lake Alexander. While this was a government job, it was not part of the W.P.A. Earl was laid off in 1937 and leased a gas station in order to maintain a livelihood.
Jan clearly remembers her mom saying, “Roosevelt saved our lives.” She also heard people say things about W.P.A. workers being lazy and leaning on their shovels. It wasn’t until she started working with the Morrison County Historical Society that she could see how much was accomplished through the W.P.A.
From this introduction, the discussion expanded to what people knew about the W.P.A. – their personal experiences and memories – and to how the era of the Great Depression compares to the current economic crisis.
Two of the event’s guests were Melissa Peterson and Charlie Pautler from the Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site, located next door to the Weyerhaeuser Museum. Charlie and Melissa have been making a special study of the W.P.A. for the past few years for events at the Lindbergh Site. They provided details about the W.P.A. gleaned from what they have studied.
The W.P.A. ran from 1935 to 1943. There were quite a number of social programs in operation during the Depression, all of them seeming to have long names that were shortened to their initials. There was the C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps), the N.Y.A. (National Youth Administration), the F.A.P. (Federal Arts Project), and F.E.R.A. (Federal Emergency Relief Agency), to name but a few. Some of these programs operated under the larger W.P.A.; some were separate.
What springs quickly to mind for most people in regards to the W.P.A. is the large building projects undertaken, many of which are still in existence today. The granite walls at the front entrance of Camp Ripley are a familiar local reminder, as is the wall at Pine Grove Zoo, the stone water tower in Lindbergh State Park, and the Bowlus post office. The current Little Falls City Hall was also a W.P.A. project, being built originally as a water works facility. It opened in 1937.
Bill Gablenz, one of the event’s attendees, said that his father hauled granite into town from the Freedhem quarries. Liberty trucks were used to fetch granite for the Camp Ripley wall. Four men took the trip out to the quarries twice a day in this open vehicle, even when it was minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Although the building projects were and are the most visible of the W.P.A. accomplishments, there were several other types of programs that produced long-lasting outcomes. The goal of the W.P.A. was to put people to work until the economy recovered, but the program’s philosophy was not simply to give people any old job. Those who needed work were placed with jobs that closely suited their talents; therefore, musicians were given jobs related to music, artists worked with the Federal Arts Project, and those with secretarial or office skills would be assigned to various record-keeping positions.
Ruth Nelson, who attended the last session of “Conversations with Jan,” was made supervisor of a sewing project due to her previous experience with 4-H and sewing. In 1937/38, working in the upstairs of what is now an apartment building across Broadway from the Little Falls Post Office, Ruth led twenty-six young women in making dresses for five and six-year-old girls. The women were given fifty-two men’s suitcoats, which they transformed into princess-style dresses decorated with buttons and rick-rack. According to Ruth, the sewing project was part of the National Recovery Act, which was the umbrella for all the other social relief programs.
Ruth also had charge of a W.P.A. mattress-making operation in a building in downtown Randall. She explained the process of making a mattress, which involved two to four people working on one mattress per day. There was space enough to make up to four mattresses at one time. In order to get a mattress from the W.P.A., people had to have an income of less than $2,000 per year and they had to help make a mattress.
Because so many of the Depression-era social programs were connected, the cotton for the mattresses likely came from farmers who couldn’t sell it on the regular market. The federal government started agricultural programs during the Depression both to purchase farm goods for use in other relief efforts and to pay farmers not to produce. The farm subsidies of today are a continuation of these programs.
The R.E.A., or Rural Electrification Administration, was also a part of the New Deal relief programs of the Franklin administration. This project’s goal was to bring electricity to rural areas. Ruth Nelson’s husband, Sigfried, was involved with the R.E.A. in the northwest portion of Morrison County. He collected $2 per share from people in order to have electricity run across their property. Ruth remembers the exact day her home’s electricity was turned on: April 10, 1941. The efforts of the R.E.A. parallel today’s efforts to bring internet connectivity to rural and underserved areas.
The discussion that occurred during “Conversations with Jan” ranged far and wide, and was barely touched upon within this article. It covered topics such as hobos, the fairgrounds, World War II, Depression-era songs, and the county’s current unemployment rate. Alternate translations for the acronym “W.P.A.” also cropped up: “We Poke Along” and “We Play Around.” While some people at the time felt that the social programs of the Depression were not useful or necessary, those who worked on the W.P.A. and similar projects were later able to apply the skills they had learned toward the war effort. The history of one era flowed directly into another. One thing is certain, the items produced through the New Deal, whether the buildings, mattresses, electricity, art work, or oral histories, have given us a lasting picture of the time.
By Mary Warner
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter, 2009, Vol. 22, No. 1.