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Legacy of Work Projects Administration may be most visible in Oklahoma


Mike Coppock April 16th, 2009

With President Barack Obama talking public work projects as a means of handling the current recession, the impact government spending had on the Great Depression during Franklin Roosevelt's New ...

With President Barack Obama talking public work projects as a means of handling the current recession, the impact government spending had on the Great Depression during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal is under the microscope.

While some critics may claim that President Roosevelt's New Deal did not have a profound effect on the Great Depression, the Oklahoma Historical Society's record of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) and other New Deal efforts shows a president and a program that kept body and soul together for many Oklahomans.

PIONEER DAYS
WPA STAMP
PUBLIC EDUCATION

Just as the Great Depression was hitting the nation in 1930, Oklahoma had a population of 2,396,000 with a workforce of 828,000. Oklahoma City had a population of about 185,000. Only about one-third of Oklahomans worked on the farm. Most were working in either the oil industry, meat packing plants, or cotton mills centered in Oklahoma City. The state had already suffered through a farm depression in the 1920s that left only 204,000 farms in operation by 1930.

When FDR took the oath of office in March 1933, 33 percent of Oklahoma families were already on direct relief under President Herbert Hoover. By July 1935, certified joblessness in Oklahoma climbed to 127,416. Oklahoma City saw 11,332 families, or more than 21 percent of its population, on direct relief, receiving food, clothing and money directly from the federal government.

PIONEER DAYS
Oklahoma was poor in other ways, too, besides lacking jobs and the pressure to give up the family farm. In some ways, the state had not gone past the outhouse era of the pioneer days. Many civic structures were built shortly after the various land runs, but those had not been properly maintained.

With rare exceptions, such as oilmen E.W. Marland and Frank Phillips, the men who ran the oil industry had kept taxation low, not allowing the state to raise enough funds to replace crumbling structures, build roads or schools, or even maintain what the state had built.

Effective lobbying by Oklahoma's congressional delegation brought this fact to the attention of Roosevelt and the WPA. Oklahoma ended up receiving a larger than normal proportion of relief from the Roosevelt administration during the decade-long economic crisis.

FDR poured millions in pre-war dollars into Oklahoma, investing in projects ranging from school lunch programs, flood control and archaeological excavations at Spiro Mounds. Sequoyah's cabin was preserved by the WPA, which also assisted in establishing the Wichita Mountains Easter Pageant. The Oklahoma City Symphony got it start through grant funds from the Roosevelt administration.

William Key was chosen as the first WPA state administrator, and Oklahoma was subdivided into eight relief regions, which eventually grew to nine. Ron Stephens became the WPA administrator for Oklahoma after Key stepped down. All the while, aid continued to pour in. By 1937, more than $59 million in WPA funds was spent in Oklahoma at a time when the state was suffering both from the Dust Bowl and the lack of hard currency.

WPA STAMP
But today, everyday Oklahomans see the WPA stamp most visibly on hundreds of bridges and thousands of buildings.

"When an employable person had no job and faced the possibility of starvation, the New Deal programs provided some financial security and meaningful work," said Lynda Schwan, National Register program coordinator and architectural historian for the state Historic Preservation Office of the Oklahoma Historical Society. "The money paid to unskilled workers was not much, but it was the difference between life and death. And it was just as important to the communities collectively. The workers' minor salaries poured additional money into the local economy, which merchants greatly appreciated."

Schwan pointed to the Oklahoma City Municipal Building, built in 1936, as a prime example. Oklahoma City could not afford to undertake such construction without financial aid from the New Deal, Schwan said.

Indeed, the impact of the WPA on Oklahoma City is not only visible, but used daily: the Oklahoma County Courthouse, built in 1937, and schools such as Capitol Hill High School, Northeast High School and Taft Stadium.

WPA civil projects to improve Oklahoma City's quality of life included Alice Harn Park, Lincoln Park Zoo pavilion, two National Guard armories, the Rotary Park Amphitheater, Tolan Park Clubhouse and Wiley Post Park Clubhouse. The WPA began constructing the Zoo Amphitheatre project in 1933, according to the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Edmond's American Legion building and the Edmond Armory were also built by the WPA.

PUBLIC EDUCATION
The Oklahoma Historical Society's Melvena Heisch, the deputy officer of the state Historical Preservation Office, said she could not stress enough the impact the WPA and other New Deal projects had on public education.

"The WPA had a major impact on Oklahoma in general and the quality of facilities for public education that had not been improved on before," said Heisch, who was involved with the Oklahoma State University Department of History study of New Deal impact made from 1984 to 1987. 

She also pointed to the fact that some 50 National Guard armories built across Oklahoma by the WPA are still in use today.

"It's most impressive when you consider there was no maintenance on these facilities after they were built," Heisch said.

Nor, Heisch emphasized, should one forget about the work done by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp), which built hundreds of city parks in Oklahoma City and the state. Ten CCC parks are still currently used as state parks, such as Lake Murray and Robber's Cave. The CCC even added amphitheaters to city parks it built in Ada, Perry and Henryetta.

"Almost every community in the state was touched by the WPA," Heisch said.  "Mike Coppock

 
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