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WPA: Depression-era projects had lasting impact - The Sun Chronicle : Local News

WPA: Depression-era projects had lasting impact

Parks, sidewalks part of New Deal legacy

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Posted: Sunday, March 15, 2009 12:00 am

President Barack Obama wants to save or create four million jobs through federal projects and spending costing hundreds of billions of dollars - more than enough to inspire right wing charges of socialism.

But Obama's effort to help America spend its way out of a deepening recession scarcely compares with Franklin Roosevelt-era programs such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps which spent billions - when a billion dollars meant something - on projects ranging from road construction to art, and at its height employed up to 20 percent of the U.S. workforce.

In the Attleboro area, federal projects put numerous jobless people to work between 1933 and the beginning of World War II.

Tasks included building roads, installing sewer lines, laying sidewalks, cutting fire breaks and constructing flood control measures.

But in parts of Massachusetts and across the country, the concept of paying out billions of dollars for make-work programs was not always greeted warmly.

"President Roosevelt was able to ramrod the program through, but a lot of people didn't like it," said Alec Gilman, visitor services supervisor for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and an expert on the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Bay State.

"To those who were looking for jobs, though, it was a godsend," he said.

Altogether, more than eight million people worked for the WPA during the program's life, earning modest wages - but at least earning something.

In the Attleboros, the influence of the WPA, the CCC and other federal work relief programs was wide-ranging.

In Attleboro, crews labored to install curbings, dig trenches for sewer and water lines and drained a wet area near the current Willett School and built the Briggs Playground.

North Attleboro and Mansfield welcomed crews that built or improved parks, widened roads and built a fieldhouse at Mason Field. The road network that would become North Attleboro's World War I Memorial Park was cut by CCC crews.

Federal projects even included hiring artists to create works for the Mansfield and Foxboro post offices.

As now, government stimulus spending during the Roosevelt administration was a matter for serious debate.

"There was a total re-examination of what the government's role should be in responding to an an economic crisis," said Michael Kryzanek, political science professor at Bridgewater State College.

While many conservatives criticized spending large sums and favored letting the Depression run its course, the New Dealers under Roosevelt sought to stimulate the economy through projects large and small.

The federal work programs succeeded in lowering unemployment from about 20 percent to closer to 10 percent by 1937, Kryzanek said, but joblessness shot back up when Roosevelt cut back on the programs in an attempt to balance the budget.

While most reminders of the New Deal programs have long since faded from public view, some of the laborers' work continues to have an effect on contemporary life.

The Bourne and Sagamore bridges, built by the WPA, continue to connect Cape Cod with the mainland over the Cape Cod Canal.

Locally, the 1,000-acre F. Gilbert Hills State Forest in Foxboro, once surplus farmland, now welcomes about 40,000 visitors a year long after the CCC installed roads, improved trails and constructed buildings on the site.

Crews also developed the nearby Wrentham State Forest.

Still-visible stone walls enclosing the banks of the Ten Mile River in parts of Attleboro and North Attleboro attest to the CCC's flood control efforts. But the CCC's most monumental legacy was the public parks and facilities it either developed or helped to improve.

"The CCC is responsible for the park system we have today," said Ron Clough, forest supervisor at F. Gilbert Hills.

Clough said many young jobless men who enrolled in the corps also learned heavy equipment operation, surveying and other skills that would soon be pressed into service in World War II.

In contrast to today's federal stimulus program, which aims to channel federal funds through private contractors and corporations, the Roosevelt era hired workers directly and often provided housing and equipment, as well as supervision.

The CCC really had two purposes, Gilman said.

"It was a work relief program first, to put people back to work," he said. "It was a conservation effort second."

The Civilian Conservation Corps organized more than 60 camps throughout Massachusetts, which were organized along roughly military lines with "companies" of up to 200 men assigned to each camp.

"Veteran Company 396" was based in Foxboro from 1935 to 1937, its 100 men making a temporary home at what was then called the Foxboro State Forest.

While many of the companies employed young, military-age men, Company 396 was composed of veterans of World War I, the Spanish-American War and other military operations.

Many were in their 40s and 50s, and about 3,000 such men across the country had been members of the so-called "Bonus Army" of former doughboys who marched on Washington in 1933.

The martial flavor of of the Civilian Conservation Corps is easy enough to explain, Gilman said.

"At the beginning of the program, the only federal agency that had a large enough number of supervisory personnel was the War Department," he said. "A lot of reserve officers were recalled to supervise the civilian employees."

When the CCC came to Foxboro, Clough said, the workers initially lived in tents until buildings could be built.

Crews constructed roads and trails by hand through the park property, created stone-lined water holes for fire control and combatted gypsy moths and tree diseases.

CCC workers, often referred to as "enrollees," earned $1 a day or $30 per month and were required to send $25 a month to families back home. The men lived and worked in barracks and workshops they constructed and dined in mess halls they built with their own hands.

Mostly they worked outdoors, even in the worst of weather.

Members enlisted for six month terms, and could "re-up" for up to another two years.

Like soldiers, the civilian conservation workers often sallied forth from their base to remote locations where they built roads, cleaned out stream beds, constructed fire towers and fought gypsy moth infestations in nearby communities.

Men from the Foxboro encampment are known to have taken on projects in Attleboro and North Attleboro, as well as Norfolk County.

During a major storm in 1936 and the Hurricane of 1938, CCC enrollees also helped in relief and cleanup efforts.

While the men in the camps were glad to get jobs, communities where they were sent initially weren't so sure. Since most of those employed were strangers from other parts of the state or country, many skeptical neighbors feared hooliganism. That soon wore off.

"As time went on, people in nearby towns were happy to be having money brought by the program spent in their towns and hardware stores, and for the services the crews provided," Gilman said.

For the most part, relations among men in the camps were amicable.

New England CCC camps were unique in that they featured integrated companies of both black and white workers. Camps in other regions - to the extent blacks were recruited - were strictly segregated, Gilman said.

While men worked by day at often menial tasks, they also received technical training in specialties ranging from electricity, auto repair and machine shop work. Some, who came to the camps illiterate or not having completed grade school, learned to read and do arithmetic.

Although none of the buildings constructed for the CCC encampment in Foxboro remain standing, many visible reminders of the agency's work are still in use.

They include Fall River's Wattuppa Pond reservoir, Maine's Acadia National Park and Colorado's Red Rocks amphitheatre, as well as smaller landmarks like the Bascom Lodge on Mount Greylock in western Massachusetts and Elliott Tower in Canton's Blue Hills.

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  • anonymous posted at 4:29 am on Tue, Mar 17, 2009.

    anonymous Posts: 0

    Since 1789, economic historians agree there have been five U.S. economic downturns that can be classified as "depressions." Of those, four lasted 5-7 years. The fifth lasted 12 years. The difference between the first four and the fifth? With the fifth, the government tried to speed recovery with a massive stimulus package called...you guessed it...the New Deal. Let's not forget, that it would have lasted longer had it not been for WWII. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, unemployment was still at 15%. Not only did the New Deal extend the downturn, it didn't even reverse it!While it is nice to see all the hard work of those folks from the 30's still around these parts, it is hard to accept the fact that the current Congress and Administration seem oblivious to the facts of history, and sadly, it seems, we will be doomed to repeat it.

  • annademocomcastnet posted at 8:19 am on Sun, Mar 15, 2009.

    annademocomcastnet Posts: 1

    If you are worried about the economy, then you must resist the efforts of the global warming alarmists. In this speech, their lies are called out. They are also blamed for the starvation deaths of millions of Third World poor over their demand to use corn to make biofuels and not food. If cap and trade and other Obama/liberal anti-energy policies become law, then we'll be responsible for the deaths of millions more. Read this speech. Think for yourself about what it says.http://www.heartland.org/full/24881/Great_Is_Truth_and_Mighty_Above_All_Things.html

  • anonymous posted at 5:08 am on Sun, Mar 15, 2009.

    anonymous Posts: 0

    Let me lighten my mood -- Another memorial to the men who worked on WPA projects is McCoy stadium in Pawtucket. Built at the tail end of the WPA era and the beginning of WWII, thousands of people still enjoy baseball and other activities nearly 70 years later thanks to a government program and an army of laborers who would rather work then be on the dole.

  • anonymous posted at 5:03 am on Sun, Mar 15, 2009.

    anonymous Posts: 0

    On the dark, less nostalgic side, one of the reasons for moving men to these camps was to keep them away from cities and organizing marches (like the bonus armies) or rioting. It also stopped people from having more children, unlike today when we have unmarried women getting pregnant by boyfriends while she is living in a homeless shelter.The work was voluntary but in the America of the 1930's you didn't work you didn't have food for you or your family. This provided at least some dignity and let a man send some money home.

  • anonymous posted at 4:58 am on Sun, Mar 15, 2009.

    anonymous Posts: 0

    I remember seeing WPA plaques on sidewalks in Central Falls back in the late 70's. These were the sidewalks that weren't collapsing.A couple of the differences between those of us in the 2000's and the people in the 1930's is that to work in the 1930's meant manual labor as builders, factory workers or farmers. A WPA /CCC program would be hard pressed to get some of us keyboard jockeys to even know which end of a shovel or wrench to hold.ALso, please remember that Dear Leader is not FDR. A very small percentage of the stimulus money is going to actual projects. Rather than using money to create temporary jobs, the Dear Leader's program is keeping people on unemployment rather than giving them temporary work or preserving government jobs (his constituency). In the 1930's there was a stigma attached with accepting money for not working. I have been on unemployment a couple of time and I have never been one to brag about "collecting". I was taking money and not working. However in our modern enlightened age the stigma has been removed for many. I would think rather then extending unemployment many unemployed would gladly accept clerical or light labor positions until they could get permanent jobs.

  • anonymous posted at 4:43 am on Sun, Mar 15, 2009.

    anonymous Posts: 0

    In Wrentham the tennis courts in Wm. H. Sweat Park, in the center were built with WPA funds and labor after filling in a small pond and the original spring.The walls along Bank St. for the park along with the masonry walls around the than Town Offices/Center School lot were also reconstructed at that time.