Oklahoman’s found themselves in need of assistance more than any other state during the Great Depression since their “depression” began after World War 1 not in 1929, like the rest of the county. Large surplus of agricultural commodities drove prices downward, and farm tenancy, endemic in eastern and southern Oklahoma, worsened as more than half of the state’s farmers labored on land owned by others. With the discovery of oil and natural gas bringing brief prosperity to some areas of the state during the 1920s, but by 1931 overproduction sent oil prices to disastrously low levels. Compared to other states, Oklahoma suffered the third-greatest decline in income between 1929 and 1932.
In May 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), later renamed the Works Project Administration. Although this was just one of the New Deal relief programs created by the government, it did give work to unskilled, employable people who were made destitute by the economic depression that gripped the United States and Oklahoma in particular. By the end of WPA in 1943 the improvements by the agencies funding and the labor of the unemployed had produced a host of public structures noted for their architectural type, style, materials, and workmanship. These structures were a major cultural resource for the state. Among other things, they were mute reminders of the emotional distress and physical pain many Oklahoman’s suffered during the 1930s and of an enlightened relief effort by the federal government that alleviated much of that suffering. Many who benefited from the agency saw it’s work as the margin between life and death, starvation and survival, despair and hope. Each structure built by the WPA, therefore, constituted a symbol of the struggle and victory experienced by most of Oklahoma’s people during the Great Depression.
Among the major construction accomplishments of the WPA were the building or improving of 651,000 miles of roads, the erection or improvement of 125,110 buildings of all kinds, the installation of 16,100 miles of water mains and distribution lines, the installation of 24,300 miles of sewerage facilities, and the construction and improvement of many airport facilities, including landing fields, runways, and terminal buildings. The service projects covered a wide range, from the serving of hot school lunches and the maintenance of child-health centers to the operation of recreation centers and literary classes. These service projects employed the abilities and training of otherwise jobless white-collar and professional workers, and provided many needed and valued community services. One such service was the creation and publishing of the WPA American Guide Series for Oklahoma title “The Sooner State”.
To thousands of the Nation’s towns and cities the WPA was important as a social and economic stabilizer in a period of serious stress. Officials of State and local governments who were in close touch with local unemployment situations welcomed the aid of the organization in providing work and wages for the needy jobless. Sponsors’ contributions provided $2,837,713,000, or more than one-fifth of the total cost of WPA operated projects, of which the Federal share was $10,136,743,000.
Oklahoma’s part in the $10 billion dollar project included approximately 3,000 structures mostly schools and armories, but other buildings or improvements. Not all but most of these structures are still in use or standing after over 75 years and although constructed by “unskilled laborers” their architectural structures are still a beauty to admire.
To receive federal funding, a project had to meet three criteria.
- It had to be useful; that is, it had to be a project that fulfilled a need within the community such as a new school, a water plant, or armory.
- It had to be sponsored by a public body such as a city, a school district, or county. The sponsor had to contribute part of the total cost, usually between ten and twenty-five percent, which typically was done through the contribution of locally available materials.
- Ninety percent of the laborers had to come from employable persons who were on the relief rolls.
54 Armories built in Oklahoma out of 126 nation wide, 39 listed on National Register of Historic Places.
4,784 Public Buildings built by WPA. 43 Buildings constructed by PWA.
1 Final Report WPA Structures Thematic Survey (Phase III), W. David Baird, Oklahoma State University, August 30, 1987.
3. Keith L. Bryant, Jr., “New Deal,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org (accessed July 01, 2018).
- The New Deal – Volume One
- The New Deal – Volume Two
- Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-1943
- A New Deal For Oklahoma Bridge and Road Building in the Depression Era
- U.S. Work Projects Administration, Oklahoma: Final Report of Activities and Accomplishments. (Washington, D.C., 1943).
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