WPA in 1935: soup line to “alphabet soup”

The Great Depression. Something like 25% of the work force had no jobs. Soup kitchens provided a hot meal, maybe the only one these people would get. Work relief programs were started by the presidents of the day, Hoover and then Roosevelt. These job-creation agencies worked on America’s infrastructure. And someone named Walter B. Dahlberg, possibly an employee of the parks, compiled some terrific reports on the works accomplished in the Minneapolis park system. These are available on-line for 1936-1942. (Perhaps any earlier reports were lost, or haven’t been put on-line yet.)

These relief agencies did work in the parks prior to 1936. Information on this turns up in the Park Board Annual Report for 1935.

Silhouettes of people doing recreational activities in the foreground, a moon rising over a lake is glimpsed through the trees.
The cover of the 1935 Annual Report of Minneapolis’ Board of Park Commissioners. The cover here emphasizes recreational activities, which for many months of the year would not have been possible without the investment in work relief that the W.P.A. and other agencies brought to the Park Board. In his remarks in the 1935 Annual, Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth’s gratitude for this assistance is clear. From the urbancreek.com archives.

Vital projects were accomplished throughout the system by an alphabet soup of ever-changing federal agencies.   Beginning with older parks, simply doing much-needed maintenance kept Minneapolis’ investment in her parks from being lost.  But also, programs and activities kept people busy and engaged.  These could have been simple things like kite-flying day, or a checker tournament.  And the effort was highly successful.  In those pre-television days of 1935, over 2 million people went to the Minneapolis parks as participants or spectators in activities.

The agencies providing relief and getting things done in the parks included this abundance of acronyms. [1]  E.R.A., F.E.R.A., C.W.A. and W.P.A.:  Mind-numbing, isn’t it?  These all wound down into the W.P.A., which was up and running half-way through 1935.

The city (the Park Board) was responsible for between 3% and 30% of the cost of many of these projects.  They issued bonds to the tune of about $220,000, and immediately put that money towards these work relief projects.  When added to the relief agencies’ contributions, the total expended work relief in Minneapolis Parks in 1935 was $1,441,566.84.  These projects employed at least 4,700 people.

Much work was done all through the park system: grading streets, repairing golf courses, adding sprinkler systems, creating parkland out of wasteland, caring for the urban forest. All planning and supervision was carried out by the Park Board.

But urbancreek.com has its focus on Minnehaha Park. The 1935 works by relief workers in the park included:

• Planting 54 trees (value $86, so you know they were not especially large trees) and 24 evergreens (value $114)

• 14,283 cubic yards of grading material were used for some undescribed project

• One thousand feet of drain pipe was laid, probably to redirect spring or ground water

• Ninety-three square yards of concrete flooring was constructed. Unsure where

• 4 acres were seeded

• More than an acre and a half were sodded

That seems like a lot of seeding and sodding, especially given that such work was also reported in the 1936 W.P.A. report by Dahlberg.  Possibly his “last spring” comment there refers to 1935, though that would mean he misstated “W.P.A.” workers when the then-current program was E.R.A.  A minor detail.

More likely, the grounds were seeded and sodded in 1935 and 1936, acres and acres of ground in both years.  Possibly the Deer Pen, which had paddocked elk and deer for decades, had been worn down to nothing, and then when the animals were removed it was never refreshed.  And Dahlberg makes a point of noting that the picnic grounds had never looked so well after being seeded and sodded.

“Practically none” of these projects were possible without the collaboration of federal and state agencies with the Park Board.  And in some cases the necessary tools were supplied by federal agencies.  A good thing, as the park board was unable to fully replace its worn out equipment.

Neither was the Park Board able to fully staff its police department, or even to keep the lights on. It seems that they didn’t have the resources to keep more than 40% of the parks’ outdoor lighting in operation.

Those were hard times, and only the collaboration of all levels of government kept the parks in shape.


[1] The Emergency Relief Administration (E.R.A.) was formed in 1932, a few years into the Great Depression. It morphed into the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (F.E.R.A.). The Civil Works Administration (C.W.A.) was an early federal jobs program under F.E.R.A., lasting only from November 1933 to March 1934.  F.E.R.A. lasted into the first half of 1935, and then became the Works Progress Administration (renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration–both called the W.P.A.), which lasted into 1943. None of those is the Civilian Construction Corps (C.C.C.), which also did work in Minneapolis parks.  There was also a State Emergency Relief Agency, S.E.R.A., which supplied hundreds of workers for the recreation programs.

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