– Dr. Calvin Dickinson
Dr. Calvin Dickinson
One of the first major objectives of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program was to find jobs for workers.
Success of this objective would stifle unrest among unemployed persons by putting them to work and would stimulate the economy by putting money into circulation. It would also generate good will for the Democratic Party.
Civilian Conservation Corps [CCC] was the first employment program. Public Works Administration [PWA] was the second, and in 1935 the Works Progress Administration [WPA] combined all the employment programs. The WPA employed every type of worker from basic laborer to skilled artisan. Musicians, authors, artists and playwrights, as well as carpenters, electricians, plumbers and manual laborers, worked for the WPA. Critics of the program carped that “WPA" meant “We Poke Along," but the standing achievements of the agency are testimony to its accomplishments.
There was a national administration for the WPA led by President Roosevelt's controversial favorite Harry Hopkins, but each state operated its program. In Tennessee Col. Harry Berry, a World War I hero and very capable executive, was named administrator of the program.
Most of the state parks in the Upper Cumberland were originally work projects of the CCC, but when that organization was integrated into WPA in 1935 work on the parks continued and was completed. Pickett Park in Pickett County, Standing Stone Park (Overton), Cumberland Mountain Park (Cumberland) and Fall Creek Falls Park (Van Buren) were all work projects of the CCC and then of the WPA. Pickett, Standing Stone and Cumberland Mountain all had log cabins for tourist use. Fall Creek Falls was later developed in the 1970s into a luxury park with a golf course, restaurant, modern tourist lodging and cabin housing.
Sgt. Alvin York was at one time construction manager for Cumberland Mountain Park. School construction was a major emphasis of the WPA program in Tennessee. Statewide 123 new schools and 480 renovated schools were completed by the agency as of 1938. Classrooms, auditoriums, cafeterias, gymnasiums and athletic fields were included in the program. Textbooks and library collections were also financed by the WPA. Many of the smaller schools were frame, while the larger ones were usually brick and concrete.
The architectural styles of the new buildings were usually Colonial Revival, Classical Revival or a modern design. Liberty Elementary School in DeKalb County was constructed of locally quarried and shaped stone. Built in Colonial Revival style in an H-shape this distinctive school was later part of a National Historic Register District. Two other WPA schools were constructed in DeKalb County.
In Jamestown the agricultural building of the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute was financed by the WPA in 1935. It was built from ashlar cut sandstone in a modified H-plan. The Alpine Institute School and gymnasium, successor to other schools in this small Overton County community, was constructed in 1935 in a H-design of Crab Orchard Stone. Three years later a gymnasium was added. WPA also constructed Oak Grove School in Overton County of Crab Orchard stone.
In Putnam County the New Deal constructed schools at Double Springs and Gentry. Tennessee Polytechnic Institute (now Tennessee Tech University) benefited with the construction of a football field, and the New Deal actually paid students to attend Tech and other state colleges. In Smith County the influence of U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and U.S. Congressman Albert Gore Sr. secured federal monies for a new Art Deco-style high school and gymnasium in 1940.
Public buildings was another category of WPA construction in Tennessee. Several such structures, some still in use 70 years later, were built in the Upper Cumberland region. In Livingston the Bohannon Building was constructed in 1936. Using Crab Orchard stone and an Art Deco façade, the structure provided space for retail businesses on the first floor and county offices on the second. On the other side of the square WPA built a new post office in the Colonial Revival style. The interior was decorated with a mural, “The Newcomers,” painted by New York artist Margaret Covey. Both of these buildings are still in use.
A new post office in Crossville, built in the same style, is now used for a museum, but its mural, “The Partnership of Man and Nature,” by Marion Greenwood, was moved to the new post office 50 years later. In Rockwood the WPA post office was highlighted by a ceramic sculpture by New York artist Christian Heinrich. It was called “Wild Life” and it depicted a family of deer at rest. This post office is still in use. The WPA post office in Sparta still stands, but its use has changed.
The largest and most radical New Deal project in the region was the Cumberland Homesteads settlement south of Crossville. Developed by the Department of the Interior, Homesteads was one of 100 such projects planned across the nation, most of which were never realized. The federal government purchased approximately 28,000 acres and moved 230 unemployed or underemployed families onto the Cumberland County land with its newly constructed houses and barns.
The work programs of the New Deal provided income for hungry families, stimulus for a depressed economy and construction projects that have paid for themselves many times. Probably never has the tax money of the U.S. government been put to better use.
Calvin Dickinson is professor emeritus of history at Tennessee Tech University, a member of the board of directors of the Tennessee Historical Commission and the author or co-author of nearly two dozen books on various historic topics. For additional photographs of WPA projects in the U.C. visit www. cbjlegacy.blogspot.com.