Path Home Shows 2016 Show Archive September 2016 Show 1636 Real and Lasting Contributions

Real and Lasting Contributions

A hard day’s work helped pull our country out of the Great Depression and left us with some truly remarkable landmarks.
Real and Lasting Contributions

Real and Lasting Contributions

For more information visit these links:

The New Deal: Crash Course

Works Progress Administration

Civilian Conservation Corps

Public Works Administration

Oklahoma Historical Society

Show Details

Show 1636: Real and Lasting Contributions
Air Date: September 4, 2016

 

Transcript

Rob McClendon: The year 1933, parts of Oklahoma ravaged by the Dust Bowl, and the country is in the midst of the Great Depression. And one in three Oklahomans are on some type of government relief. But during these dire days began two programs that improved lives around the country and gave us buildings and landmarks we still enjoy today.

Rob McClendon: Standing atop a rocky outlook over glimmering waters, Tucker Tower is an iconic landmark that can been seen from most any vantage point on Lake Murray. Limestone slabs cut by hand and stacked skyward – an ideal lookout to see the beauty of this area outside Ardmore, Okla. But it’s inside the tower, lining the walls, the story of how America worked its way out of the Great Depression and as best told by the Oklahoma History Center’s Bob Blackburn.

Bob Blackburn: Despite the boom in farm and ranch in 1898 to 1929, despite the oil boom from 1905 in Glenpool to the 1930s, Oklahoma finally descended into the black hole of the Great Depression. Bank closures, people going unemployed, people leaving and hitting the road. “The Grapes of Wrath” will depict one of those families leaving the land and going to California. Almost a third of all Oklahomans unemployed and I think most importantly, people were losing hope. They were losing hope that tomorrow would be better. We’ve had these boom times, now we’re on the slide down, we had to do something to improve the morale as well as to put food on the table. There was no Social Security system at the time, there was no welfare department in the state of Oklahoma. You were on your own unless a family member or a church or the community would step up and say we will help.

Rob: And it was during these desperate times, just days after taking the oath of office –

President Roosevelt: I will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.

Rob: President Roosevelt signs into law the Federal Unemployment Relief Act.

Blackburn: We started really in 1933 with the CCC, one of my favorite programs in American history, especially when you think about what it did for that generation and what it’s done for us ever since. In the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps, was the brainchild coming out of the Franklin D Roosevelt administration. One of the earliest of the New Deal programs trying to provide direct relief for the unemployment and the suffering. And it was not welfare – it was, let’s go to work, let’s do something that helps the community. And these kids, aged 18 to 25, go off into a military type setting, and they would get training from Army personnel. So they would drill. So they were learning discipline. They were learning how to work together. They were learning skills. And then the objective of CCC was as the name implied – conservation. Let’s build shelter belts. Let’s take care of erosion. Let’s go into communities and do something together to conserve the quality of life within a community with an amphitheater or a public library or a public swimming pool or bridges that needed to be repaired so people could get from here to there. So the CCC was one of those early programs that made such a vital difference. And then on the other side of that coin, the public side to the private side, those kids were learning lessons about life. And they had the ability to send $25 of their $30 monthly pay home to the family. That money would be used generally to put food on the table, to provide the necessities of life at a time when people were wondering where is my next meal coming from? And leading to the desperation of the Joad family in “Grapes of Wrath” and saying I’ve got to get out of here, I’ve got to leave my home, I’ve got to leave my family, my roots, my church and hit the road into the great unknown. That’s an act of desperation. That’s what we were dealing with in the early 1930s.

Rob: So essentially recognizing at the time that a public works program was better than public assistance.

Blackburn: Exactly. And that was the beauty of the CCC. And then that would continue with the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, as it’s better known. Now, that came a little later in Oklahoma because we had a governor at the time, Alfalfa Bill Murray, who was an old time populist state’s rights advocate. He didn’t want the federal strings on grants. And the WPA, the PWA, the Public Works Administration, as well as the Works Progress Administration, provided block grants for the states. And then the theory is that the state, then working through a subunit such as the Parks Department that was created in the 1930s, cities and counties would then raise the money for the materials and the PWA, WPA, would provide the money for the labor with the idea we are going to put people to work, we are gonna put a shovel in their hand, we’re gonna get them on a project building a city hall, a convention center, a county courthouse, a bridge, a road – whatever it was that would improve the quality of life, that’s how that money would be spent. You know, it was not geared to efficiency so much and organization, but it was geared to employing people. And yes, you may have been able to hire a crew of people on a tractor to do something in a week; instead they would employee 30 people and take month. And so the mission was really a duo thing. It was to do something with the community and then to provide employment for these people who wanted to work but had no opportunity to work. Instead of taking a hand out, they were given a hand up.

Rob: And with guidance from experienced craftsman, the CCC enrollees were able to take stone that was quarried right here in the state park and hand-hewn lumber and turn it into beautiful buildings that withstood the test of time.

Blackburn: You can go into almost any community, and I can recognize WPA architecture. It looks a certain style. You can go into a state park, like Murray State Park, and go to Tucker Tower and another dozen or so buildings that date the CCCs. You can go into old Platt National Park, Chickasaw Recreation Area here and see the picnic pavilions – it’s a very definite style inspired by the National Park Service architecture that you still can see in Yellowstone, you can see it in the Grand Canyon. Well, the states were adopting the same. It was an organic architecture with very natural materials cut to look as they might have in the natural state instead of doing the manufactured, the machine-look. It’s going back to nature and that organic architecture. You see it in the armories – they take it out of not cut stone but natural stone. You see it in the big long timbers used as rafters in some of these outdoor pavilions. You see the big massive piles of stone that tie the architectural style of the building to the ground. It’s a, it’s a particular style I see throughout Oklahoma. And many of those buildings are still being used in what community you’re in. You drive down Route 66 and find those structures. Or you can go to any community, it’s all around us, still making a difference.

Rob: And while it’s the infrastructure we may see, it’s the programs, WPA programs, also worried about preserving some cultural heritage.

Blackburn: The WPA also wanted to make a difference in arts and the literature area of our culture. And so they created a program such as the Oklahoma Writers Project. Well, at the time, the state got the block grant and the money was given to the Oklahoma Historical Society of that day and time. We had just built the old historical building that’s now the judicial building – 21st and Lincoln. And we have the space in the building and so unemployed journalists, unemployed writers and others who had some writing ability were hired in the Writers Project and they were sent out into the state. The Indian Pioneer Papers, interviews with pioneers and Indians who made the “Trail of Tears” and the 1830s and ’40s were still around at the time. So those memories were collected and written in books. Today, the Indian Pioneer Papers’ 116 volumes of first-person narrative from our pioneering experience, indexes to newspapers, history of local communities, landmarks – it added to our understanding of Oklahoma and at the same time, it employed those people who had some skills that were misapplied using a shovel on a highway, but they could sit at a typewriter and write the story of a pioneer who founded the town of Chickasha or Waurika or some other little town.

Rob: And unique artwork hanging in many of our federal buildings, too, come from that era.

Blackburn: Exactly. The arts project would be used. American Indians who were just learning to express themselves in a new way through their own interpretation of art were hired to do murals. There was an entire book about Indian New Deal art in Oklahoma post offices, in public buildings.

Rob: Employing more than 90,000 Oklahomans. Just as importantly, what the CCC and the WPA did was prepare what’s been called the greatest generation of Americans for the storm clouds of war that was soon to be on their horizon.

[fighter planes].

Blackburn: Well, of course when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the nation had to come together immediately. And you saw that with the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, the leadership in the Congress and the nation rallied for one purpose. I believe that the 1930s lead-up to that had an impact because instead of everyone out on their own, survival of the fittest, if you were hungry too bad if you couldn’t find it. The weak shall perish, and the strong shall survive. Well, instead of that you had these programs that draw us back together, using facilities that are part of these programs to build infrastructure. It was for us, not for one company, not for one person, but it was for all of us. And that sense of community was at the heart of the CCC and the WPA and the PWA, in trying to work together for the common good. And with that culture there at the grass roots level, when it’s time to go to war, when we have to be united, one voice speaking, and determine to win, then we were ready.

Rob: And despite their legacy, FDR’s New Deal programs do have their detractors. If you’d like to make up your own mind and learn more about the history of the New Deal after the show, head to our website at okhorizon.com and look for a link we have set up to one of my favorite spots on the Web – it’s called “Crash Course in U.S. History,” where you can get pretty educated in about 15 minutes.