RHS Semi-Annual Meeting: The New Deal and the WPA

On September 29 the RHS met for their semi-annual dinner meeting, followed by a presentation by Dr. Stephen Russell, of Northern Essex Community College, who spoke about the Works Progress Administration (WPA). If you are interested, you can view the meeting and presentation at Rowley Community Media (Show 3198), and read more here about the WPA right here in Rowley.


The WPA in Rowley

The railroad overpass on Route 1A and the stone wall on the corner of Summer and Bradford Streets . . . were these built as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)? Maybe you can tell us, because we are not sure!  We do know that downtown sidewalks, the original gravel Town Landing on Warehouse Lane, and several fire holes were among many projects carried out locally under the WPA.

In 1933 then President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) to help offset the effects of the Great Depression by putting people to work on needed public works projects. From the FERA came the CWA or Civil Works Administration, which eventually led to the WPA. Rowley’s Selectmen responded quickly by setting up a local WPA employment office. The first part of the Selectmen’s Administration Summary of the year 1933 explains:

As everybody knows the year of 1933 was probably one of the most hectic years in the history of our country. Millions of people were out of employment and unable to support themselves which meant just one thing the Government, State, Cities and Towns were obliged to do something and that something was to see that these people were either put to work or provided for. It certainly was a grave problem that faced every Administration from the Federal down to the Local Town Administration. Your local Town Officers realized what they were up against. On the one hand the over-burdened tax payer had to be considered and on the other the welfare of the unfortunate people with no income whatever. During the first three months of the year everybody was shivering and wondering what was coming next and then came the New Deal and along with it the C.W.A which has been a Godsend. As soon as the Local Officials were able to find out what it was all about they got busy with the heads of all the different Departments and had them draw up projects so as to get the unemployed to work and at the same time to do something around our Town that was worth while. Through the influence of the Local Board we were able to get our own re-employment office which not only put one of our local men to work but made it possible for our local unemployed to register and have preference on all work done within the Town limits.  . . .  There are a number of different things around the Town that have been sadly neglected in years gone by which can be taken care of now at a very small expense to the tax-payers. So let’s appropriate the necessary sums and do the things we have always wanted to do at about one third of what it will cost us later.

Run-on sentences notwithstanding, this bipartisan board meant what they said and got things moving quickly. At a time when the appropriation for Town Administration was $12,480, they received approval at Town Meeting for $2,000 toward materials for CWA projects. By the time the CWA had become the WPA, the appropriation was $2,500. The Administration Summary noted some of the first-year accomplishments in a later paragraph:

Our roads are in the best condition they have been for years, our school houses are right up to the minute and far surpass some in many of the other town [sic] around, our Town Hall is being renovated inside and out and if we are fortunate enough to continue receiving C.W.A. money we will have a Town Hall second to none in this locality, as you all no doubt know there are various changes and improvements taking place in our Cemetery and all the shade trees around the town have come in for their share of the care which has been necessary for years. All these changes and improvements are worth-while and although the money that was spent under the C.W.A. will not in any way reduce your tax rate it will in years following have the effect of holding your tax rate down.

In a time before fire hydrants existed, fire prevention was a focus of the projects. Keeping Town Brook clear helped in this regard, and the gravel installed at Town Landing was a bonus for boaters, but its intent was to support a fire truck in case water from the river was needed. Additionally, at least four reservoirs were dug (Summer, corner of Main & Haverhill, Hammond, and Independent Streets), fire lanes were cleared, and the fire siren (now defunct) was installed on Town Hall to summon volunteer firefighters (the only kind we had, back then).

We don’t know the details of all the projects, but we do know that Rowley used CWA/WPA funds to install and upgrade sidewalks, plant and prune shade trees, clear and burn brush, seed clam beds and remove predators from the clam flats, mend and relabel library books, update Town Hall, survey cemetery property, paint inside and grade the grounds of the Ezekiel Rogers School (on Wethersfield St.), battle elm beetles and moths, improve streets, and create a playground. There is mention in the various Town Reports of a “typing project,” but no one saw fit to elaborate on what was being typed.

The Center School, now the Town Hall Annex, received considerable attention during this period. WPA monies were used to clean and paint classrooms, replace ceilings, install a new floor, refinish all blackboards and desks, sand and re-varnish all woodwork, install drains in the basement, and install indoor toilets, as well. Incidentally, the Highway Department Supervisor demonstrated the frugality of the period in his report following the installation of those toilets:

… Since that time by utilizing odd-time and welfare labor [W.P.A.] and various means at our disposal we have acquired for your protection a discarded wood-shed for a blacksmith shop, your old lavatory from the Center School for a tool and store-house, both of which we now have wired and lighted as the occasion requires.

Waste not, want not!

As World War II progressed and increased the demand for munitions, uniforms, and the like, the economy improved and more people returned to full time work. The WPA was deemed no longer necessary. Article 18 of the Report of the Annual Town Meeting March 1, 1943 closed out Rowley’s participation with a vote “to allow the $1,482.49 balance in the W.P.A. appropriation to revert to free cash.” We may never know the extent of the WPA projects in town, but we know that many have withstood the test of time.

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