You can’t pick up a newspaper or travel our highways without seeing some reference to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). You have seen the roadside signs proclaiming the rebuilding of America by putting Americans back to work. Just the placement of the signs must have put a lot of Americans back to work. Anyway, the point is America is no stranger to economic upheavals, and some of our older citizens have the misfortune of being part of the last two. Our story today is about the last one.

As we all know, following the stock market crash of 1929 America fell into a deep depression. Much as we are seeing during our current economic crisis, millions of Americans were out of work, losing their homes and savings, and fighting just to survive.

Some form of relief was clearly needed and it came in the form of the WPA. As part of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 signed into law by then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA as it was commonly known was created. Similar to parts of our present Stimulus bill the WPA was tasked to create jobs in building schools, bridges, roads, and the like. Not just a “road bill,” it also extended into the arts to ensure everyone could potentially participate.

The WPA reached out to all of America and Ashland was no exception. Each town appointed an administrator to oversee WPA funded work, reporting to the Board of Selectmen. The Administrator’s report also appeared in the town’s Annual Report.

Noting that the WPA was in existence from 1935 until 1943, the town had appointed different administrators to fill the position. An example of one of these reports, which incidentally all contained the same three paragraphs:

“During this period a large number of men and women have been employed on various local projects. The number so employed has varied from time to time in accordance with the amounts allotted to the Town of Ashland from federal funds and with changes in requirements for employment in this work, thus removing a large burden from the welfare department.

“The projects already completed have proved of benefit to the town in several departments of public work. The work has been done in a very satisfactory manner and is progressing well.

“In addition to the labor furnished there has been distributed much food and clothing this distribution has been not only to the workers but also to other needy families in town.”

The report then lists all the projects funded for that fiscal year. Most fell into the municipal improvements category: Road repair, sidewalks, painting of municipal buildings, etc. A couple of projects were interesting though. In the 1936 report, over $6300.00 was funded for a “sewing project.” The following year that same project was funded for over $8800.00. By 1939 it had dropped to about $1100.00. I’m not sure what they were sewing, but that’s a lot of money for the 1930s. Another project was the municipal swimming pool on Granite Street (now Raymond Marchetti St.). Records show the construction took place over a four year period with a total cost of around $42K. Not all the money came from the WPA though. For all WPA projects it looks like 20% to 25% came from local funds. And I wouldn’t go searching for the pool now. It was removed as part of the affordable housing development on Carl R. Ghilani Circle.

One last noteworthy project was the painting of the mural inside the Post Office titled “The Railroad Comes to Town” by Saul Berman. Painted in 1941, it is located above the Postmaster’s door at the rear of the customer service area. Although I was often told it was WPA artwork, research shows that most of the post office murals were painted with funding from the Section of Fine Arts under the U.S. Treasury Dept. The time line is the same, and it was still considered a “New Deal” project, but I didn’t find any local reference to funding.

I guess we will have to see how President Obama’s ARRA plan progresses. The WPA lasted 8 years, ending a couple of years before the end of WWII. Many believe the war effort was the turning point for our economy then. I hope it doesn’t take us 8 years now.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
June 2010