History in Focus: The New Deal in Moffat County

The onset of the Great Depression in October of 1929 sent the United States into an economic tailspin.  Elected president in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” promised to help Americans through the crisis. One of the largest of the New Deal programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was active in creating jobs in Moffat County while also spawning questions about the future of America.

The WPA was established by presidential executive order 7034 under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. The goal of the WPA was to put the unemployed to work instead of receiving welfare relief. At its height, the WPA employed 3.3 million Americans building roads, schools, hospitals, waterworks, libraries, parks and many more infrastructure projects. In Colorado alone, approximately 150,000 people were at least briefly employed by the WPA (Colorado Encyclopedia).

In order to funnel all the elements of an economy into the arms of government direction, a labyrinth of bureaucracy was created. First, once WPA funding was approved, state and local governments had to scrounge up 10-15% matching funds in the form of labor and materials. (Colorado Encyclopedia).

Next, to be employed on WPA projects residents had to apply to the county welfare board, be on relief for a certain amount of time and only one “breadwinner” per family was allowed to work for a basic “security” wage. Applicants were assured they would not face coercion or exclusion based on political beliefs. 

An individual’s application was sent to the WPA office in Grand Junction for verification. Once approved, eligible workers could be assigned to various projects. (Oak Creek Times, 6/30/36 and Craig Empire Courier (CEC), 3/29/39).  

Once all of this red tape was completed a wide range of projects were undertaken in the area. In 1936, Fortification Creek was straightened and lined with rip-rap and the nearby streets of Lincoln, Colorado, Legion and Sixth were graded and surfaced with gravel. An application was submitted to the WPA in Grand Junction to landscape the Yampa school with lawns, trees and flower gardens. A water filtration system was given the green light in November of 1936. (CEC, 4/8, 4/15 and 11/8/36). 

In 1938 a fire-proof store room was constructed behind the old and soon to be demolished court house. Very importantly, $8,970.00 of WPA funds extended sewer lines throughout Craig, (CEC, 2/16 and 3/23).

The most significant and still visible WPA accomplishments include the wonderfully matching brick wings to each side of the Yampa school building, the sandstone building on 260 Ranney Street (home of today’s CDOT headquarters), and the fairgrounds Pavilion. All of these edifices are still in use today.

Amazingly, in April of 1937, 13 of the 26 workers on the water filtration plant felt justified to go on strike. Their beef revolved around the perceived unfairness of the unskilled labor wage of $40.00 per month while skilled labor rates were set at $55.00. However, the other half of the crew opted to continue working (CEC, 4/14/37).

Chuck Stoddard, editor of the Craig Empire-Courier, questioned the logic of the strikers and the New Deal as it related to American ideals. “If the federal government is obliged to give jobs to every worker who has none, we must eventually have state socialism, or a highly complicated combination of capitalism and socialism which amounts to fascism.”

Digging even deeper, Stoddard perceived the motives of New Deal supporters as a play for power and a clear sign of fallible human nature.  “…I for one can find no signs of changes in the impelling motives of men and women. And until those are changed, talk of communism, socialism or fascism curing any of the ills of our economic order is puerile to say the least.”

By the way, I was also befuddled at the meaning of the word puerile, which means childishly silly or trivial.

Stoddard’s straightforward observations about the meaning of the strike at the water filtration plant still echo into today’s debates over health care, student loan relief and even whether or not the New Deal saved capitalism from revolution or led us down the road towards creeping state control.

Eighty years after the WPA ended in 1943, academic arguments surrounding the legacy of the New Deal continue. However, in the depths of those desperate years the WPA was vital in lifting the hopes of the millions of downtrodden and unemployed with the dignity of work, including many citizens of Moffat County.  

James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at Thanks to Dan Davidson of the Museum of Northwest Colorado for information on WPA buildings and access to the museum archives.

Yampa School Building, 775 Yampa Ave., possibly shortly after the addition of the North and South Wings in 1939. Photo by George Welch. Photo Courtesy of Museum of Northwest Colorado.
The front of the CDOT Region 3 Section 6 headquarters on 260 Ranney St. The construction of the brown sandstone building was a WPA project of the New Deal. Photo by James Neton.
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