"Thank God we still have a government in Washington that knows how to deal with a mob."
- President Herbert Hoover speaking in Detroit about ordering General MacArthur to use tanks to forcibly remove financially ruined World War One Veterans peacefully camped in a shantytown in Washington who had come to ask for early payment of their war bonuses.
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance…This nation asks for action. And action now…”
- Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech, March 4, 1933.
Hoover was gone after four years of watching the country fall to pieces, and a new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as happy and optimistic as Hoover was dour, was in Washington willing to try almost anything to improve the economic lot of the people of this nation. The result was a crazy quilt of programs with enough acronyms to make a fine soup. There was the AAA, the PWA, the FSA, the REA, the CCC, the WPA, and many more. Some put men and women to work on public service or infrastructure projects. Some attempted to aid desperate, debt ridden farmers. Some regulated the banking and Wall Street manipulators who had, by building pyramids of fantasy wealth on margin and intricate frauds free of regulation, brought the country to its knees. We all know in general terms the history of the Great Depression and Roosevelt‘s New Deal. We know about the massive dams, buildings, and roads built in those years, but what benefit did Southwest Wisconsin and Grant County in particular receive from the programs of that time?
In 1933 the Dubuque Telegraph Herald carried a short story telling of a marvel in Grant County. Edward Kruel, a rural Fennimore farmer had built a barn. This was not just any barn. It had “all of the latest improvements,” such as running water, an electric lighting and ventilation system, and metal stanchions and stalls. For Grant County and indeed for most of rural America such wonders were almost unheard of. Fewer than one in eight Wisconsin farms had electrical service. All farmers knew that electricity could vastly improve farm productivity with motors for implements and milking machine systems, pumps for moving water, heating and cooling systems. With electrical service the farmer’s home could join the 20th century by installing stoves, refrigerators, and radios. Farmers who had battery powered radio sets had to take the batteries to town frequently to recharge them.
The problem was geography and cost. In 1882 Appleton, Wisconsin was the first city in the nation to benefit from a commercial electric generator, introduced by Henry J. Rogers, a paper company executive and banker. By 1910 most cities had electrical service available, but those electrical utilities ignored the surrounding rural areas. In 1934 less than 11% of American farms had electrical service. At that time in Germany and France 90% of farms had electricity. Utility companies saw no profit in running electric lines to the farmer. The estimate was that, on average, it would take a mile of line to serve only three farms. The cost for line and transformers was at least $500.00 per mile in those days. The total cost estimated to provide electricity to 500,000 farms was $112 million (about $1.8 billion in today’s dollars). The cost per farm was estimated to be $225.00 or $3,800.00 in 2012 dollars. Unlike Europe, farms were widely spread across a large country. The failure of the market to deliver electricity to rural America, called for government action, which private electrical providers still objected to. On May 11, 1935 President Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) by executive order. Congress appropriated $410 million to assist the formation of local cooperatives; non-profit consumer owned organizations to build rural power lines and contract for or generate electrical power for the nation’s farms. Federal money provided long term loans at low interest rates to carry on the work.
Our neighbors to the north in Richland County were the first in Wisconsin to form a rural electric cooperative 0n January 20, 1936. On September 7, 1938 the first REA pole in Wisconsin was set in Richland Center, and On May 7, 1937 the first line (267 miles) was electrified in Richland county. In Grant County survey work was started in January of 1937 to ascertain which farmers would sign up for electrical service if a cooperative was formed. In southeast Grant county 453 Farmers signed up for REA service and names and locations were sent to the Madison REA office to draw up line routes. This preliminary enrollment was occurring all over the county. On April 6, 1937 the Grant County Cooperative Rural Electric Association was formed. An REA loan of $180,000.00 was made to construct the first 170 miles of line. County agent Ben H. Walker was especially active in getting the work started. Bids were taken in October of 1937 for the construction of the power lines. L. G. Arnold, Inc. of Eau Claire won the bid to construct the lines. The Interstate Power Company supplied the electricity from the substation south of Lancaster. On January 20, 1938 the Wisconsin State Journal carried the following story:
Setting the first REA Pole in Grant County - 1938 (donated by Diane Doeringsfeld)
On June 18, 1938 an “old fashioned” community picnic was held on the Grant County fairgrounds to mark the opening of the REA lines. There were boys’ and girls' races, a softball game, and the Greer Rodeo sent several acts to entertain. As the years went by more and more lines were built, so that now almost all rural farms and homes have the benefit of electricity. Later, cooperatives were formed to do the same with the telephone. The public utilities carried on a propaganda war against the Rural Electric Cooperatives for years, labeling them “communist.” To counter these attacks, the Wisconsin REA News began publication in July of 1940. Harvey Schermerhorn, co-owner of the Grant County Independent was named the first editor or the Wisconsin REA News. Years later he said that he "recognize[d] it as one of the greatest stimulants to rural happiness and progress in the history of our country.” He wrote: "We are happy in the thought that not a week passed but what we preached the gospel of REA through our columns in the Grant County Independent, boosting its activities."
The situation for farmers was grim in the late twenties and thirties. Farm prices fell as tariffs were erected and other nations could not afford to buy America’s farm products. Farm bankruptcies were becoming ever more frequent. In 1932 “dirt farmer legislators” went to Madison seeking direct relief from the state treasury. A subsidy bill was introduced in the state assembly, and passed, calling for every farmer to receive 30 cents an hour. When he sold his crop or marketed his milk if his income did not equal the sum of his hours at 30 cents the state was to pay him the difference. It was not practical or possible. The cost to subsidize the state’s 450,000 farmers in this manner was estimated to be as much as $300 million per year. It was impossible, but the fact that it was presented, even though defeated in the Senate showed the depths of desperation of Wisconsin’s farmers.
After Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933, his “brain trust” went to work developing and securing passage of a broad spectrum of relief measures: The Agricultural Adjustment Act to institute farm price supports; the Farm Credit Administration to help refinance farm mortgages by buying them from banks which were foreclosing on farms wholesale; the Rural Resettlement Administration to assist in moving farmers (including tenants and sharecroppers) off land too marginal to support them, and onto their own farms.
In Wisconsin the farm resettlement program was initially in the hands of the Wisconsin rural Rehabilitation Corporation. The federal government took over these duties in November of 1935, following the establishment of the Rural Resettlement Administration. In Grant County most of the activities of the RRA involved loaning money to families on marginal land so that they could buy their own land and farm it. In 1934 and 1935, forty-nine families received these loans. County Supervisor T. P. Shreve wrote in the Grant County Herald :
“farm families unable to make a living on land which once supported them have been cared for, for two years, by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Pressed down by economic hardships, they were deteriorating mentally, morally, and physically. Outside help was needed to save them. Direct relief is not the solution. The Government can provide farmers with a means of living [through loans]. Direct relief cannot provide economic sufficiency…The objective and ambition of the Resettlement administration is to help and assist anyone who is worthy and will qualify to get a new start in life…If a man and his wife have a good reputation for honesty and industry, have no judgments against them, are sober and ambitious , and can furnish satisfactory references, there is a possibility of them getting a loan…sufficient to start farming in a small way.”
In November 1935 the Grant County Herald announced that 314 Wisconsin farm families would be removed from sub-marginal lands, which would be reforested and used for game and wildlife refuges. The cost for the 16,000 acres: $870,000.00. The families presumably used the money to buy better farms for a better life.
A Grant County Family discussing a farm rehabilitation management plan with the county agent, 1939, by John Vachon of the FSA.
JOBS AND RELIEF ASSISTANCE
Loading scrap, Grant County Wisconsin 1937, by Russell Lee, FSA
The story is depressing to read, even after the span of 77 years: “Platteville Has Enormous Relief Costs – A survey of the Platteville relief situation from November 1, 1934 to November 1, 1935, shows that 247 cases received a total of $51,410.74 during the 12 months period. Expenditures, as classified, were: Cash, $25,827.24; groceries, $9,713.46; milk, $1,663.48; clothing, $1,214.65; rent, $3,016.35; medical aid, $4,142.81; fuel, $5,332.67. The summary does not include $4,000 for clothing made up and $5,000 in contributed commodities. It has no connection with CCC work or teaching projects – just relief.” This situation just seemed to go on and on. Families were starving; children going without clothes, tens of thousands were on the roads going somewhere to try for a decent life again. As Christmas 1935 approached reporters asked President Roosevelt: “Is the government going to stop direct relief next July?” “My answer” the President replied “was that the Federal government …does not propose to let people starve after the first of July any more than during the past few years.”
Article on undernourished Grant county children fed by the WPA - from the Wisconsin State Journal April 25, 1937
Article on undernourished Grant county children fed by the WPA - from the Wisconsin State Journal April 25, 1937
In May of 1935 The Federal Emergency Relief Act established a project for women on relief to work eight hours a day making wool comforters in centers in Cuba city and Platteville. The year before the relief recipients had been put to work making cotton comforters. These relief recipients were required to complete yearly sworn statements stating their assets, liabilities, income, and dependents.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA, 1935-1943) and the Public Works Administration (PWA, 1933-1943) provided the money to do public infrastructure improvements. In 1935 alone the following projects were approved for Grant County:
1. $3,159.00 to crush gravel and put it on farm to market secondary roads at Patch Grove.
2. $215.00 to excavate and construct a basement and move a school building onto the new foundation in Harrison Township District #4.
3. $9,999.00 to construct water works extensions in Platteville.
4. $14,277.00 to improve secondary roads in Cassville Township.
5. $4,120.00 to improve other roads in Grant County.
6. $5,000.00 for 1500 feet of concrete paving in the City of Lancaster.
7. For Boscobel: $1,300.00 for two black top tennis courts; $1,500.00 for 1400 feet of storm sewers; $5,400.00 for curb, gutter, and sidewalk; and $4,500.00 for crushed rock for the streets.
8. $4,600.00 for sewer laterals in Fennimore.
9. $1,900.00 for Sidewalk, curb, and gutter in Mt. Hope.
10. $8,600.00 for 8700 cubic yards of crushed rock for the roads in Wingville Township.
11. $16,000.00 for Smelser Township to resurface town roads and build “culvert bridges.”
12. $6,200.00 to Beetown Township for road resurfacing and culverts.
13. $15,000.00 for the Platteville state Teachers College to repair buildings.
14. Another $7,600.00 to Patch grove for crushed rock for roads.
15. Another $28,000.00 for 16,000 cubic yards of crushed rock for Cassville town roads.
16. $1,631.00 to repair the high school at Lancaster.
17. $1,125.00 for repairs to the North and South school buildings in Lancaster.
18. $9,900.00 for city hall improvements.
19. $5,794.00 for city water mains in Lancaster
20. $2,250.00 for a community service program in Lancaster.
21. $1,503.00 for alley improvements in Lancaster.
22. $1,935.00 for park improvements in Platteville.
23. $4,780.00 for construction of a brick incinerator in Platteville.
24. $1,650.00 for sidewalks in Bloomington.
25. $13,690.00 to construct an addition on Livingston High School.
26. $14,875.00 for improvement of the community center in Fennimore.
And many smaller amounts I am too tired to list
Swimming pools were built in Viroqua, Mineral Point, Dodgeville, Sauk city, and Prairie Du Chien. School house gymnasiums were built for Cuba City, Reedsburg, Benton, LaFarge, Ridgeway, and Cassville. The Grant County Herald reported that The WPA paving job on Elm Street from the Railroad Depot to three blocks south was completed in November 1935. “The work was done at quite a reasonable figure” the paper reported “All work was done by local labor and supervision. The men worked with a will at all times, cheerfully putting in overtime to get the project out of the way before frost. Everybody concerned feels happy over Lancaster’s WPA paving job.”
Lastly, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC, 1933-1942) put young unmarried, unemployed men ages 17-28 from relief homes to work. In nine years 2.5 million young men were taken off the roads and put to work at $30.00 per month. They were required to send $25.00 of that home to the family. They received food and shelter in the camps, mostly doing work in conservation and rehabilitation on government land. Many had not eaten as well in years. Many from Grant County participated. There were CCC camps at Lancaster, Wyalusing (Nelson Dewey), Glen Haven, and Platteville.
Grant County CCC crew abt. 1934
So what did Grant County get from the New Deal? They got the same thing that the rest of the country got; a view of some light at the end of the tunnel; some hope that things would get better, maybe not tomorrow or the day after, but eventually. There were naysayers and alarmists in those days as there are now, some said government was the problem not the solution: that Nazis or Communists would come to power; that Roosevelt would make himself a dictator and there would be no more presidential elections. “If the New Deal goes on to the only destination it can have” said columnist Mark Sullivan in November 1935, “that this may be the last presidential election America will have.” It was all nonsense. Roosevelt was actually working to save American democratic capitalism from its own near suicidal abuses. What if there had been no New Deal? What if….