Whenever Tony Dierckins walks his dog by Duluth’s Chester Creek, he passes the stone retaining walls built in the 1930s by local job seekers put to work by the federal government.
“There’s still remnants today all over of things that were done by New Deal programs,” said Dierckins, a Duluth historian.
Todd Hanselman had a similar thought while exploring Minneopa State Park near Mankato. While climbing stairs near the park’s falls, he noticed a bronze plaque marking the site as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.
“I wondered where there were more of these in the state,” said Hanselman, a social studies teacher who will soon introduce his New Ulm students to the Great Depression era.
He turned to the Star Tribune for help, asking: How many WPA projects were completed in Minnesota? The question is part of the paper’s Curious Minnesota project, a community-driven series fueled by the inquisitiveness of readers.
The WPA was just one of many federal agencies established by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, an economic plan to help the country recover from the Great Depression. The program, which began in 1935, hired millions of unemployed people to work on public infrastructure projects.
In Minnesota, the WPA built or improved 28,000 miles of road, 578 miles of sidewalk and 1,443 bridges, according to Rolf Anderson, an architectural historian who researched the state’s New Deal relics.
Workers employed by the agency also built a variety of public facilities in the state, including 1,324 new public buildings, 52 stadiums or grandstands, 119 athletic fields, 56 sewage treatment plants, six swimming pools and three airports. They rehabilitated numerous more.
The program spent $250 million and affected close to 600,000 people in Minnesota, according to Anderson’s studies.
“We continue to benefit from its legacy,” he said. “I think that’s true with all these New Deal programs.”
A definitive list of the state’s WPA projects may not exist, he added, though an enterprising Minnesota history lover could likely make one by combing through the agency’s records at the National Archives in Washington.
It’s easy to stumble across the fruits of the agency’s work, however — just look for the telltale bronze plaques.
Notable WPA structures in Minnesota include Milaca’s former City Hall, an elementary school in Rockville, the State Fair 4-H building and Minneapolis’ Hwy. 100. In Deerwood, a small town near Brainerd, Anderson said WPA workers were hired to harvest stone from local fields that they then used to build the city’s auditorium — a plan that stretched out their employment period and resulted in a higher quality end product.
Many parks were also developed during the era thanks in large part to the work of the WPA and other agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). State and local governments often partnered with the federal programs to cover the costs of the public improvements.
The WPA, which was later renamed the Works Projects Administration, was shut down in 1943 after nearly a decade of existence. In addition to construction jobs, the program created opportunities to employ authors, artists, educators and others for public services.
Like many other communities across the state, Dierckins said of the northeastern Minnesota city where he lives: “It was significantly shaped by what went on in the ’30s.”
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