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Works Progress Administration


When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, more than 13 million Americans were out of work. But North Dakota was arguably the hardest hit of the 48 states. From 1929 to 1938 North Dakota received less than 20 inches of rain per year, well below average.

The depression was severe, but it would be the droughts of 1934 and 1936 the delivered the knock-out punch. Wheat prices plummeted, prompting the value of farm land to dip from 22 dollars per acre in 1930 to 12 dollars in 1940. Historian Elwin B. Robinson estimates that one third of North Dakota families lost their farms to foreclosure.

Many drifted into towns looking for work. Others left the state. The federal government provided 32 million dollars in direct relief and farm aid for North Dakota between 1932 and 1935, but President Roosevelt felt that simply doling out relief payments would eventually lead to, “spiritual and moral disintegration.” So, in an attempt to relieve the economic hardships, a series of national work programs were created.

The Works Progress Administration, the WPA, was developed in 1935 and would remain in operation until this date in 1943. Within two years of its establishment, the WPA had employed almost 53,000 North Dakotans. Much of the work in the state involved construction projects. From 1935 to 1943, the WPA built over 20,000 miles of highways and streets. It constructed over 700 new bridges and viaducts, and another 700 outdoor recreation facilities, like fairgrounds, pools and parks. 800 water wells were dug, and 39 sewage treatment plants were built. 500 new public buildings were erected, and 166 miles of sidewalks were laid by North Dakota WPA workers.

But the WPA also operated numerous non-construction projects. Each county had a WPA sewing project, which employed more than 800 women. In one year alone, they produced over 800,000 garments to be distributed to North Dakota school children. A WPA mattress project in Minot produced over 43,000 mattresses. Quilting projects and gardening projects resulted in tens of thousands of comforters and canned products to be distributed within the state.

The National Youth Administration, a program under the WPA, provided part-time employment in construction, research or library work for high-school and college students. Artists and other cultural workers were employed by the WPA Federal Arts Project, the Federal Music Project and the Federal Theatre Project. The Federal Writer’s Project produced and published The WPA Guidebook to North Dakota. The Historical Record Survey documented biographical information on thousands of early North Dakota settlers. Today these documents provide a wealth of information for researchers and historians.

By 1943, when the WPA officially ended in North Dakota, the Federal Government had spent a total of 266 million dollars in the state for farm aid and work relief. It was intended to provide immediate help, but in the end, the WPA did much more – it lifted the spirits of people and left in its wake, countless roads, parks and artwork that made North Dakota a better place to live.

Dakota Datebook by Kristina Campbell