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Alphabet Agencies: FDR's Brainstorm
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Mark Ansley
The year was 1933. The country had felt the effects of the Great Depression for four years. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just taken office as President of the United States, promising a " New Deal " for the American people. The New Deal took action to bring about immediate economic relief in areas such as industry, agriculture, finance, waterpower, labor and housing.
Holiday Hall at UTEP was a WPA project. Photo by Richard Diaz.
Congress spawned dozens of acts and agencies. Many of these recovery agencies had long names and therefore became known by their initials. In all, the New Deal created 59 "alphabet agencies" that undoubtedly helped to get America out of the depression.
The alphabet agencies helped El Paso and the surrounding areas with many work projects. They helped to keep people employed during the Great Depression, and the agencies improved El Paso with new and better roads, schools and buildings as well as countless other projects. On November 14, 1933, the Civilian Works Administration (CWA) arrived in El Paso and began to set up of the first relief projects in the city. The CWA gave work to 4,000 men with another 4,000 signed up ready to work, according to C. L. Sonnichsen, author of Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande .
The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) was also established in 1933 to help regulate farm production. Using the supply and demand principle, the AAA would often pay farmers to destroy their own crops. The AAA attempted to raise prices by controlling the production of major crops through cash subsidies to farmers. In 1934, the El Paso County Cotton Committee was paid $3.5 million for their cotton crop by the AAA. This included over $200,000 in rental payments for land that was taken out of the production.
FDR had many opponents to his New Deal programs, but not even the angriest of them had much to say again the good work initiated by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) . In its nine years of existence, put 2.5 million young men to work planting 200 million trees, digging drainage ditches, building firebreaks, clearing campgrounds and building reservoirs.
This massive effort of conservation and reforestation benefited not only the nation but the boys themselves. The average enlistment for a boy in one of these camps was 10 months.
The CCC had several camps in the El Paso area, including those in Fabens, Ascarate, Ysleta and Elephant Butte in New Mexico. CCC workers completed major improvements at Elephant Butte, including the planting of 4,500 trees and building a clubhouse, campsites, cabins and a playground. The CCC boys widened and straightened roads around the dam and built several new stretches for road, making this primary recreational spot for both Texas and New Mexico.
To create jobs and stimulate business, FDR convinced Congress in 1933 to create the federally financed Public Works Administration (PWA ). New boys and girls dormitories were built at the College of Mines, now UTEP, with a grant provided by the PWA, and in 1936 the PWA finished construction of a three-story engineering building at the college.
Soon, however, the PWA because mired in bureaucracy, and critics accused the agency of not putting people to work fast enough, so on May 6, 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was introduced to bypass the ton of red tape the PWA was stuck in.
The WPA was created to put Americans to work immediately and to give them the relief they needed. In El Paso, the WPA was instrumental in the construction, repair and paving of roads and highways. Upper valley roads received caliche plating and paving on Fairway, upper and lower Strahan roads and Westside roads. This work was part of a master project that improved 1,040 El Paso County roads.
The WPA constructed Brown and Alabama Streets, vital arteries for the Central and Northeast parts of El Paso today, and North Loop Road, one of El Paso's most traveled streets. WPA workers improved and widened McKelligon Canyon road, widened and paved Scenic Drive and built the Dyer Street Bridge.
In all, the WPA widened or paved almost 500 miles of roads in El Paso, installed or improved over 300 culverts and built 32 new bridges and improved seven others. Pedestrians could walk more safely with 34 miles of new sidewalks and paths built by the WPA.
In 1935 the highway linking El Paso and San Antonio contained sections in it that were not paved. But thanks to the WPA, all the gaps in this vital highway were paved from west of San Antonio to El Paso. The PWA set aside money for school beautification projects and general repair work, and then the WPA did the work. Such projects included remodeling the interior of El Paso High School and building a retaining wall to minimize the slope in front of the school. WPA workers repaired cracked walls and leaking roofs at Austin High School and performed general improvements at Morehead, Alta Vista and Bowie schools.
C. L. Sonnichsen, in Pass of the North says that "the College of Mines got new roads, rock walls, and even buildings which it could not have acquired for many years." The powerhouse at the college received an additional building.
New sidewalks and curbs around the library, dormitories, rest rooms and gymnasium were completed, along with beautification projects at the college.
The WPA also recognized the importance of modern flying facilities on the border and, according to an October 4, 1937 Herald- Post article, transformed 200 acres of mesquite-ridden sand dunes into one of the most modern municipal airports of the time." The WPA project included a one-square-mile landing field, new hangars, guide lights and an administration building with offices for operating companies, the weather bureau and customs officials.
Better public utility service was also provided when the WPA installed 13 miles of sewer lines and three miles of water mains and constructed three reservoirs and a storage tank.
In addition, WPA workers constructed several parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields. Including the exposition building and athletic field at Washington Park, and the clubhouse at the Municipal Golf Course.
One WPA project that employed more workers than any other single division in the El Paso district was the Sewing Room project in 1936. There were so many workers that a night shift was organized so 650 El Paso women could work. These women made quality clothing such as men's suits, coats, leather jackets, women's dresses and children's clothing. Garments by the hundreds of thousands were produced in El Paso to be distributed to needy families.
WPA teachers taught nearly 2,500 men and women to read and write through its adult education program. Of those adults who gained literacy through attending adult education classes, over 500 of them gained sufficient knowledge to fulfill naturalization requirements and become American citizens.
In addition to its publicized programs, the WPA helped to feed hungry children in El Paso public schools by preparing and serving food donated by sponsors. Library workers catalogued 55,000 volumes and repaired over 260,000 books. Workers inventoried and indexed city, county and school records.
Part of a general improvement, repair and enlargement program at Fort Bliss included work at Castner Range. WPA projects included building rifle ranges, roads and telephone systems at the Range. Construction at William Beaumont General Hospital included new buildings built for the War Department. In 1940, all WPA projects at Fort Bliss were given priority in the interest of national defense.
During its seven-year existence, the WPA spent $6.8 million on public improvement projects in Southwest Texas, a much larger sum then than today. Cities, counties and school districts furnished another $2.5 million for a total of $9.3 million spent to improve the El Paso area. The workers received $5.9 million of that in pay.
In Southwest Texas, 325 public buildings were built, renovated or enlarged by WPA workers. During the last year of the WPA, 39,000 WPA workers were placed in private employment through re-employment training. In August of 1942, the WPA closed its office doors in El Paso, but important projects for the war effort continued to function.
The alphabet agencies gave many El Pasoans not only a job but a sense of pride and made this area a better place to live in. People did not want relief; they wanted to work, and many proudly said that they worked for one of the alphabet agencies. The streets, sidewalks, parks and other physical reminders of the WPA in El Paso are a memorial to a country pulling together to rebuild its economy and providing its citizens the dignity of honesty work.