A North Dakota New Deal

Rachel Yarnell Thompson

It was a visit to my husband's hometown that brought me to Watford City, North Dakota, this past April. It's tucked there among low-slung hills that fade into undulating and strikingly beautiful heartland prairie. The chance of finding the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal programs here seemed about as remote as the town itself. Yet for some time, I had been planning an article about FDR, and how places "off the beaten path" were influenced by him. When I met my husband's uncle, Morris Frazee, an energetic, amiable eighty-two year old, he mentioned that he'd lived in Watford City all of his life. As we talked, I told him about my article, and asked him, almost casually, "Can you think of anything Roosevelt's New Deal Programs did around here during the Depression?" His reply was quick, "Well, for one thing I worked for the WPA!" That was the beginning of discovering Roosevelt in Watford City.
Morris Frazee was a young man, still living at home, when the Depression hit North Dakota. His parents were dairy farmers, and since "dust bowquot; conditions had reduced farm income to almost nothing, no one had money to buy anything. His parents' once profitable farm barely survived. Prices had fallen so low that they were selling milk at a pitifully low seven cents a quart. Crop yields were poor, so they could barely feed the cattle, yet selling them didn't bring enough money "to pay their freight to Minneapolis," as one farmer put it. Morris said that the drought-generated dust was so thick on the Frazee farmhouse walls "you could write your name in it."

Although some people sold their farms for what little they could get, and left town, his family members were able to feed themselves from the farm's meager yields and hold on. When Morris heard that the WPA (Works Projects Administration) would pay wages for graveling the town's dusty streets, he signed up. Later, he helped install the city's public water system. As he said, "Any job or project you heard of, you were there to get the work." The permanent value of such programs to the city was something he would consider later, after the hard times. For that moment, the projects represented employment, immediately and badly needed.

A smile came across Morris's face as he told me about one WPA project that provided winter work for laborers in Watford City. When snow blanketed the region, and outside projects had to be put on hold until spring, WPA men built sturdy outhouses in an old lumber warehouse. Even though other WPA funds had been earmarked to install a sewage system in Watford City, not all residents could afford the expense of connecting their house to this more convenient mode of sanitation. All rural families in the area still relied on "outside facilities." According to Morris, the WPA outhouses were favored over the homemade varieties, which could be easily toppled by errant boys, or were so flimsily built that a person could, as he said, "throw a cat through them." The new government models were sturdy, set on concrete foundations, ventilated at the top, and able to withstand long North Dakota winters. People came in the spring to buy them for a "reasonable price," carting them off in battered farm trucks for relocation in their backyards. Years later, after most city residents had indoor plumbing, those still serviceable WPA outhouses were sold to rural neighbors for a good second-hand price.

The Boys in the "C's"
"How about the CCC?" I asked Morris. "Do you know anybody who was in the CCC?" "That would be Mervin Johnson," he said. "He lives across the street. I'll call him up and ask him to come on over." Within a half hour, a handsome, tall gentleman of eighty years sat ramrod straight in a chair across from me telling how he spent six years of his youth in the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The CCC was Franklin Roosevelt's favorite New Deal program. In 1934, when Mervin joined, he fell nicely within the age range established by CCC guidelines. He was eighteen. Mervin's mother had died when he was only two years old, and he and his six siblings had been reared "by a neighbor lady." Watford City could send only sixty young men to the area's CCC program, with admission being based on need. A county commissioner knew Mervin's family situation and helped him get in. Early assignments in the CCC took him as far south as Arkansas, but eventually he was attached to a company near his hometown.

Describing his life in a camp near Watford on the Little Missouri River, Mervin said it was a lot like being in the army. The corpsmen were led by U.S. Army officers, dressed in army-style uniforms, responded to reveille each morning, and prepared meals and "pulled KP" on a rotating basis. Mervin remembers that his first conservation work in the Watford area was building roads in Theodore Roosevelt Park and "constructing dams down on Cherry Creek." The local newspaper, The McKenzie County Farmer, had said in an article that spring that "due to the contour and extent of the land, a hundred dams could be built in this county, and the Lord knows we need them." Apparently, Mervin did his part.

Mervin recalled that the boys in the Cs ate well-three hot meals a day. In writing about the Little Missouri CCC unit, the local paper explained that "a plain, well-balanced menu is provided, and most boys gain in weight an average of 20 pounds each in the first six months." This circumstance met one of FDR's purposes for establishing the program: it provided daily sustenance to young men who might not get it otherwise.

Mervin also noted that each evening, after chores were done, the boys were invited to participate in classes. They could learn woodworking, acquire other trade skills, or take correspondence courses to complete high school subjects. Mervin remembered a friend from the Cs, Arnold Stockstead, who finished high school by this method while in the program, went on to college, and became a career officer in the U.S. Army. Mervin's story illustrated another desired outcome of the CCC program: that through its offerings, young men would become productive citizens.

The positive effects of the CCC reached in many directions. Not only did the young men from the area complete tangible tasks-building dams and bridges, graveling roads throughout the Theodore Roosevelt Park, and constructing shelters and picnic areas-they also provided needed income for their families back home. The Cs earned thirty dollars a month, and all but five dollars was sent to parents or other relatives. Mervin noted that his remaining five dollars allowance was plenty for sodas and candy bars, and seemed "pretty good, when most boys were working for nothing but room and board."

Not only were these young men of the camps gainfully employed, healthy, and out of trouble, they even had fun. Mervin remembered that on Saturday nights a truck load of sixty Cs from his camp would head into town for a local dance. The only problem, he recalled, was that there were usually no more than twenty girls to dance with all of them. The most assertive of the boys among them would stake out a claim early, saying, "Listen, now, I'm going to dance with that young lady over there-don't any of you dare ask her!" I asked Mervin if any of them got into fights, or other trouble-after all, they were young and full of energy. "No, most of the time we really didn't," he said. "We wanted to stay in the Cs, and that kind of thing wasn't allowed." The local paper confirmed Mervin's assessment, saying in a late 1934 article, "On the whole, the CCC boys were a pretty good lot of youngsters and we think we reflect community sentiment that another camp would be welcome in 1935."

A Day in the Archives
Two days before I left Watford City, I spent several hours in the archives of the town's only newspaper, The McKenzie County Farmer. I pulled out thick books holding the weekly editions of that paper for the years from 1933 through 1938.
Every single issue confirmed and added to the stories told by Morris and Mervin. There was an article that outlined the Public Works Administration's plan to build two additions onto the Watford City School, followed by a description of the sewer and water systems slated for completion by the WPA. Another edition let readers know that National Youth Association workers would soon complete an ice-skating rink with outdoor lighting, thus offering town youngsters simple pleasures on short winter days.

A three column article detailed how the new Social Security System worked, and apprised readers to keep accurate pay records so that they could verify those kept by their employers. One headline noted the arrival on New Year's Day (1937) of 147 soil conservation checks from the U.S. Government, and information followed regarding when the farmers named on the checks could pick them up. On another day, a front-page column offered the welcome news that teachers' salaries in "cities of less than 5,000 that cannot raise funds" would be paid by the federal government. Still another lead story noted that more than three million dollars in federal government money had been spent in McKenzie County in only a four month period. Roosevelt's programs had indeed come to Watford City.

On our last day in Watford City, my husband and I visited the nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park with some friends. The park is situated within a huge geographic region known as the Badlands. Some call it the "mini Grand Canyon" because of its dramatic water-eroded surfaces and stark beauty. We stopped in one of the park's camping areas, commenting on an impressive covered picnic shelter nearby, complete with massive stone fireplace and supporting beams (see illustration). We posed for a picture there, leaning against one of the rough-hewn pillars. Heading back to the car, our friend remarked, "This shelter was built by the CCC during the depression, you know." "Yes, as a matter of fact, I do know," I said. How could I have thought otherwise!

Classroom Suggestions for Teachers
Have your students read the article and invite them to complete one of the following activities:
1.Ask one or two older people in your family or neighborhood what they remember about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal Programs. In what ways were they affected by the Great Depression? Did changes occur in the their life-style because of the economic conditions of the 1930s? Did they personally participate in any of the New Deal programs? Can they think of permanent changes in their town that came about because of work done by one of the New Deal Agencies? Write a narrative story, relating what you found out. If possible, ask one of the people you interviewed to visit your school and share New Deal memories with the whole class.
2.Call the local newspaper and make arrangements to conduct some research using the newspaper's archives. Make copies of articles that reported New Deal programs to readers in the years from 1933 through 1938. Categorize the articles in ways that seem logical to you: for example, you might separate articles covering New Deal programs that provided (a) Relief, (b) Recovery, and (c) Reform. Make a scrapbook, organizing articles according to the categories you chose. At the end of the scrapbook, write four or five generalizations about your findings, and share them with the class.

Rachel Yarnell Thompson is an Adjunct Professor of Education at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and a freelance educational writer. Until her retirement, she was a social studies teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia.