Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Dirty Thirties: No Easy Street, Part II

How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?

My grandfather's family was, almost unamiously, stubborn and proud: not so proud that they would not help one another, but proud enough that they would never have accepted outright charity. When Franklin Roosevelt's legislation resulted in the Social Security Administration and unemployment insurance began in 1935, it would have been a "foreign" idea to my Norwegian-American relations. I'm sure they eventually got used to the idea, but if there was a way to survive, unemployed, and not burden anyone but close family, they would have certainly have preferred that to being "on the dole."[1]

President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939) officially began with the passage of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. It served as a continuation of relief programs similar to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) started in 1932 by Herbert Hoover and the U.S. Congress. Both programs were meant to provide the means for many out-of-work individuals to bring home a wage and put food on the table, though the WPA--part of FDR's New Deal--would be much more succesful.

Even before the RFC or WPA, a large scale project came into being in the midwest that provided over 20,000 with temporary work at the beginning of the Depression era. My grandfather, Ernest Johnson, was one of the lucky hopefuls who were not turned away for the building of the Bagnell Dam in central Missouri. The trip out from Minnesota was neither too far nor too ardous when the promise of months of wages were at stake during the 1930s.

I do not know exactly how long Grampa worked at the site, or even what type of work he did, but the construction of Bagnell Dam was begun during the later half of 1929 and completed in 1931. The following images are from 1931 postcards that my grandfather brought home to Leonard, Minnesota to give to my mother and aunt as keepsakes.

Bagnell Dam, Missouri, in 1931 (Postcard #1)

Bagnell Dam, Missouri, 1931 (Postcard #2)
Records show more than 20,000 people worked on the project at one time or another. Although there were some steam shovels and other powered equipment, most labor was done by hand. Pay rates for construction workers were as low as 35 cents an hour. But during the Depression era, when a person could be hired for farm work for 50 cents a day, workers were glad to make the wage.
The project was truly massive. Nearly 60,000 acres of land had to be acquired, and about 30,000 acres cleared of trees and brush. One million cubic yards of earth and rock had to be moved. Enough concrete was poured to build an 18-foot-wide highway from St. Louis to Topeka, Kansas. Enough carloads of material were used in the dam to fill a freight train stretching from St. Louis to Tulsa, Oklahoma. [2]

For more information and photographs, see also the interactive online book, The History of Bagnell Dam, at the Lake of the Ozarks website.

I wish I had specific stories about the time my grandfather spent at the Bagnell Dam, but these personal memories and observations are lost to history. I am sure he told a few tales to his brothers and nephews, but they did not filter down to my mother and aunt--his own daughters. Perhaps if they had been sons instead, Ernest would have shared a few yarns with them, if only to see their eyes open wide in fear or amazement. But, since the Johnson girls did not live in the same house as their father, and they were not of the same gender, my mother and aunt missed out on a lot of the tales of male bravado. Girls were apparently meant to be protected and be useful in earning their keep. Although Ernest Johnson brought his daughters chocolate, treats, small gifts, and even pets upon occasion, he apparently did not spend a lot of time talking to them about his past. What a pity!
If my grandfather were alive today, I would not let him get away from the table without telling me a story or two. When I knew him, I was too young to be assertive (he died when I was 16), and I did not even know what to ask at the time. You know how they say that youth is wasted on the young? I'm afraid so, especially when it comes to genealogy.
In the late 1930s, Ernest Johnson again left his farm in rural Clearwater County, Minnesota, to work on the construction of the Hoover (Boulder) Dam near Las Vegas, Nevada--a bona fide WPA project.

To be continued in Part III

[1] "On the dole": a giving of food, money, or clothing to the needy; a grant of government funds to the unemployed.
[2] History of Bagnell Dam

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