LeBaron: The New Deal’s lasting legacy in Sonoma County

The public programs created to ease the effects of the Great Depression changed our nation and Sonoma County in very tangible ways.|

If we are sitting around the campfire, metaphorically speaking, telling stories of days gone by, a tale of homelessness, poverty and politics would seem to be timely.

Something about the New Deal, perhaps?

People still argue about the legacy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “alphabet soup” of government agencies created to ease the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s. But no one questions that it changed our nation.

And, in very tangible ways, Sonoma County.

(Note to those who are new to reading history: When a name from the past comes with capital letters, you know it was something big, something that changed lives. This applies to both the Great Depression and the New Deal.)

“People think the Great Depression happened in black and white,” Gray Brechin told us in a talk last month at the Sonoma County Library, adding that he often feels like his project is uncovering a lost civilization. From UC Berkeley, Brechin is the head of a project, going on 13 years old, which compiles information and pinpoints on a map all the sites in the Bay Area that are the direct result of work done collectively as New Deal projects.

In the 1930s, he said, when the country teetered on the brink of revolution and/or civil war, these “make-work” programs were designed to provide some small wage to those whose jobs had been lost to the Depression.

In a bold move to halt the wave of poverty and homelessness that was sweeping the country, Roosevelt took $133 billion from a relief fund approved in the last years of the Hoover administration to launch a plan which owed much to Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, the country’s first woman cabinet member and, as Brechin pointed out, “the cabinet’s intellectual.”

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the New Deal saved lives, kept families intact and altered the country’s infrastructure, building thousands of miles of roads, creating water and sewer systems.

There are few regions in the United States that were not affected by these programs.

It won’t surprise to learn that my focus is on Sonoma County. And, for my source, besides Brechin’s Living New Deal map, I rely on a 1976 master’s thesis written by Santa Rosa teacher Pauline Goddard.

Goddard, who died not quite a year ago at 89, taught at Comstock Middle School for many years. She was a member of the League of Women Voters, considered herself a political activist and took on a study of “The Impact of the Works Projects Administration in Sonoma County” with enthusiasm and skill.

Her thesis tells how this county was changed and how many of its residents were rescued 80 years ago by, believe it or not, politics.

We don’t have to look far to see how the New Deal affected our communities. Some reminders are highly visible. The former Sonoma County Hospital on Chanate Road, which morphed into Community Hospital and then to Sutter and now awaits a decision about its future.

It was a WPA project. So was Oak Knoll, which was the TB sanitarium. So were some of the earliest Santa Rosa Junior College buildings: Burbank Auditorium and Analy Hall and Bussman Hall and the Bailey Field bleachers; original buildings at Cloverdale, Sonoma Valley and Analy high schools; the big amphitheater at Armstrong Grove and the little one in the Sonoma Plaza; repair of the Sonoma Mission, restoration of General Vallejo’s home for the State Parks system.

WPA workers built fire stations in Cloverdale and Sebastopol and Boyes Springs, city halls in Sebastopol and Cloverdale and the Sebastopol Post Office.

The work done by WPA labor from 1935 to ’38 seems, by today’s “bid, budget and delay” standards, unbelievable.

Under the supervision of contractors and skilled laborers who treated the jobs “as if money were from their own pockets,” according to a social studies survey of the time, WPA workers completed a staggering amount of improvement to the county’s infrastructure.

They created school playgrounds and athletic fields; made repairs, renovated and painted existing state, county and city structures. They resurfaced 112 miles of county roads, installed 448 culverts, built 29 wooden bridges, three masonry bridges and one steel bridge. They installed 35,000 linear feet of curbs and gutters and 26,000 feet of sidewalks.

If you know where to look in Santa Rosa or Healdsburg you can see still the WPA initials etched in the concrete.

Santa Rosa benefited from the stonework done by masonry contractors with WPA labor. That artistry is evident in the stone bridge on Doyle Park Drive, leading into the park. It was created from used basalt paving blocks taken up when the streets were paved and reinforced with steel from the old streetcar rails.

In Juilliard Park, where the bridges and fountains and walkways were created of similar stone, city workers repairing the WPA sprinkler system four decades later found sections of used pipe and odd fittings made to work by contractors determined to spend the government money on people, not on parts.

Contractors everywhere, conscious of the need, scrounged and made do with used materials to save the money they received from the agencies for wages.

Even so, wages paid were bare minimum. Men earned an average of $44 a month. But the jobs meant much more than the skimpy pay check - because they had earned it. They were not, in the terms of the times, “on the dole.” Their pride, as many Depression survivors would tell you, was worth a lot more than the money.

Women and teens also found ways to earn, although their average “income” was only $18 monthly. Teens were trained as lifeguards and recreation leaders at beaches and parks - the start of city and county youth employment programs that still exist.

The WPA women’s project, confronting the need for families, particularly children, to have new clothes, took over a defunct overall factory on Sebastopol Road where some six dozen women learned to operate the 60 power sewing machines, and used donated and scrap material, to produce, in the three-years, some 92,000 garments.

Stipends for artists brought museum exhibits to SRJC and the mural in the Sebastopol’s Post Office depicting the apple industry.

We dare not leave the subject without a discussion of the Civilian Conservation Corps, often held up as the poster child of the New Deal.

The CCC’s Sonoma County legacy offers evidence of the program’s overwhelming success. Two of the state’s 155 CCC camps were here. One was at Armstrong Grove with 817 residents - 729 of them from California, 25 from Ohio. The other, with 1,119 young men, was Camp Sebastopol, on Bodega Highway at the eastern foot of O’Farrell Hill.

(You can still see the rock walls that were the camp boundaries - and there is a plaque there somewhere, dedicated in 1990 at a camp reunion.)

The CCC was not only responsible for the improvements at Armstrong Woods but secured the Gold Ridge Soil Conservation District to help orchards and farms.

They laid miles of concrete drainage pipe, which they made in the plant at Camp Sebastopol. They drilled wells, built check dams, trenched and ditched and contoured hillsides for apple trees and planted shrubs to prevent erosion.

That’s what the CCC did for us. What the New Deal did for them changed lives. They earned $30 a month with $25 of it being sent directly to their families.

The other $5 was theirs to spend, on which most of them managed a lot of Russian River beach time, and even trips to San Francisco and the World’s Fair. Many attended classes at SRJC and some ended up with high school diplomas.

As one historian summed up the CCC program: It saved two of our country’s wasted resources - the young men and the land.

The Living New Deal’s Dr. Brechin would tell you that there are valuable lessons in these stories for those seeking to understand the past - and for those who worry about the nation’s present and future.

People younger than I (and let’s face it, most people are, since I admit to being a year or so past middle-age) have no direct experience with the economic despair of the 1930s.

They missed the Depression tales told by our parents which, they may be surprised to hear, were not always grim but often told with great pride at how “we managed.”

In fact, you could say that the whole nation “managed.” With the help of the New Deal.

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