Backtracking: The Early Years: Local WPA still strong, but was on the decline in May 1936

Mark SimonsonDoubleday Field, shown in 2008. This was a local Works Progress Administration project in Cooperstown in 1938 and 1939.

As the pandemic appears to be declining, more people are heading back to work, locally and nationally.

Some are returning to pre-pandemic jobs on site rather than online, while others are going to new ventures.

The same could be said in our region in May 1936. Many had been out of work during the Great Depression. Some were working on the various “alphabet soup” programs of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Others were moving out of these publicly funded jobs. Many were still around, however, and most jobs involved “infrastructure.”

With winter weather finally departing, a busy season was ahead for 1936.

For example The Oneonta Star of May 5 reported, “An allocation of $4,080 for a new project and filtration plant which was recently submitted by the city,” was approved by the Works Progress Administration.

“The project will include the removal and washing of sand and gravel in the eight mechanical filters, also the dredging of the channel of the Oneonta creek above the lower reservoir. It is expected that the project will extend over a period of six months.

“This project was included in the 24 WPA projects approved by Mr. (Lester) Herzog and for which an allocation of $481,240.92 has been made.”

“These additional projects will not, it is said, add to the WPA rolls, but will assure continuance of work for more than 1,200 of the present workers for a period of 121 months.

One of the larger “infrastructure” projects was reported in The Star’s May 6 edition, as, “Two hundred Works Progress Administration workers from Camp Sidney are making notable progress in building a new storage reservoir that will add 60,000,000 gallons of storage capacity to the water supply of the village of Sidney. The dam site is located above the two present reservoirs, and is needed because the present storage capacity will not supply the village during the entire year.

“When completed the reservoir will cover about 15 acres. The land has been cleared of the brush and stumps and the men are now engaged in removing the sod and topsoil from the area which will be covered by the impounded waters.”

While it hadn’t been announced yet as a WPA project for Cooperstown, news came on May 29 how, “Dedication of Doubleday Field in Cooperstown as a national baseball shrine on the 100th anniversary of the game in 1939 was forecast by Senator Walter W. Stokes of Cooperstown in an address in Schenectady yesterday afternoon. He is the author of a resolution creating a joint legislative committee to make plans for the event.” The WPA participated in building the present-day field during 1938 and 1939.

While the WPA was providing jobs, some were leaving the program for other opportunities.

“Thirty-three of the 82 WPA workers in this district who left projects to enter private employment during the past week were from the Otsego county rolls,” Star readers learned on May 7. Similar numbers were departing in regional counties, as well.

As The Star also reported on May 14, “Improved business conditions were reflected yesterday in an announcement by the National Re-employment service that it had several positions open for married and single farm hands, houseworkers, chefs, cooks and stenographers.

“An official of the NRS reported a shortage of help in several fields of employment, declaring that the office has over 15 positions to fill. The local NRS placed 50 men and women in private employment last week and still has openings in both private and governmental work.

“With the planting season underway, many farmers are in need of help, and in many instances the wages offered are the highest in years. Good farm hands are reported to be at a premium, however, and many farmers are working overtime themselves in planting and doing other jobs while the weather remains favorable.”

On that same page of The Star it was reported, “About 35 girls have been added to the staff at the local dress factory of Unger & Sons during the past month. In addition, 10 new sewing machines were installed last week to keep up with spring orders, Mr. (Charles) Unger said.” That factory was once found where the Marketplace on Chestnut is today.

While the WPA was still around for a few more years, the private sector was showing signs of recovery.

Mark Simonson is Oneonta city historian. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns/.

Ask Mark... 

Have you ever had a question about a history-making event or a prominent person in our area and didn't know where to find the answer? Well, we've got an expert who might be able to help you. Historian Mark Simonson has spent many years chronicling major local happenings, and he's ready and willing to dive into The Daily Star archives for answers, which will appear in this newspaper and online at www.thedailystar.com.

Write to him at "Ask Mark," The Daily Star, 102 Chestnut St., Oneonta, NY 13820 or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com

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