Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Depression Era Programs: Maynard, MA

During the depths of the multi-year Great Depression the federal government’s role in America grew more than in any era before. About thirty-two new government agencies were created. While many of the agencies formed have been abolished or replaced by another, some agencies still stand today. "The six years from 1933 through 1938 marked a greater upheaval in American institutions than in any similar period in our history."

Maynard was lucky in that neither of the local banks – Assabet Institution for Savings and Maynard Trust Company – failed. The town’s annual reports provide a description of how the worsening depression overwhelmed local efforts, and then how federal programs provided support. From the 1931 Report of the Public Welfare Board: “Nineteen Hundred Thirty-One has been a sad year for most of the people of Maynard…We sincerely hope the worst has passed and that we will never see as poor a year again.” [Ha.] Town programs included Mothers Aid Cases, Old Age Assistance and Temporary Aid. More of the same the next year, with able-bodied men on aid doing street and sidewalk work. The wool and gunpowder mills loaned land to be used for municipal gardens, providing both fresh vegetables, potatoes and beans. A canning operation was started.

Group of women on the steps of Coolidge School, WPA program, 1935.
Sadly, no mention of who is in the photo. From Maynard Historical Society.
The federal agencies most active in Maynard were the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA, 1932), which became the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA, 1993), to be replaced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA, 1935). Also active locally was the Civil Works Administration (CWA 1933). The CWA put able-bodied men and women on payroll. The ERA paid one-third costs of people on local welfare, also providing free food, coal and firewood for people in need. 

By 1934 some 100-175 residents of Maynard were on ERA or CWA payrolls. Labor went to sidewalks, storm drains and improvements at Crowe Park. The municipal gardens program continued. This was also the year that the woolen mill, operating at only 20% capacity, auctioned off 236 pieces of property – mostly single-family homes, but also business buildings and rooming houses. The average for single family homes was under $1,000. All properties were sold. Terms were 10 percent at bid, 15 percent at closing, buyers offered three-year mortgages on the remaining amount at 6 percent interest. The following year’s support continued to include Federal Surplus food and clothing. The Works Progress Administration implemented a Sewing Project that employed 30 women. The gardens canning project put up 30,000 cans of vegetables, helping support Maynard and neighboring towns.

1936 saw the start-up of the Social Security Act, which helped provide for the elderly. The Sewing Project, operating out of Roosevelt School, made dresses, shirts, pajamas, bedsheets, etc. More of the same for 1937, but toward the end of 1938 there began a trend of people finding private employment. WPA hires diminished by half. Some of the work in this and following years was first clearing and then planting hundreds of trees to replace all the damage wrought by the 1938 hurricane. The town’s annual report for 1941 mentioned that the woolen mill was operating at full capacity, filling military orders for blankets and wool cloth for coats. The Sewing Project was ended. The number of general relief cases was the lowest it had been since 1929.

Depression era Field House at Alumni Park, Maynard, MA. Building
still exists. Courtesy of Maynard Historical Society. Click to enlarge.
A website called “The Living New Deal” lists Depression-era projects by town. Many of there were routine construction or maintenance, but a few were interesting additions to Maynard’s ambiance (sadly, so many now lost). Under routine; painting, windows repair, etc. at schools, the poor farm and fire house, also streets, sidewalks, water mains and storm sewers. Under additions: The Mill Street bridge was rebuilt in 1937. Glenwood Cemetery gained an iron fence and the new section was created, and the northeast corner of Routes 27 and 117 was converted from a swamp to an ice-skating pond with an island in the middle and a pond in the middle of the island. (This since reverted to swamp/bog.) Crowe Park was upgraded in 1935. A fieldstone bandstand was constructed in Crowe Park in 1939, in disrepair and torn down in the 1990s. Fieldstone construction also graced the gates and fieldhouse at Alumni Field (still standing) and a ‘comfort station’ (public rest room) behind Memorial Park, removed to create a parking lot.

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