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A History Note

The WPA and Hard Times in Contra Costa County

By Margorie Newton

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in at least 10 million people in the U.S. being out of work and applying for unemployment benefits. By August 2020, 9.8% of the workers in Contra Costa County were without a job. This situation is not unprecedented. During the Great Depression, starting in 1929, it was estimated that 25% of people were out of work. It was not unusual to see people on street corners selling apples, pencils, or matches. When a freight train came through towns, men jumped out of boxcars or jumped into them looking for an opportunity. Often, there was a knock on the door and a stranger would ask if there was some job he could do for a meal.

In her column, “Days Gone By,” published in the Concord Transcript, Nilda Rego wrote an article dated 2/16/ 1997 recounting how in January 1933, 400 people sought clothing from the County Red Cross, and the Walnut Creek Lions Club distributed food boxes to 80 families. The total population of the county at the time was about 80,000.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president, one of his first actions was to create the National Recovery Act. It shortened work hours and raised wages, but most importantly it provided 1.3 billion dollars in funds for public works. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established in 1935.

One project of the WPA was to replace dilapidated outhouses in the rural United States. With three workers and $5, the Administration could construct a new outhouse in 20 hours. These new and improved outhouses included proper ventilation, privacy, and flooring. The WPA successfully completed two million outhouses during its run. The first lady rigorously supported the effort, and her commitment to the cause led to outhouses earning the nickname “The Eleanor.” The moon indicated a woman’s outhouse and a sun indicated a man’s.

In another article in the Concord Transcript, it was reported that 900 unemployed men’s names had been drawn from Contra Costa’s welfare rolls to begin work on projects. In Concord, 50 men were hired to build a pergola in Todos Santos Plaza to work on the sewer system and repair streets. They worked six hours a day, five days a week, for 60 cents an hour. By the beginning of 1935, the county was receiving over $15 thousand a week for 1,192 people to work on projects. Maynard Dixon was hired to paint a mural on the wall of the WPA-built Martinez Post Office. A stone wall was constructed around Antioch Park. A memorial honoring World War I was built at the Antioch bridgehead and subsequently moved to the county fairgrounds. The WPA constructed the 70-foot-high stone tower on the top of Mount Diablo, which housed the beacon that aided airplane pilots in determining their positions.

The Works Progress Administration shut down in June of 1942, when 2% unemployment no longer constituted a problem. It is estimated that 8.5 million people had been put to work, including actors, writers, singers, and artists as well as construction workers. If you know of a WPA project that is in our county, we would like to memorialize it. Please let us know.

A History Note is presented by the Contra Costa County History Center, 724 Escobar St., Martinez, using materials from the society’s collections. Normal open hours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, &Thursdays, from 9-4, and the first and third Saturdays, from 10-2. The History Center is currently closed due to the coronavirus. Updates can be found and queries and orders made on the CCCHS website: www.cocohistory.org.