By Marguerite Jill Dye
At the entrance to the museum I was struck by Vermonter Clyde V. Hunt’s sculpture, “Faith, Charity, Hope—The American Spirit.” Abraham Lincoln stands with one hand on the head of a kneeling woman and his other hand rests upon a standing child. It seemed a fitting introduction to what we were about to discover inside.
Our attention was caught by Bill McDowell’s powerful exhibit, “Ground—fA reprise of photographs from the FSA.” The Farm Security Administration photos demonstrate the Depression era’s effect on Vermont. The state’s already unstable economy fell by half as farm prices and industrial production plummeted. Poor and frugal Vermonters were left in a state of desperation. It was ironic, and also distressing, that these photographs, depicting the rural poor’s plight and government programs to alleviate their suffering, were later punched through the middle by Roy E. Stryker, the director of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography division.
Fortunately, for the sake of our nation, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established brilliant New Deal programs to revitalize American ideas, a civil society, collective governance, and the wellbeing of the people. His programs provided work and assistance to unemployed laborers and artisans. Between 1933 and 1943, more than 40,000 talented professional artists, photographers, writers, architects, musicians, and actors were hired to create “WPA art” through the Works Progress Administration. More than 100,000 paintings, 200,000 prints from 11,000 original designs, and 18,000 sculptures were created by and for the people. Oral histories were recorded, music, books, and plays were written, and photographs taken documenting architecture, landscape, and life. It was thanks to Roosevelt’s WPA program that Vermont’s idyllic and picturesque image became known.
Among the WPA-commissioned Vermont artists were Francis Colburn and Ronald Slayton. Their paintings boldly communicated Vermonters’ struggles and the new solutions. Colburn’s stunning and masterful “Charley Smith and His Barn” shows a determined, well-weathered, very Vermont farmer and his laborer hard at work baling golden hay with a typical, vibrant red barn as the backdrop. Another of my favorites is Colburn’s painting, “Social Security,” of Ida May Fuller of Ludlow—the first beneficiary in the nation to receive a Social Security check. At a time when more than half of America’s elderly were too poor to support themselves, FDR and our government created the Social Security Act. It assisted retired and injured workers, provided unemployment insurance, aid to dependent mothers and children and aid to the blind and disabled.
Ronald Slayton’s painting, “The Planter,” is another unforgettable image of a farmer’s open hand holding two precious seeds. Is his pause a prayer before planting them? His other hand grips a tiny seed bag, and several seeds sit high on the ground. The veins on his arm also stand out. Far in the distance, his farm can be seen, delicate and vulnerable below a mountain.
Throughout the nation, the Works Progress Administration put more than 8 million Americans to work, and the Civilian Conservation Corps employed 3 million young men (who earned $30/month, of which $25 was sent home to help their families).
Bridges, roads, airports, parks, post offices, other Federal buildings, and infrastructure were built. Many murals were painted inside state and federal buildings, depicting hardships Americans had faced and overcome throughout U.S. history. Sections of the Appalachian Trail were cleared by the CCC.
Vermont state forester Perry Merrill managed to obtain permission to set up 30 CCC camps in the state (although Washington had originally approved only four)! Almost 41,000 men worked in them between 1933 and 1942, planting over 1 million trees, building dams, and clearing at least 100 miles of roads. Since Merrill had visited Scandinavian ski areas, he had the CCC clear ski trails and build a parking lot and rustic lodge for the Stowe Mountain Resort. Half of Vermont’s state parks were built by the CCC, and architect David Fried designed many of the rustic, modernist lodges. The CCC also built Gifford Woods State Park, the Rutland Post Office and murals, the fire department, library improvements, and sewer system.
Can you imagine what America would be like without the New Deal programs and FDR’s leadership? He recognized the limits of “trickle down economics,” and lacked a laissez-faire attitude.
Through the power of our vote, we now have the opportunity to demand the same: a responsive government that acts on behalf of the best interests of the American people—not only the upper echelons, but all of the people.
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.