Yelm and the New Deal
The sudden depression that followed the “Roaring Twenties” sent the United States spiraling in to a state of complete uncertainty. Instead of the average citizen having more time and money than they knew how to spend, they now had almost no money and spent their time looking for whatever available jobs they could find. Because of these unexpected and horrific circumstances, the government was in need of some adequate solutions, and fast. The result was the launching of the New Deal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This program dealt with many of the problems facing the nation on both an agricultural and industrial level. Thanks to the New Deal, the nation was soon well on it’s way back to the comfortable lifestyle that it once knew. Surprising as it may be, our little town of Yelm did not escape joining the nation in this particular crisis, nor was it left out of the programs that helped this nation recover.
Yelm experienced all the mainstream problems that plagued the nation during the depression. Unemployment was obviously high, and even those who were employed made very meager amounts to live on. Bob Wolf’s family owned the local grocery store and he said that they extended enormous amounts of credit as well as being involved in “…bartering and exchanging food, but not a lot of cash was involved.” His mother wrote in his baby book, “The banks have crashed. We’ve lost everything that we had in the banks…we’ll never get that back.” It was a time of despair for the entire country and the situation was no different in the prairie town of Yelm.
The economy of Yelm during the depression was certainly reflective of the country as a whole. The decline in gross returns of the prominent berry industry that was a major economic influence in the district is evidence of the crisis as it occurred in Yelm. Despite the fact that in 1931 the district was estimated to have produced twice as many berries as in 1928, the gross return in ‘31 was notably less than the $35,000 revenue from ’28, as it produced a mere $30,000. Furthermore, property tax rates reflect the declining Yelm economy as well. The following chart shows the funds received by Yelm High School from levies on property taxes from the beginning of the depression to the very height of it.
As you can see the funding dropped dramatically over the first few years of the decade. That decline compounded with the fact that the needed funds for the year 1936 were approximately $15,605, and the district actually received $14,536 led to the demands of the superintendent for a new levy in ‘37. In all actuality, the fact was that property values had severely declined as a result of the national depression and there simply was no money for the schools, or for anything else.
The New Deal brought a new sense of hope for many Americans. Early New Deal developments included the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. This set new standards for labor such as a minimum wage of $.30-$.40/hour, a standard work week set at 35-40 hours/week, and laws prohibiting child labor. This was great news for those who were fortunate enough to be employed. The Public Works Administration monitored and stabilized government spending. This was a helpful development considering that many theories attributed the unstable spending of the government to the numerous causes of the depression. The Glass-Steagal Act set up the FDIC and guaranteed up to $2500 of money invested in banks, which would prevent many tragic cases like that of the Wolf family in the future. All of these developments were fundamental in restoring faith in the government in its future endeavors. However, the people realized that, while in the future these developments would be incredibly stabilizing, the problem remained that people were poor, starving and in need of help right now.
The result was the series of work relief programs that would follow during the larger part of the 1930’s. Many of the programs implemented were focused on the immediate recovery of the economy. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a program that focused on re-growing and preserving the forest and was geared toward young men in somewhat urbanized areas. The CCC was present in Yelm in the form of a camp on the outskirts of Rainier. This site was funded by the government and employed a number of men from the area. In 1936 the farmers in the Yelm area were offered a chance for rehabilitation. Farmers were allowed to apply to the County Relief Agency for “temporary subsistence grants” until they could get their farms back at a profitable level. Also offered was a way to stabilize their farms and make them profitable by adjusting their debts and giving them loans for the goods needed to do it. Another program that was implemented in the early 30’s was the National Youth Administration (NYA) whose primary concern was the education of the youth of America. They sought to provide the necessary funds for students to continue the pursuit of their education. In Yelm the NYA presented many opportunities for the small farm town where children were needed to maintain the crops during this time of crisis. In fact, in 1935 the Nisqually Valley News reported that the government would be providing Yelm High School with $100 a month which would be given out to students whom the district felt were worthy and in need of it. Any student over the age of 16 was able to receive up to $6 per month and were required to do some type of designated job in order to earn the much needed money. Many students were able to remain in school because of this program in Yelm. Other types of relief programs available in Yelm and the rest of the nation included Mother’s Pensions and welfare programs with very specific income requirements. These programs helped tremendously in the area of Yelm; however, the biggest aid during the depression came from the many government-funded jobs that were implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The WPA was a larger version of the preceding Civil Works Administration (CWA). The CWA was a government-funded program that provided civilians with employment on government projects such as roads, bridges, dams, etc. The much broader WPA was apparent in many cases in Yelm. The government-funded Yelm Irrigation project, which focused on increasing the capacity of the main canal, was estimated to have employed around 25 men for 10 months in 1935. In November of that same year the government provided necessary funds for the $16,500 Yelm creek project. The goal of this project was to decrease the amount of flooding that was prevalent during the winter as well as providing work for 20-40 men over a period of 6 months. The $9,350 Yelm city streets project was commenced close to the same time. This project was designed to employ 12 men to finish making concrete sidewalks on Yelm’s main avenue and to improve the gravel sidewalks on the side streets of Yelm. All of these programs were essential in the recovery of the Yelm economy and the national crisis as a whole.
The impact of the depression on the economy of the United States is undeniable. The vast decline in employment, income, and the standard of living portrayed the immense crisis that plagued the nation and that certainly did not exclude Yelm. The New Deal programs implemented by Roosevelt were incredibly helpful in directing the nation toward recovery. In Yelm, programs such as the CCC, the NYA, and the many opportunities for welfare assistance were particularly helpful. Overall, though, the WPA was absolutely imperative in sending the city of Yelm back toward recovery. The experiences of Yelm with the depression and the New Deal were certainly reflective of the experiences of the nation as a whole.