March 11, 2010

Touched by New Deal


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The Portland Observatory is on the list of New Deal projects being compiled by USM students, including, from left, Genevieve Rice, Christina Walker, David Wallace, J.J. Brewer and Sean Lent.

Doug Jones/Staff Photographer

Franklin D. Roosevelt
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Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Everything David Wallace knew about the Great Depression of the 1930s assured him that it would never happen again.

Like many people, he thought regulations and protections were put in place to control Wall Street and the nation's banks, such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Now, as a history student at the University of Southern Maine, Wallace is studying the Great Depression at a time when the United States is in the midst of an economic crisis. Wall Street and the banking industry are in shambles, rocked by a mortgage crisis with worldwide reach.

''It's been proven that it can happen again,'' said Wallace, who lives in Brunswick.

It's an interesting, if unsettling, time to be studying one of the darkest periods in U.S. history, according to Wallace and his fellow students in professor Eileen Eagan's class, ''The 1930s: Class, Culture and the New Deal.''

They readily draw comparisons between President Obama's Recovery and Reinvestment Plan and then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration.

''We're seeing so many similarities to the 1930s and it's affecting so many people across the world,'' said Sharoo Wengland of Naples. ''There are also a lot of similarities between Obama and FDR and the attitudes of people toward their policies. But FDR didn't seem to be afraid to try new things, and neither does Obama.''

Wallace, Wengland and several other students in the class are working on a special project, researching and documenting New Deal sites around Maine. They plan to submit their data to the Living New Deal Project, a central inventory started by the California Historical Society and the University of California at Berkeley.

Some New Deal projects in Maine are well known, such as murals painted in many post offices and public schools, including Deering High School and Nathan Clifford Elementary School in Portland.

Murals also were painted in post offices in Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft, Ellsworth, Fairfield, Farmington, Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Millinocket, Norway, Portland, South Portland and Westbrook. The last is on display at the Portland Museum of Art.

New Deal writing projects, such as ''Maine: A Guide Down East'' (1937) and ''Portland City Guide'' (1940), are also well known to Maine historians and writers.

But other New Deal sites are less apparent and known to a dwindling number of people. So far, the USM students have identified more than 20 sites. They include the Portland Observatory on Munjoy Hill, overlooking Casco Bay, which was restored in 1939 with $6,000 from the Works Progress Administration, and the Androscoggin Swinging Bridge between Brunswick and Topsham, which was rebuilt in 1938 with WPA money.

Their list also includes road projects in Portland and Lewiston, sewer projects in Saco and several airport projects around the state, including the first terminal at Portland International Jetport, built in 1940.

''It really takes more in-depth research to find out what projects were done at that time,'' said student Sean Lent, who lives in Portland. ''There's a distinct lack of documentation of WPA projects.''

Mainers may have been less likely to venerate and remember FDR's efforts because he was less popular among voters here than elsewhere in the country, said student J.J. Brewer of Portland, who is making a video about New Deal projects in Maine.

In the years after the Great Depression, some people may have forgotten which projects were funded by the New Deal because it recalls a difficult time in our nation's history, when unemployment peaked at nearly 25 percent.

Earle Shettleworth, state historian, praised the USM students' effort. He said there is no comprehensive list of New Deal sites in Maine. He recently started his own inventory, which includes nurses' housing at Togus Veterans' Hospital (1936), an infirmary and a dormitory at the former State School for Girls in Augusta (1936), Berwick Town Hall (1938) and the Deer Isle Bridge (1939).

''We're at a point in history where we're rapidly losing the people of that generation,'' Shettleworth said. ''So it's important to gather this information now.''

Because of Maine's vast forests and public parks, the state benefited greatly from the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1938, more than 13,000 men were employed on CCC projects in Maine, according to a Portland Press Herald story from that year.

CCC crews are credited with building the final stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Maine and making significant road and trail improvements at Acadia National Park, Baxter State Park and other parks, according to ''In the Public Interest: The Civilian Conservation Corps in Maine.''

From 1933 to 1938, CCC crews built 495 miles of foot trails, 300 miles of truck trails, 144 miles of horse trails, 347 bridges, 113 acres of picnic grounds and six fire lookout towers across the state. They also moved or planted 11,090 trees, installed 482 miles of telephone lines, treated 1.1 million acres of forest for insects and disease, and spent more than 57,000 ''man days'' fighting forest fires and doing other emergency work.

While the thousands of people who visit Maine's parks and public buildings each year may be unaware of their possible links to the CCC and the WPA, Wallace and his classmates are determined to make sure Maine's New Deal projects are remembered.

''It's critical that we gather this information now because a lot of people from that era are dying,'' Wallace said. ''If we wait, a lot of this history will be lost.''

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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Additional Photos

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1939: CCC crews built roads, trails and shelters on and around Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park.

Press Herald file photo

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1937: Civilian Conservation Corps members mingle with Army soldiers at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth, which served as the CCC supply center in Maine.

Press Herald file photo


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