West Virginia New Deal

Page created  by: Melissa May 2003

The state of West Virginia benefited from a number of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, including the National Youth Administration and Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. While making work for unemployed citizens and providing much needed economic relief, the projects resulted in lasting contributions to our towns in the form of infrastructure, architecture and art. Federal projects also included writers, photographers and filmmakers.

FDR with children at Romney WV, 1935

Some projects were specific to a region or town, but many projects had state-wide benefits. In Jerry Bruce Thomas’ book An Appalachian New Deal he writes,

“ The New Deal relief and social welfare legislation led to substantial and enduring changes in the way West Virginia dealt with its poor and unemployed. Programs like WPA and PWA, CCC and NYA provided emergency care for unemployed workers and youth and left behind substantial enhancements of the state’s physical infrastructure in public roads, bridges, buildings, recreational facilities, state parks and forests, and schools. New Deal programs stimulated needed attention to public health programs, libraries, and cultural activities. Most importantly, when the emergency programs ended in 1942, the New Deal left behind a whole new network for public assistance and a new attitude toward the unfortunate….The new structure emphasized the responsibility of the state and local governments, with the assistance of the federal government through Social Security, to care for the indigent (Thomas 1998:158).”

The following are some highlights of West Virginia New Deal projects:


West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State was one of the American Guide Series compiled by West Virginia workers of the Federal Writers’ Project. Art work for this publication was contributed by the West Virginia Art Project. The guide created controversy and same state officials even sought to prevent its publication claiming the book was “propaganda” and falsely portrayed the state, it’s people and labor history (Thomas 1998:226) The original guide was published in 1941 and reprinted in 1973. The West Virginia Board of Education was a state-wide sponsor of the WV Writer’s Project. Artwork for the guide was provided by the West Virginia Art Project.

The West Virginia Writers’ Project also undertook numerous research efforts. Some of these recorded folk-life and history resulting in publications such as Memory Book and Mountain State Tintypes which preserve stories and reminiscences. Other projects researched the history of county formations or particular towns such as Bulltown, WPA Writers’ Program 1940. The cover of Mountain State Tintypes was a WPA Art Project out of Morgantown in July 1940.

The Historic Records Survey completed extensive research, inventories, and documentation of archival records such as church holdings, cemetery readings, collections of individuals such a Henry Mason Matthews, Francis Pierpont with the purpose to make these materials more accessible to the general public.  

The Department of Archives published a quarterly journal called West Virginia History.


A mural in Marion County in the Mannington Post Office is one of sixteen New Deal murals completed in West Virginia through the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts. Mannington’s was created by Ohio artist, Richard Zoellner, in 1941 and depicts a landscape view with oil production equipment in evidence. Zoellner attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati and also painted post office murals in Georgetown and Portsmouth, Ohio.

  Zoellner's Mannington Post Office mural

Other New Deal artwork can be found in these West Virginia U. S. Post Offices (Bartlett 1998:41)

Elkins (NFS Building), Mining Village and Forest Service, Stevan Donahos, 1939       

      Fayetteville, The Miners, Nixford Baldwin1938

      Kenova. Worker, (5 relief carvings), Albino Cavalitto, 1939

      Lewisburg, Old Time Camp, Robert Gates, 1940

      LoganThe Letter (relief carving), Gleb Derujinsky, 1940

      MarlintonMill Point and VisionsEdwin Doniphan, 1939

       Mount HopeMining, Michael Lensen1942

       Oak Hill, Colonial Mail Rider,  Henri Crenier                         

       Ripley, Pride of Jackson County, Joseph Servos, 1940

       St. Albans, Science & Industry, Ruber Kramer, 1941

       St. Mary’s,  St. Mary’s & Industries of the Region, Alexander Clayton, 1939

       Salem,Vision of Development of Salem, Berni Glasgow, 1942

       Spencer, Pastoral of Spencer, Vicki Totten                           

       Webster Springs, Springtime, Lenore Thomas      

        Weirton (Cove St.), untitled, Charles Chapman, 1940 

Mount HopeMining, Michael Lensen1942

Native West Virginian artists were commissioned by to complete post office murals in other regions as well. Sterling Smeltzer (1908-1982) painted a mural for the WPA in Willowby, Ohio (Cuthbert 2001:237).  

Six murals in the West Virginia Building at WVU’s Jackson’s Mill were originally painted for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago by artist, William C. Grauer (1895-1985) and then moved to Lewis County. Each of the large murals depicts a scene from West Virginia history. While the World’s Fair was undertaken through the efforts of a non-profit corporation, these murals were painted during the New Deal time period and are typical of the styles prevalent at that time.

 Harrison County’s Pare Lorentz (1905 – 1992) was a Clarksburg native and film-maker who produced films for President Roosevelt about the New Deal. His films included: The Plow That Broke the Plains, The Fight for Life and The River, which was also a 1938 book (Guide 1941: 149). He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for contribution to state Culture and History from Governor Caperton in 1990.  

 Stills from Pare Lorenz's films  

Nationally recognized artist, Ben Shahn (1898-1969) worked for the WPA as a photographer and later a painter and printmaker. One of his documentary trips was for the Resettlement Administration. In the summer of 1937 he traveled to Alabama, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia. The prints and related material are now in the collection of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University. A painting entitled, “Scott’s Run, West Virginia” was completed in 1937 from photographs taken for the WPA and it is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. Many of Shahn’s artworks were noted for their activist position.


Artwork by artist Ben Shahn

Walker Evans (1903-1975) also worked in West Virginia as a documentary photographer for the WPA, Farms Securities Administration in 1936. His book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was written with James Agee and published in 1941.


Walker Evans at work

The Monongalia County Courthouse was the site of a WPA mural commissioned from artist, Blanche Lazelle. The mural is now in the West Virginia Art Collection. In addition to this mural, she participated in New Deal educational programs and exhibitions and was commissioned to do a series of “Provincetown Prints” a woodblock technique she developed (Cuthbert 2001:121).


Blanche Lazelle, woodcut print

The Mountaineer Craftsmen’s Co-operative Association was organized in Morgantown by the American Friends Service Committee of Philadelphia as part of a relief program for destitute mine families and in 1938 the Associated Craftsmen of West Virginia was organized (Guide 1941:152) and later was moved to Arthurdale.


Pewter products and Craftsmen's Logo


West Virginia Barrel Chair

There is a group of oils by members of the WPA Federal Art Project in the Marshall Art Museum (Guide 1941:153).

The Federal Music Project resulted in the creation of concert orchestras at Huntington, Parkersburg and Wheeling. Music Schools were created at Red House (Eleanor) and Arthurdale (Guide 1941:155)  




Eleanor Roosevelt took a personal interest in West Virginia. After visiting Scott’s Run in Monongalia County, she exerted her influence to create new communities for the impoverished mining families she saw there. Preston County’s Arthurdale is one of three subsistence homesteads in West Virginia.  The houses, community buildings, and various items produced by the homestead communities (for example, Arthurdale furniture) are all of great artistic and historical significance and are being preserved as a regional museum. Arthurdale is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an Historical District (SHPO 2000:117). The Arthurdale Inn provided lodging for visitors to the homestead. It was listed in 1997 by the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia as an Endangered Site. The other homestead projects were Red House Farms in Putnam County and Tygart Valley in Randolph County.


L-shape house at Arthurdale

At Eleanor (originally Red House Farms), homesteader families were employed in the farming and dairying occupations, producing corn, wheat, oats, tobacco, beef, pork, and dairy products, while others worked in the cooperative canning plant, the workshops, greenhouse, or quarry. The standard hourly wage was 45 cents. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made five trips to this project and expressed amazement at the quality of the work accomplished with the money spent. The Relief Administration fixed $2,150 as the average cost of each house, including land and outbuildings. Of the original 150 homes built, 146 still remain.

Homeless West Virginians were also encouraged to go “Back to the Farm”, an initiative that increased the state’s farm population by 114,000. FERA promoted the growing of foodstuffs by providing seeds to unemployed workers (Guide 1941: 70)


The Southside Bridge in Charleston was built in 1937 as a WPA capital improvement project (Thomas 1998:54).

The Cameron City Pool in Marshall County was PWA Project #1196. Built in 1939, the semi-circular pool has an underwater life guard station and a wooden bath house. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places (SHPO 2000:80).

West Liberty State College benefited from PWA funds to build Shotwell Hall, a new male dormitory. Built in 1936, the building served as a dorm until 1964 and is now used as faculty offices. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (SHPO 2000:99).


West Liberty State College's Shotwell Hall

The Circleville School in Pendleton County was built in 1937 by the WPA to replace a building destroyed by fire in 1935. It was one of the last projects authorized by Roosevelt and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places (SHPO 2000:117).  

Fairview School amd the East West Stadium in Marion County were built by the WPA.

In Tucker County, the Thomas Commercial Historic District boasts a plaque stating “Built by WPA 1938”. The area of Spruce Street and East Avenue between 1st Street and 3rd Street  and East Avenue west to North Fork is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

The West Virginia Historic & Scenic Highway Marker Program was implemented in 1937 to encourage tourism. The West Virginia Commission on Historic and Scenic Markers worked with the State Road Commission, Works Progress Administration, and Federal Emergency Relief Administration to place 440 markers during the first year alone. After World War II, markers were placed at the sites of most state-run facilities and schools. These commemorate locations with historic, prehistoric, scenic or geological significance and are still visible today. The West Virginia Historic Commission took over the program in 1963. Since the late 1960s, the program has been managed by the West Virginia State Archives, which is today part of the West Virginia Division of Culture & History.

According to the 1941 Guide (1941:133) the WPA’s sanitation program built 187,157 sanitary privies in West Virginia. In addition, the PWAP constructed 8 new sewerage systems with disposal plants and other improvements.

The largest single effort was the WPA mine-sealing program. Starting in 1933, 720 of the state’s 1698 abandoned mines were sealed using unemployed miners as labor and benefiting the environment by reducing the percent of daily acid load into area streams (Guide 1941:134).  


  parks and camps

The CCC and NYA were federal programs for youth. They lived in camps and were provided training and work. Camps were segregated with special facilities for white and black workers. For this they earned $30. per month of which $25. was sent home to their families. Within state parks, game preserves and national forests the youth built cabins, lodges trails and towers, stocked fish hatcheries, fought forest fires, planted trees. The landscaping projects “fit nicely with Roosevelt’s ‘one with nature’ ideology” (Thomas 1998:99). By 1941, 40,000 had served in the CCC in West Virginia (Thomas 1998:197). The NYA taught youth skills in farming, auto mechanics, carpentry and plumbing. These workers are responsible for the construction of swimming pools, athletic fields, bus stops, recreation centers and schools.

Many of the Civilian Conservation Corps camps were built with WPA funds. Between 1936 and 1942, at Camp Rhododendron at Cooper’s Rock State Park in Preston County, CCC workers built the administration building, staff residence (now a concession stand), the superintendent’s house and garage, trails, pavillions, scenic overlook and various other landscape design elements. These buildings are all listed on the National Register of Historic Places (SHPO 2000:99).

Camp Washington-Carver, located at Clifftop in Fayette County was a “Negro” 4-H camp built in 1937. WPA labor was used to clear land, quarry rock and construct the buildings that are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The camp is now part of the West Virginia Division of Culture and Tourism (SHPO 2000:28).

Blue Bend Forest Camp in Greenbrier County, was design and built by CCC workers. The facility consisted of 21 campsites, shelters, trails and privies and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places (SHPO 2000:34).

The Dolly Sods area was reforested by the CCC and the Forest Service in the 1930s and 40s. The workers planted red pine and spruce trees helping to create what is now the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area within the Monongahela National Forest (Anderson 1998:80)

The Little Beaver Dam in Little Beaver State Park (Raleigh County) was constructed between 1938 and 1942 by the WPA and the CCC. It is a stepped dam constructed of local sandstone. A stone monument also was erected to honor men who worked on the project. The dam is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (SHPO 2000:127).

The Old Inn at Cacapon State Park was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was the first overnight accommodating lodge in the West Virginia State Park System.  This impressive 11-room Inn uses exterior boards and batten construction, interior hand hewn log beams. Guest rooms have tongue and groove walls of wormy-chestnut and knotty pine.  Low ceiling, stone chimneys, and wrought iron hardware add to the historical flavor of The Old Inn.

There are 13 CCC Worker statues now around the country. Statue No. 5 located in Watoga State Park in Marlington was dedicated 1999 and paid by private funds.  

CCC Statue

     Suggested Reading     


Bartlett, L.

1998        Rural Murals: New Deal Art in West Virginia. Goldenseal. Fall.

Beanblossom, R.         

2000    CCC and Early West Virginia Parks. Wonderful West Virginia. April.

Anderson, C.

1998        The New West Virginia One-Day Trip Book. EPM Publication, Charlottesville, VA.

Bartlett, L.

1998        Rural Murals: New Deal Art in West Virginia. Goldenseal. Fall.

Bickley, A. R.

2001        Camp War Remembering CCC Company 3538-C. Goldenseal. Winter.

Cuthbert J. A.

2001        Early West Virginia Art and Artists. WVU Press.

Federal Writers’ Project

1941        West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State. The Conservation Commission of West Virginia.  

Federal Writers’ Project

1940    Mountain State Tintypes. The Conservation Commission of West Virginia.

Federal Writers’ Project

1940    Memory Book. The Conservation Commission of West Virginia.

Thomas, J. B.

1998        An Appalacian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression. University of Kentucky Press.

WV State Historic Preservation Office

2000            Historic West Virginia: The National Register of Historic Places. West Virginia Division of Culture and History.