WALSENBURG — Nowadays we are familiar with the word recession, described in the dictionary as “a moderate slowdown in economic activity”. Eighty years ago, our parents and grandparents were facing a “period of severe economic decline”, namely, the Great Depression. 1935 fell roughly in the middle of this monetary crisis that lasted more than a decade. After the inauguration of the famous New Deal president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in March 1933, numerous new programs were established to help the nation’s unemployed and impoverished to find work, food and other necessities to support themselves and their families. Some of these programs were unsuccessful, some found unconstitutional, and some just foundered of their own weight, but in Huerfano County, several of them were literally lifesavers. The year started out with the closing of a mattress factory in Walsenburg that was one of the very few positions providing work for women. The shutdown was due to lack of cotton with which to make mattresses, and about 30 people were thrown out of work. This came at a time when the County Relief Administration was reporting 1,322 Huerfanos without any type of employment, and 347 families unable to
fend for themselves and requiring direct relief. The vast majority of the 1,322 were adult males. Then many of the relief projects came to a sudden halt while the federal government shuffled and reorganized the different agencies such as the ERA, NYA, PWA, NRS, WPA, AAA – all of which, and more, were termed FDR’s alphabet soup. The programs resumed work in mid April when laborers belatedly began work to build a ballpark and exhibition building at the fairgrounds, or Legion Park, in Walsenburg. Eventually, there were more than a dozen native stone buildings constructed there, along with sporting venues for man and beast (racehorses). It was not until August the famous Works Progress Administration, instituted May 6, 1935, tackled its first job in Huerfano County. At that time, a five man crew began repairing the road between Gardner and Westcliffe. The work had commenced the previous year by young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a huge program under which national parks and forests were improved by youth from all over the nation. The Gardner CCC camp was one of the largest in the state with 230 employed. Meanwhile, the Public Works Administration was still undertaking building projects. Back in 1934, a new Walsenburg post office, to cost $50,000, was scheduled. In April 1935, the cornerstone was dedicated under the auspices of Postmaster George Niebuhr. It finally opened for business Dec. 29, 1935 when some 500 people came to inspect it. The PWA also promised to build a new $125,000 school in Walsenburg, and selected a site at Fifth and Russell, or just behind the post office, in August. The old 1880s school was quickly and completely razed and construction began in November. Thirty to 35 men were employed on the project and believe it or not, Washington School was dedicated Sept. 6, 1936, less than 10 months after it was started. Other programs in the city included repair and renovation of reservoirs, water lines, streets, alleys and sidewalks, the courthouse and jail, parks and athletic fields. Canning and sewing projects employed single mothers. An adobe plant was opened at the fairgrounds to provide the bricks for construction there. Other workers were employed to gather historical information, to organize and coach softball, baseball, archery, tennis, swimming and boxing for boys. One man was hired to establish and lead a concert band, and residents enjoyed the sounds of this project on balmy summer evenings. A misleading statistic cheered many in April when it was revealed the number of farms in Huerfano County had increased in the past five years by a total of 94. The same issue of the newspaper announced the spread of dust pneumonia across southeastern Colorado because of the many dust storms, called black blizzards. Along with the dust, of course, was severe drought. No rain fell, no snow fell. The City of Walsenburg found itself with empty reservoirs and strict rationing was put into place. This was adding insult to injury because now the people relying on their home gardens for sustenance could no longer raise vegetables. Legally, anyway. The dust had started flying several years before, and the federal government had already paid stockmen for animals that were then destroyed since there was nothing left for them to eat anyway, and prices, along with people, were depressed. One dust storm parted just in time for a large party of automobiles to emerge. None other than Gen. John J. Pershing, Chief of Staff of American forces in the Great War, stepped from one of the vehicles. He was waylaid, word spread and the innocent traveler, already delayed four days by dust, had to address the student body of Huerfano County High School. Otherwise, outside of discovering what the wind blew in, farmers had little pleasure. Their crops were dead, their soil somewhere in Kansas, their surviving animals were in pitiful condition. The government came up with a new plan – resettlement. The office in charge issued $6,949.50 in checks to needy Huerfano farmers. Unfortunately, they numbered 388. Probably not too many resettled on their $18 windfall. In July 1935, the projects again ground to a halt. This time it was for a debate over just which entity would pay for all these improvements, the state or the federal government? This shutdown left 1,103 people in Walsenburg alone without paychecks. In November, several WPA projects were ongoing. The crew improving the Gardner to Westcliffe road increased to 115 men. Another crew was realigning the road from Walsenburg to Ideal coal camp. Two rural schoolhouses were in the course of construction, as was the San Isabel National Forest office and garage building in La Veta. Sixty CCC boys were working on the scenic, 12-mile forest road from Badito north to Beulah while others were felling trees to use in other projects. Walsenburg streets were being graveled. A factory had been developed to process and ship local turkeys, a perk for both processors and turkey raisers. Forty-eight County High School youth were employed by the NYA (National Youth Administration) to keep the lunchroom, lawns and walks “in order”. For this they received 30¢ an hour, though their hours were strictly limited. On Dec. 19, 1935, the national debt reached $30,555,000,000. In Colorado, the governor said there were 25,000 persons who must be given either direct relief or employment on relief projects. He said most of these people were in southern Colorado, either in the coal fields or the dust bowl region. Huerfano sat squarely in the midst of both. All was not lost, as we know. By January 1936, there were no less than 29 projects underway, employing 1,152, including 44 farmers. The New Year was ushered in with a snowstorm, giving farmers and stockmen hope. More federal programs were soon established to give them more financial assistance to replace their depleted herds and crops. A report was released showing coal production had increased by more than 10 percent during 1935 and a critical fuel shortage nationwide even gave miners overtime pay, a welcome relief. The depths of the Great Depression had been reached.