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A WPA Tour of Poteau: The Works Progress Administration in Oklahoma

Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

Typical WPA ditch digging operation, source and location unknown.

Typical WPA ditch digging operation, source and location unknown.

The History of Oklahoma: The Dust Bowl

In October 1929, the world erupted in chaos. A massive stock market crash sent Wall Street into a panic, resulting in a near collapse of the economy. What started off as panic on Wall Street soon came knocking on the doors of Main Street. Thousands of people were put out of work by the economic instability.

In Oklahoma, this was compounded by the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s. A massive drought hit the country at the start of the decade. By 1934, the Great Plains had become a great Dust Bowl. Improper farming techniques only served to compound this problem. Hundreds of workers from the plains area in Western Oklahoma were left without work.

Between the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, those employed in the oil fields and the farmers and ranchers of western Oklahoma were left without work. A portion of those people began an exodus to places like California, while others strongly embraced President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal program.

The Works Project Administration

In May of 1935, F.D.R. created the Works Progress Administration, later known as the Works Project Administration. This program was designed by F.D.R. and Harry Hopkins, supervisor of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The purpose was to provide “useful employment” for those unskilled workers on relief rolls. They both believed that this was the route to economic recovery.

In Oklahoma, over 51,000 workers per month signed up for the program. Over $185 million was allocated just to Oklahoma out of the programs budget of $11 billion. Basic, unskilled workers would receive $31.20 per month. While the majority of these projects were geared towards civic improvements, others were directed towards providing for the arts and employing social service workers, such as librarians or educators.

A stipulation of the program was that projects had to be of benefit to the community. These were determined by the local public body or government. A portion of the projects were be paid for through the towns or schools, typically contributing the materials for the projects.

The good majority of WPA buildings constructed in Oklahoma are recognized through their native stone or brick construction. The buildings constructed were simple and uncomplicated and typically of rectangular in design. Most of these were developed from pre-existing designs to make construction easier.

The Poteau River Bridge

During the days of the WPA, the main road coming in to Poteau is now known as old Oklahoma 112. From the time of the earliest settlement until the WPA era, this bridge never served the public well. During times of heavy rain, the Poteau River would flood the old bridge, many times completely washing it out.

In 1940, the WPA was authorized to construct a new vehicle and railroad bridge over the Poteau River. These were known as Riveted Parker Trusses, which is a type of bridge construction invented by C. H. Parker. His design took a standard truss bridge and modified it to where it was lighter and used less material, but also could span longer distances. These were commonly constructed by WPA workers because of their cost effectiveness and lack of complicated design.

The old truss bridge served Poteau until 1998, when it was replaced with a more modern, concrete bridge. The KCS railroad continues to use the truss bridge, while the other bridge is now permanently closed to all traffic.

WPA Ditches

Some of the most vital work done during the WPA era was the construction of drainage ditches. This was not rewarding work, but it helped pay the bills. One common phrase, “Ditch Digger” emerged from this era.

These ditches were also known as malaria ditches, as they helped curtail the spread of malaria by causing drain water to keep moving, which curtailed the proliferation of mosquitoes.

Still, the workers were happy to be employed. Throughout many towns across the nation, they created vast systems to handle drainage, sewage, and water supply problems. Across the United States, over 16,000 miles of new water lines were installed, along with over 24,000 miles of storm and sewer drains. As unrewarding as the task was, the workers helped to modernize the country’s infrastructure in a way that had never been done before. Modern infrastructure helped to spur on further economic development throughout the communities they worked in.

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Today, these can be found throughout small towns, centered on the old town districts. In Poteau, there are several that are still in good shape that can be visited.

The most well known can be found at Twyman Park. This drainage ditch runs from the pond out towards West Blvd.

Another example is located along Reynolds Avenue, in the vacant area behind the Reynolds Center of McKenna. This WPA drainage ditch is one of the longest, best preserved stretches in Poteau and runs alongside the old KCS – Frisco railroad interchange.

A nice residential example can be found running along Harper, starting near the intersection of Amos and Harper.

WPA Ditch at Twyman Park.  The "floor" has seen better days, but the sidewalks and structure of the ditches are in amazing shape.

WPA Ditch at Twyman Park. The "floor" has seen better days, but the sidewalks and structure of the ditches are in amazing shape.

Poteau School Gymnasium and Auditorium

Across the nation, the WPA facilitated the creation of many school gyms and auditoriums. One can be found in seemingly every town where the WPA had a presence in Oklahoma. The buildings provided a place for school sports, as well as a large gathering room for community activities. They created a sense of pride and identity for towns hit hard during the depression era. They also provided employment for many of the unskilled and unemployed workers who couldn’t find work elsewhere.

The Poteau building was built between 1936 and 1937 of native sandstone material. It measures 100 feet by 78 feet, providing plenty of space for activities.

It is located at the intersection of Walter and Parker streets in Poteau. As it is still in use by Poteau Public Schools, permission from the school would be required to view the inside of the building.

The Poteau Community Building

The Poteau Community Building, located on the corner of Hill and Hopkins, was initially designed as a multi-purpose facility. The two-story building was constructed by laborers enrolled in WPA programs, and was built using native sandstone. The land was donated to the city by the Lowrey Family.

Built in 1937, the Poteau Community Building became home to the new library. Prior to that, the library system for the area struggled for many years. In the 1920’s, the area was served by eight traveling libraries. These libraries would start off in Ft. Smith and carry books to various towns. The first real library in Poteau came about in 1927 when the Twentieth Century Club placed a few books in Carl West’s agricultural office, then took turns checking them out to the public. This proved to be so popular that in 1929 the fledgling library elected the first Board of Trustees. That same year, the library was moved from the agricultural office to where the Chamber of Commerce was located.

For many years, the library did well as a volunteer organization, however, in 1936, the Library closed after three years of no appropriations and volunteerism dropped off.

In 1937, the library reopened at its new home in the Poteau Community Building, with Alice Nolen as the librarian. Ms. Nolen was hired through the WPA. Immediately after the construction of this building, the Poteau Public Library was under control of the WPA Library Service Project until 1943, when the project ended.

In addition to serving as the public library, it also functioned as a multipurpose facility.

Following the conclusion of the WPA program, the building was transferred to the city and made into a full library. It continued to serve this function until 1967, when the new Buckley Building was erected.

In addition to the building, a moderate sized park was constructed immediately to the north. Today, the park is overgrown, but plans are in place to restore the park.

Once the library moved out, the American Legion took the building over as their base in the area. After they found a larger facility, the building went in to private ownership.

Located on the corner of Hill and Hopkins streets, the building is still in beautiful condition. Visitors can easily see it from the road, however, the park area is overgrown and inaccessible to the public.

Twyman Park (City Park)

Twyman Park is one of the most unique WPA projects in Southeastern Oklahoma. It is the only example of a park completely built by the WPA, and remains much as it did when constructed.

The park consists of several different elements, all of which were constructed by the WPA.

Most striking is the Swimming Pool and Bath House. These types of structures were pretty common across Oklahoma. They resembled that of a medieval castle, dominated by a large turret of cut stone and cone top that runs an extra floor above the building. The entrance is a large arch, which leads to a foyer that diverges into central hall and male and female shower rooms off to either side. The roof serves as a large sundeck. In the 1940’s, this area was also used for various events, such as cocktail parties.

The swimming pool measures 120 feet long by 60 feet wide. A small wading pool was also constructed just northwest of the larger pool. Sadly, the pool suffered damage from years of use and was shut down in 2016. However, the City of Poteau is working on plans to repair and preserve the pool.

Both the pool and bath house was built at the base of a steep incline. To make the facilities accessible, two large retaining walls were constructed just to the west. These walls measure around 8 feet tall and contained two separate “grand” staircases that led down into the arch. Above the first retaining wall, a road was later built to provide access to the pool. Due to traffic, the top staircase was covered over and closed off.

The next most noticeable feature of the park is the care takers cottage. Located at the corner of the park, this one bedroom cottage was built so that a park care taker could live on site to manage the facilities. Today, the park is managed by Poteau’s Parks and Recreation Department so the need for a permanent, on site caretaker is no longer necessary. However, the building is still actively used by the city. The small building measures 36 feet by 33 feet and consists of a kitchen, main room, and bedroom. It is not open to the public.

Surrounding the park and cemetery is a large stone fence built of native stone. It runs 1,320 feet to the north and south and 660 feet to the east and west. It is two feet high by one food wide and is adorned with symmetrically placed pedestals capped with flat stones.

As previously mentioned, a large stone drainage canal runs through portions of the park.

In addition to the other features, several WPA constructed seating areas exist, along with two large picnic pavilions that measure 24 feet by 30 feet.

The large pond in the center of the park was also constructed by the WPA. Originally, this had a small fountain in the center, however, it ceased functioning many years back and the majority of the workings were removed.

The City of Poteau keeps Twyman Park immaculate. Though it is an older park, it remains one of the most beautiful WPA parks in existence in this part of the country.

New Deal Art in Poteau

In 1940, just a couple years before the WPA program was terminated, Joan Cunningham was hired to paint a large mural in the Poteau Post Office. This mural, titled “Cotton” is still on display in the Post Office, just above the librarians’ office door.

The mural contains several scenes that showcase people involved in the production and distribution of cotton. It has also been alluded to that this scene also represents the domination of man over the land. The medium is oil on canvas. It was authorized under the New Deal Agency, “Treasury Section of Fine Arts”.


© 2017 Eric Standridge

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