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Local History

Structures Built By WPA Echo From The Past

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Some experts have compared parts of the current economic climate to the Great Depression. In our ongoing series “A Sense Of Place” we look at our own local history in order to understand how it shapes our community. KSMU’s Emma Wilson explores how one Depression-era program still has an impact on everyday lives.

Standing in Fassnight Park, I’m surrounded by the sounds of nature but also by the rushing of traffic nearby. The pool is the main attraction of this park and while hundreds of children flock here every summer, few realize that the park we see today was actually built by the Works Progress Administration, which was a program set up during the Great Depression to deal with widespread unemployment.

“The economy was going south in such a terrible way that everybody just needed work, they just needed any kind of work,” says Tom Muetzel, a local business owner. He's the grandson of William W. Johnson, who was a contractor employed by the WPA to build Fassnight Park in central Springfield.

“Very, very talented people from my grandfather to much more notable names, Thomas Hart Benton or Townsend Godsey, a lot of very established artists that were willing to put their work onto public works that they were getting paid next to nothing for,” he said.

Muetzel says that the materials used for these projects were not based on what would look good but rather on what was available and cheap.

“For example, Fassnight Park is all that big red clay rock that for anyone who has grown up in southwest Missouri or has done any kind of gardening at all has cursed numerous times. But in this case it was so abundant when digging out the foundations and everything that there was enough material there to actually build the building out of it and in hindsight I think it has a lot of aesthetic value to it,” Muetzel says.

Besides building Fassnight Park, the WPA had a huge impact on infrastructure in the Ozarks. The McDonald Arena on the Missouri State University campus, the buildings at Grant Beach Park, and the stone gates at the entrance of the Phelps Grove neighborhood are just a few of the WPA structures that are still around. John Sellars is the executive director of the Springfield-Greene County History Museum:

“They did everything from re-paving streets to building facilities like the pool house at Fassnight Park, they worked on projects at what is now Missouri State University, everything under the sun,” said Sellars.

While measures such as welfare were put into place on a national scale at the beginning of the Depression, the WPA helped folks get back to work when they needed it most. By 1936 nearly 1,000 Ozarks residents had been taken off welfare rolls and put to work for the Works Progress Administration.

“It put people who wanted to work and were committed to supporting their families back to work in useful projects that benefited everyone,” Sellars said.

Generations later, many still benefit from the work of the WPA. History has a way of repeating itself and some historians say it would be prudent not only to learn from the mistakes of the past, but also from the successes.

For KSMU’s Sense Of Place, I’m Emma Wilson