The WPA - New Deal Brought Modern Structures, New Hope

The WPA - New Deal Brought Modern Structures, New Hope

For some of Watauga County's poorest families, a start to the end of the Great Depression came when the WPA came to town.


Part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the Work Projects Administration had two goals: community improvements and putting people to work. Across the nation, workers with the WPA erected buildings, many of which still serve their communities. In some areas, they were the first substantial and modern built facilities around.

The process worked something like this. The WPA would hire people to work on projects in conjunction with county governments. Local laborers would go to work, usually supervised locally. Once the building was complete, it was turned over to the county or town for its use.

Sometimes getting there could be complicated. The largest WPA building in Watauga County is Cove Creek School. Finding the money - besides what the WPA provided - for this beautiful native stone structure involved getting a loan from the North Carolina Literary Fund. The forms had to be in before the fiscal year ended on June 30.

The forms went in the mail, but did not arrive in Raleigh until July 5. The state refused to loan the money. The Watauga County Board of Education went to court. The case finally went to the North Carolina Supreme Court, and the man representing Watauga was Wade Brown. He took with him a beautiful architect's drawing of the school.

Assistant Attorney General George Patton opened the case for the state, and presented his evidence. When Mr. Brown's turn came, one of the older judges called him to the bench and everyone started looking at that drawing! Mr. Brown, who was appearing before the state's highest court for the first time, did not know what to do. The justices examined the drawing and asked him questions - and his time slipped away.

Mr. Brown never did get to argue his case, but it did not matter. The justices had already decided that mailing by the closing date meant "constructive delivery" and ruled against the state. Watauga County would get its school.

The man the WPA used to supervise these projects was a Valle Crucis native named Charlie Ross Hartley. Born in 1886, he had grown up working with his father as a carpenter. By the time of the Depression, Mr. Hartley had a regional reputation for the quality of his work.

His first job for the WPA was adding a foundation to the old courthouse. With 47 men - and just 10 shovels - he dug under the building and installed the needed support. These men were hard workers, but most were desperately poor. People with working farms were not even considered for WPA, as it was felt they could survive. The program sought the poorest of the poor.

Convinced by his performance at the courthouse, the WPA then hired Mr. Hartley for a bigger assignment: building a new school at Valle Crucis. That was his first rock building. There were more. There was a gymnasium at Blowing Rock, and what is now the courthouse annex in Boone. All this led up to what he considered was his crowning achievement: Cove Creek School.

All this was hard work, to say the least. The men on WPA worked 28 days a month. Laborers earned roughly $1 a day. Mr. Hartley got $56 a month, though this amount was later raised.

or two years, Mr. Hartley and 106 workers labored on the Cove Creek School. The work began in 1939, and finished just before World War II in 1941. The county paid for the materials, while the federal government paid everyone except some of the men handling the rock. Among those rock men was legendary Deep Gap toy maker Willard Watson.

Cove Creek School remains a tribute to the hard work and dedication of these men. Its stone walls stand 12 inches thick. The inside studs are two-by-six hemlock, and the floor joists two-by-twelve hemlock. In spite of its age, the building remains, literally, solid as a rock.

With the end of the 1930s and the start of World War II, the WPA disappeared from the scene. But its legacy of fine buildings lingers on.

The WPA - New Deal Brought Modern Structures, New Hope
200 West Morgan St., Raleigh, NC 27601
Phone: (919) 828-3876
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