“Alphabet” Agencies in Utah County

Richard Neitzel Holzapfel
History of Utah County

When Roosevelt took office in March 1933, the first of his New Deal programs, the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933 (FERA), was approved on 12 May. Although the act extended federal participation in relief for two more years, it changed the nature of the funding from loans to direct grants to the states. Roosevelt established a host of New Deal “alphabet agencies” (so named for their abbreviations) such as the CCC, PWA, WPA, AAA, RA, and NYA, which grew as the agencies pumped increasing amounts of money into the economy. Enthusiasm for the New Deal and the resulting economic security increased among most Utah County residents. Increased federal activity was integral to the county during the Depression. Between 1933 and 1939, only eight states—Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Idaho—received more federal aid per capita than Utah. Federal participation in Utah’s land management, reclamation, mining, agriculture, and transportation sectors antedated the Depression; but federal involvement escalated to unprecedented levels during the 1930s. Projects that had been discussed for years were finally approved, funded, and constructed. They included Provo River projects and extensive terracing of the Wasatch Range for erosion control. The Civilian Conservation Corps not only was one of the first organizations to begin operations in Utah County but also was one of the most successful.

The CCC’s major role in Utah County was to help address two separate but interrelated problems: provide financial relief and help implement conservation projects in the region. The U. S. Forest Service supervised erosion-control projects in the Wasatch Mountains adjacent to Utah Valley. The National Park Service, along with the city of Provo, jointly supervised the only “metropolitan area” camp in Utah. The first CCC camp to be completed in Utah was located about ten miles up American Fork Canyon. After establishing a temporary camp, forty young “enrollees,” most of who were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three, began construction of two barracks on 17 May 1933. By July seventy-five local, experienced men (LEMs) arrived to fill the base complement of two hundred men.

A flurry of activity in Utah County began in 1933 when the CCC began to manage land erosion in several ways. A pilot program of range reseeding proved a success in Sheep Creek (the rangeland between Spanish Fork and Springville), and mountain contour terracing was successfully completed in Little Rock Canyon near Provo. The CCC also accomplished much of the preliminary work on Deer Creek Dam and the related Provo River project, including an extensive system of dams, tunnels, and canals to bring water from the Weber and Duchesne rivers into the Provo River to fill Deer Creek Reservoir.

The county’s 1934 quota was 226 men of the state’s 1,741 CCC workers for that year. Based on economic need in urban areas affected by the drought of 1934, each community in the county was allotted a certain number of trained and untrained workers. Provo received six experienced and seventy-nine inexperienced workers; Springville, one experienced and nineteen inexperienced worker; American Fork, Payson, and Lehi, one experienced and sixteen inexperienced each; and Spanish Fork, one experienced and nineteen inexperienced. The allotment also provided for an additional twenty-two experienced and forty-seven inexperienced workers from the county and permitted residents to apply for the positions.

In addition to regular work projects that benefited the mountains and rangeland in Utah County, the CCC also created good public relations by participating in community work of a volunteer nature, including a project at Pleasant Grove Elementary School. Enrollees at American Fork worked with local Mormon youth, preparing the grounds and planting lawns at Mutual Dell, an LDS campground in American Fork Canyon. In cooperation with BYU, enrollees installed 5,000 feet of pipe for a new sprinkling system at Aspen Grove. In 1933 the CCC began to build a trail from the middle of the Timpanogos Cave Trail around the cliffs to the entrance of Hansen’s Cave, and in 1936 the CCC finished that part of the trail. By the time the CCC’s activities came to a halt in 1942, the agency had spent nearly $53 million in Utah—ranking Utah seventh in the nation in CCC expenditures per capita.

Simultaneously, federal legislation reached into the private economic sector, extending credit as well as mortgage protection to farmers, regulating crop production, and providing social security to the aged and the disabled. New Deal programs also poured millions of dollars into construction or renovation of roads, airports, and public buildings such as schools. In Lehi, federal funds were used in 1934 to lay a new deck on the Jordan River Bridge and to gravel the road two miles west. Lehi’s city waterworks were upgraded during the following year. Bleachers at the local high school football field were added in 1936 as a result of federal funds, and a $14,000 grant helped upgrade the Lehi Hospital (which had been donated to the community by Dr. Elmo Eddington so the facility could qualify for federal funds) into an eighteen-bed facility in 1937.

Another important cooperative effort in Utah County between the federal government and local residents was the construction of the Springville Museum of Art by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). Designed by Claud S. Ashworth, this Spanish Colonial Revival-style building was an important addition to the county’s cultural community. By 1935, local residents felt that the ever-increasing art collection at Springville High School needed a larger facility for its preservation and display. Nebo School District donated the lot, the city of Springville donated approximately $29,000 in equipment and materials, the LDS church donated $20,000 or more, and the federal government, through the WPA, spent $54,000 on the project. Work began on 23 November 1935.

The WPA was responsible for the manufacturing of tile for the museum. The work was completed under the direction of Virgil Hafen, a local artist. Red clay was taken from the mountains near Thistle and combined with gray clay found near the southeast limits of Springville. The result produced a natural color tone of tan, rose, and deep red. The building was completed and dedicated in 1937 by LDS church apostle David O. McKay to be a “sanctuary of beauty and a temple of meditation.”

Although most of the New Deal agencies were organized for stop-gap relief purposes, the agencies permanently broadened federal interest and involvement in Utahns’ lives. Unprecedented federal outlays altered the social landscape of Utah, making the 1930s an era of modernization—including mechanical harvesters and sprayers, progressive irrigation projects, an interurban train, trucks to transport Utah’s produce to Los Angeles and other cities, and medical cooperatives. Trends toward mechanization, electrification, commercialization, and specialization underway well before the Great Depression drew vigor from New Deal funds.

Another ambitious federal program focused on agricultural reform. The federal government, through resettlement agencies, planned to relocate thousands of families from submarginal farms, placing them on more viable tracts of land. Some farm families from Widtsoe in Garfield County were relocated in Utah County. Reed Reynolds, for example, lived in Widtsoe and moved to the Benjamin area in 1938 with his wife and three small children. Some of the Reynolds’s neighbors and friends from John’s Valley moved to Payson, Spanish Fork, and Pleasant Grove. In fact, his mother and father settled in Orem, where they were able to pay cash for a home and orchard with money from the sale of their ranch in John’s Valley. They were able to do so because they owned a large tract of land with some water rights; those with small tracts and no water rights were less fortunate.

The federal government brought the resettlement families into the county, showed them which properties were for sale, and let them decide which ones they wanted to purchase. Extra money to purchase the land and farm equipment came in the form of a loan from the government. Reynolds recalled fondly, “I think it was a wonderful thing. Actually because we would have starved to death there. It just got down to where we couldn’t do it.”