By Marjorie Barton
and Wally Waits
From 1935 until 1943 a work-relief program known as Work Projects Administration (WPA) changed the face of Muskogee County and put hundreds to work in what became known as the Great Depression. Only if you have been nationwide or researched the topic can you realize that Muskogee County had a similar number of projects as other like-sized populations in the United States. That such a variety of jobs secured national approval and was completed is “mind-boggling.”
Building schools was only one type of WPA project, but Oklahoma excelled in that category. Schools were built in all sizes, including one-room schoolhouses, and many are a part of the WPA accomplishments. Throughout the WPA era, there was a focus on stopping the drop in school attendance. The Great Depression was a time when some families were sending their children to dilapidated schoolhouses.
In the 1930s, there were about 100 school districts in Muskogee County. Each district had its own schoolhouse. During the decade of financial stress, the county had little money for school maintenance.
This is where the WPA helped. One “make work” project in the county was the construction of sixteen one-room schools to be built in rural Muskogee County. In these cases, it appears that the schoolhouse were being replaced. In other cases, the school building was structurally sound, but was fast approaching the point of needing major repairs unless action was quickly taken.
Many of the surviving WPA school buildings are made of stone, or was encased in a stone exterior. Local material, when available, was used because it was more “labor intensive.”
Here are the schools in Muskogee County where WPA work occurred:
Fort Gibson High School
Webbers Falls Junior/Senior High School
Although the WPA was “reorganized” in 1939 into the Federal Works Agency. the new governmental structure continued to function pretty much as the WPA had. Inside the entrance at the Alice Robertson school in Muskogee is a plaque indicating the presence of the Federal Works Agency. As the Indian Bowl stadium was a WPA project in Muskogee, likewise, many of the schools listed had Gym/Auditorium or a stadium built.
Some schools were also upgraded with better “outhouses” or sometimes, indoor plumbing. Another frequent aid to school districts was that of building a “teacher cottage” to provide housing. A few schools saw the construction of houses for administrators and teachers. Rural schools had a difficult time attracting teachers, unless there was a place to live.
Many of the listed school buildings are still in use, though not always as schools. Homes, community or senior centers, and churches have taken advantage of the soundly constructed buildings.
It is significant to note that Oklahoma built 825 schools, far outnumbering other states. Another 175 additions were WPA projects for schools already in acceptable condition. No other state came close to building the number of schools that Oklahoma WPA produced, and Muskogee County received its fair share.