As the Great Depression lurched into its most brutal year in 1933, local public agencies in Minnesota faced steep budget cuts just as demand for their services was skyrocketing.
At the Minneapolis Park Board, a shrinking budget had left the Recreation Division with only a handful of staff members to oversee the city's 33 parks and playgrounds. Most Park Board facilities would have to rely on part-time volunteers to provide a bare minimum of basic recreation services during the summer, when children were not in school.
But that was about to change. A new administration in Washington would soon launch a series of federal programs that would funnel much-needed public dollars to the Minneapolis Park Board and thousands of local agencies like it throughout the country.
An initial installment of federal funds reached the beleaguered board in the fall of 1933, through the Roosevelt Administration's Public Works Administration, a key economic stimulus initiative enacted during the administration's famous first 100 days. The PWA brought some budgetary relief to the Minneapolis agency and enabled it to begin rebuilding its recreation program.
With the aid of the PWA dollars, the Park Board was able to make modest improvements in its recreation services in 1934, but more significant advances would occur the following year, with the advent of the administration's Works Progress Administration. The WPA, the centerpiece of the so-called "Second New Deal," helped fund major improvements at scores of park and parkway sites across Minneapolis.
While the WPA put thousands of unemployed men to work in this city with picks and shovels, it also enabled the Park Board to dramatically expand its recreation programs. By the end of 1935, more than 100 playground instructors, funded by the federal agency, were at work at neighborhood sites all over town. Throughout the rest of the decade, the WPA enabled the park system to maintain a full schedule of activities for Minneapolis families who had few extra dollars to spend for recreation.
In 1933, the Minneapolis Library Board, like the Park Board, was in dire financial straits. That year, the local libraries had to subsist on a budget of $339,000, which represented a 30 percent cut from their annual funding level three years earlier. Vacant positions were left unfilled and library hours were cut just as the readings rooms were filled to capacity with people who were out of work and searching the want ads for job leads.
By the end of 1933, the Library Board would receive a small lifeline from the PWA with the money to hire 25 librarians.
While the Library Board would eventually rebuild its staff with the help of WPA funds, it had to rely primarily on its own resources to survive hard times in Minnesota.
Luckily, the city agency had inspired leadership during the early years of the Great Depression. Minneapolis's determined and politically savvy chief librarian, Gratia Countryman, was not about to let her libraries collapse under the weight overwhelming budgetary pressures. Countryman rallied public support for her agency in 1934, when new budget cuts, proposed by the city's Board of Estimate and Taxation, meant that all city libraries would need to close that summer.
With strong community backing, Countryman was able to head off the cuts and persuade the board to increase the mill levy for the library system, allowing it to increase book purchases and restore regular hours at the neighborhood and downtown branches.
Now, 75 years later, another national economic crisis is placing a severe strain on local and state budgets all across the country. During the Great Depression, a federally directed economic stimulus, combined with local political resolve, helped keep the parks and libraries open in Minneapolis at a time when their services were needed the most by an economically besieged community. The lessons of that earlier era are worth remembering today.
Iric Nathanson is writing a book on the history of Minneapolis in the 20th century for the Minnesota History Society.
We apologize for the inconvenience.