The New Deal in Dawes County

When the Great Depression left Dawes County withering from economic and environmental devastation, residents put their faith in Franklin D. Roosevelt. 



By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant

The Great Depression left Dawes County withering from economic and environmental devastation. Chadron, a once booming city, was suddenly struggling. With the 1932 presidential election underway, residents looked for a sign of hope and put their faith in Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Michael Sandstrom explains the reactions and effects of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies in Dawes County in “The ‘Magic City’: A history of Dawes County and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal” in Nebraska History Magazine’s Winter 2021 issue.

(This is a continuation of a previous article: The Great Depression in Dawes County)

Roosevelt was the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the traditionally Republican Dawes County. Residents generally received Roosevelt’s proposals well, believing they could stimulate the economy and improve conditions in the county.

(Chadron Journal, March 17, 1933)

In support of the new president’s policies, Chadron residents participated in two local initiatives.

The first was a “Confidence Days” event where merchants offered various bargains for three days in March 1933 in hopes of boosting people’s confidence in local business. Residents then came together in June to beautify the city and its landscapes as part of a national campaign to “renovize” communities.

The positive reactions seemed to lead to further support of other initiatives.

The National Recovery Act (NRA) promoted cooperation between business owners and employees through codes establishing uniform hours, wages, and other work factors.

In August 1933, Chadron began implementing NRA codes in their businesses. Following conflict with some merchants, the county formed a “Chadron NRA Compliance Committee” and held drives for NRA-conforming businesses.

New Deal policies also affected the county’s banking.

As part of a “Bank Holiday” in March 1933, banks nationwide were suspended and only reopened if proven financially stable. This was critical for Chadron, as the town had only had one remaining bank: First National. After only nine days of suspension, Chadron’s bank became one of the first to reopen.

In June, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was also established. It prevented bank runs by guaranteeing deposits up to $2,500. First National Bank was included in this program, which covered 95% of depositors nationwide.

Another minor but notable boost to the economy was the end of Prohibition. The county previously spent countless hours and resources patrolling liquor violations, but when Congress passed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act on March 23, 1933, Nebraskans quickly responded. Liquor licenses were sold and papers benefitted from various advertisements.

New Deal relief programs helped improved infrastructure and environment, and provided employment.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed and housed young men and their families. Those who enrolled worked on various project efforts such as reforestation and soil erosion prevention.

Dawes County had two CCC locations at Chadron State Park (“Camp Chadron”) and Fort Robinson (“Camp Crawford”).

In under a year, 760 acres of “wild, hill country, overrun with dense underbrush, choking the pine growth” were tamed by CCC laborers.

The camps remained in operation until May 1934 when the Chadron Camp closed and Camp Crawford moved to Halsey. The CCC never returned to Dawes County.

(“Civilian Conservation Corps members at Fort Robinson’s Sawmill Camp” RG1517-114-6)

The construction of a FERA Camp (Federal Emergency Relief Administration) was then announced in September 1934. Located south of Chadron on the McDowell Ranch, it would house 200 unemployed men. Despite fears of it becoming a “hobo camp” for “bums, dope fiends and criminals,” the camp lasted until July 1938. The buildings were then moved to Chadron State Park where they were either reassembled or used as lumber.

Three other New Deal programs (CWA, PWA, and the WPA) helped fund relief projects in Dawes County. 

(“The transient camp remained in Chadron from 1935 to 1938” RG4290-0-1792)

The Civil Works Administration (CWA) was one of the first and largest of its time, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase materials and take laborers off relief rolls. Operating from September 1933 – March 1934, the CWA helped nearly 1,000 Dawes men find employment that winter. The program ended after it couldn’t afford to fund an improvement project at Fort Robinson.

The Public Works Administration (PWA) provided similar services, funding projects like the construction of a new county courthouse and jail, the beautifying of two local parks, and the construction and renovation of facilities on Chadron State Normal College’s campus.

Unlike the other two programs, the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) focus was on funding street, road, and landscaping projects. WPA employed people to complete several road projects, replace sections of Chadron’s sewer system, and dredge drinking water reservoirs.

(“Peeling pine logs for fence posts. Dawes County, Nebraska. Photo for the Farm Security Administration, May 1936” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs)

Despite how promising these initiatives and programs were, the county’s economy suffered from another recession in 1938 and was forced into budget cuts to meet the reduction in taxable assets.

Though Dawes County didn’t experience the recovery residents hoped for until World War II, Roosevelt’s New Deal policies helped residents survive the lean years. The series of initiatives stimulated employment, improved infrastructure, preserved landscapes, and boosted community morale. The local effects of federal intervention reflected the New Deal’s wider impact on rural Nebraska.

The entire article can be found in the Winter 2021 edition of the Nebraska History Magazine. Members receive four issues per year. 

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